September 17, 2023 |The Matter of Forgiveness|Matthew 18:21-35
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Last week we dug into one of the more difficult teachings of our Lord to his church, especially in light of the current state of the evangelical church, particularly in America.
We noted that although the teaching itself is pretty straightforward it offends our modern sensibilities of individualism and tolerance.
That issue of course was church discipline, specifically in the case of one brother sinning against another brother in the local body.
We highlighted the realities of the presence of sin-damaged relationships in the church, the process for restoring what has been broken by sin, and the promise of divine power and presence in the process.
We made the important distinction that the reason for the process is restorative in nature not punitive or selfish.
We go to our brother or sister because we value the relationship so much that we cannot stand for it to be broken and we are willing to go to great lengths to restore it. Equally important is the purity and witness of the local body as the church of Jesus Christ, so if they remain unrepentant we lovingly exclude them from the life of the body so they may see that their actions are inconsistent with their confessions.
The hope of every step in the process is that they will listen. Indeed, we only move to the next step in the process when it is clear they will not listen to us, to two or three of us, to the whole church. The idea of them listening is that they understand that their actions are sinful, and the implication is that having understood that, they will repent and ask for forgiveness. Jesus describes the result as having gained our brother, translated elsewhere as having won our brother. The relationship has been restored, the church has been protected, and the gospel is clearly displayed in both the life of your brother and yours, which brings us to our text today.
Implied in the process of gaining our brother that sinned against us is our willingness to forgive them when they listen to our loving rebuke, or the loving rebuke of two or three, or even the loving rebuke of the church.
In the group of Jesus’ original audience, we see a question immediately comes to their minds. Obviously understanding both the importance of this process and the requirement of obeying it, the disciples, through their spokesman Peter, ask Jesus a question dealing with this matter of forgiveness. Jesus not only answers their question but gives them a parable that takes them deeper into the issue of forgiveness as well as their attitude in it. This is where we will be this morning. If you have your Bibles, open to Matthew 18 at verse 21. Picking up where we left off last week.
A Sensible Question
Matthew 18:21 (ESV) 21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
We get this question immediately don’t we?
How many times are we obligated to keep repeating this process?
Our brother sins against us, we go to him, he repents, we forgive.
Then he or she does it again, we go to him, he repents, we forgive.
Does there come a time where we run out of forgiveness? How far can we be expected to go in this process before we throw our hands up, give up on our brother, and write them off?
This is the heart of this very sensible question.
How many times would you say is right? Once, twice, three times?
There is evidence that Jewish rabbis, contemporaries of Peter, wrote that three times was the limit before you were no longer under obligation to forgive because after three repeated sinful actions, their repeated repentance doesn’t seem genuine.
Do you see how generous Peter is though, he doubles that and adds one? Seven times, or rather up to seven times. Seven being the upper limit of the most forgiving person in Peter’s mind.
Already that sounds like Peter is being way too generous, after all what do we say, ‘fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me .’ ‘Three strikes and you're out .’ ‘Actions speak louder than words .’
One of my personal favorites that I tell my kids all the time is, ‘the best apology is changed behavior.’
To make it worse, this is not a stranger, this is not someone outside the church family, this is our brother.
One close to us, one we trust, one whose transgression is especially painful to us.
One commentator expounds Peter’s question “I understand that if my brother sins against me, I must confront him. I also know how to proceed if he refuses to listen. But what if the first step works, so that he listens? I presume I must forgive him. But what if he offends me repeatedly? How many times do I have to forgive? Up to seven times?”
It is important to note that this question specifically addresses forgiveness within the context of the local body. Jesus is not making a general statement on forgiveness. He does not address forgiveness from a brother that is not remorseful, he does not address forgiveness in the context of forgiveness when the offender is not a Christian, or any of our other questions about the topic. The Bible certainly talks about these other areas, but to rightly understand the question we stay focused on the issue at hand. Forgiveness when a brother or sister in our local body sins against us and either because of conviction from the Spirit apart from us or conviction from the Spirit in the process of confronting our brother, he repents and asks forgiveness from us.
In this specific, likely, and hurtful situation, what is our obligation to forgive, are we right to limit it, even graciously to seven times?
In Peter’s question, he has been very generous and we would expect another commendation of his character, but what we find probably surprised Peter and most definitely surprises us. Jesus gives…
A Surprising Answer
Matthew 18:22 (ESV) 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Jesus essentially says, who said this Peter? I never said and I do not say now seven times.
The operative word here is the first one in the greek- No, or not so.
Jesus dismisses Peter’s seemingly generous assessment of forgiveness and replaces it with his own.
But, or rather, I say seventy-seven times.
There is debate on whether we should translate this seventy-seven times as it does here in the ESV or seventy times seven as it does in the KJV and the CSB. The original language is a little ambiguous, but it really doesn’t matter all that much does it?
Three times is easy to count. Seven times is easy to keep track of but seventy-seven times is hard to keep track of isn’t it, much less four hundred and ninety times.
Unless we are willing to keep a written record of offenses, the idea is that forgiveness in this case doesn’t have limits.
This is a difficult pill to swallow, isn’t it? But we think, maybe, maybe I could do this, I mean if you spread out these offenses over a lifetime, with enough help from Jesus, I could forgive like this. But before we go there, listen to the way Jesus says it elsewhere.
Luke 17:3 Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Seven times a day? Jesus is clearly calling us beyond counting offenses when it comes to forgiving a brother or sister and calling us rather to an attitude of forgiveness.
Normally when we are contemplating forgiveness, the type of offense comes into the equation, the past offenses come into the equation, and the relationship between us comes into the equation. Jesus cuts the equation down to two parts.
Are they a brother, have they expressed remorse? You must forgive them.
The language in Luke 17 is a command. Forgive him.
Let me ask you a question before we move on?
Are you living in obedience to this command? Are you harboring unforgiveness, resentment, or anger towards a brother or sister?
Then you must understand, if you get nothing else from today, you are living in willful and direct disobedience to Christ’s command to you as a follower.
You say, well they haven’t shown any remorse, they haven’t apologized. Okay, fair enough, have you gone to them, one on one and opened the dialogue about the situation? No, then you know what to do.
Have you gone to them and they refused to listen to you? Then you know what to do, take two or three brothers and go again.
Have you done that and they are still unrepentant? Then you know what to do, bring it to the church in the appropriate way.
But do not miss the implications in Jesus’ answer. If they show remorse, if they repent, at any step in the process, it is your obligation and responsibility to forgive them, no matter how many times they have sinned against you.
What more could Jesus say after giving this impossibly difficult task to his followers? Jesus turns to the reason or the basis for living this way. But in typical fashion, he does not do so with a simple statement but a thought provoking parable. One that stirs our emotions and provokes us to think more deeply about this issue of forgiveness of our brother.
A Stirring Parable
Matthew 18:23-35 (ESV) 23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
Jesus once again turns to parables to illustrate the kingdom of heaven. We are familiar with this having recently looked at some previous parables in Matthew. Sometimes Jesus uses these parables to illustrate the way the kingdom of heaven works and sometimes to illustrate life in the kingdom of heaven as one of its citizens. In this particular parable, I think we find a little of both.
We know that a parable isn’t meant to be a thorough description, or even an overly accurate depiction, but rather a story where similarities can be drawn and lessons learned.
With that in mind, I want to highlight for you three elements of his parable of Jesus.
First, we find an insurmountable debt.
In the parable the king either notices that his coffers are low or he simply is checking up on those entrusted with exercising care over his property. Either way, he calls his servants before him to settle their accounts.
One was brought before him who owed ten thousand talents. This is the first surprising element of the parable.
We of course have some sense that this is a large amount of debt, but how much is it really?
(Reformed Expository Commentary (28 Vols.) in New Testament times a talent was a unit of weight for valuable metals, chiefly silver. One talent was about 75 pounds of silver. Therefore, 10,000 talents equaled 750,000 pounds or 375 tons of silver.
But there is a better way to set the value of a talent. One talent equaled 6000 denarii. A denarius was a day’s wage. Thus one talent equaled 20 years’ wages for a common laborer. Therefore 10,000 talents equal 200,000 years’ wages or 60 million days’ wages. Although people earn much more in buying power today, it would not be misleading to think, in today’s terms, of a debt of several billion dollars. That a slave could owe so much is barely plausible.
Obviously Jesus wants his disciples to understand that this servant owed an insurmountable debt, in no way could he ever pay it. Since he could not pay, the king or master as he is called here, orders him to be sold, his family to be sold, and his property to be sold. Obviously, this would not even put a dent in the debt owed, but it is fully within the rights of the king to do this in order to recoup what he can and to punish this obviously disobedient servant.
The servant, realizing the magnitude of his debt, the righteous decision of the king, and the reality of his predicament, does the only thing he can do. He throws himself at the mercy of the king and asks him to be patient, and as ridiculous as it sounds, so that he can pay it all back. We would rightly expect the king to laugh at him or even command him to be taken out of his sight. However, the second surprising element comes in the reaction of the king.
He forgives him his debt and releases him from his service. He gives him complete and utter freedom. Why?
Because Jesus says he was moved with compassion, this is the word translated here, out of pity, the same word scripture uses of Jesus’ motivations over and over again. Moved with compassion, the king does the unimaginable and forgives this insurmountable debt. This is the part of the story we cheer and celebrate, what a gracious and forgiving king, and we think, how different is this guy’s life going to be now. He gets a clean slate and he gets his freedom! We would imagine that this man would be walking on sunshine, celebrating his newfound freedom, and ready to live differently than he did before.
But. Jesus says after sharing this amazing throne room scene, but, 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.
This guy was seemingly unmoved by his experience, and brings us to the second of our three elements I want to highlight. First, we had an insurmountable debt, now we come to an immovable servant.
The very next thing he did after being forgiven and released was to find a fellow servant that owed him money, seize him, begin choking him, and demanding he pay him what he owed him. What???
Now, let us first look at the size of the debt here. 100 denarii is not a small amount. It is roughly the equivalent of four months worth of wages, so it is not insignificant. We would definitely be concerned if someone owed us four months of wages. But in the grand narrative of the story, it is a drop in the bucket of what he was just forgiven. 1/600,000 to be more precise.
Jesus says, he went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii… I wonder if Jesus paused here to let their minds fill in the blank. Surely in his joy, he went out and tracked down a fellow servant who owed him money so that he could forgive his debt in the same way he had just been forgiven. Right?
But Jesus goes on, he found him and seized him and began choking him, saying give me my money!
He sounds like more like a debt collector for the mafia than someone who has recently been forgiven such a large debt. He is unmoved by his experience with the king. But he is not only unmoved by his experience, he is unmoved by his fellow servant’s pleas. He says, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ Almost word for word what he had just said to the king. You would think this would ring some bells, that he would be similarly moved by compassion for his fellow servant.
Rather, possibly hoping someone among his friends or family would pay to get him out, he puts him in jail until the debt is payed.
He does this rather publicly, and some of the other servants react, knowing two things about this man. One the king had forgiven him an astronomical amount of debt and two he had just thrown a fellow servant in jail over a significantly lesser amount, go to the king and report everything they have seen, which brings us to the last element I want to highlight for you in our parable. Where we once had a compassionate forgiving master we find an infuriated king.
32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.
His actions provoked the king to anger. He rightly expected this servant to be moved by his mercy and be merciful himself, only to find not only was the servant unmoved by his mercy, he treated his other servant downright wickedly. So, the bible says, in his anger he delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay ALL his debt. In other words, forever, because you remember the size of the debt, even if the king graciously counted each day served as a days worth of labor, it would take him 2,000 lifetimes to pay it off. And so Jesus finishes his parable, having taken us through a gauntlet of emotions.
But regardless of how we feel after hearing such a dramatic story, and while we are still trying to process the implications, Jesus gives a short and shocking application.
A Shocking Application
35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Here we must come to the disturbing realization that Jesus isn’t just telling a dramatic story, but rather, remember he is teaching about the kingdom of God and forgiveness.
Within the parable, Jesus says, we are to see ourselves.
First, like in the parable, there is a king of the kingdom of heaven, God.
Second, like in the parable, there are servants in the kingdom of heaven, mankind, of which we are one.
Third, like in the parable, there will be a day we have to stand before the king and give an account of our lives.
Fourth, like in the parable, there is a sense that the mercy we receive from the king is tied to how we show mercy to our fellow servants.
Like the servant, we must realize that we have an insurmountable debt.
(Reformed Expository Commentary ‘The debt represents everything we owe God—all the love, the covenant loyalty, the obedience we should have rendered but did not. The vast debt in the parable represents our vast sin before God. Second, we do owe smaller debts to each other. We do offend one another in many ways, small and great, and some very painful. Jesus represents this with the smaller but still substantial debt.’
Jesus brings us face to face with the reality that having received such an expression of mercy from the king, having received forgiveness for our sins because of his great compassion in having sent his son to take our sin debt upon himself, how could we ever not be merciful to those who have sinned against us. It is as ridiculous as the wicked servant in his parable.
But here is where we must remember that we are dealing with a parable.
Is Jesus saying that God will revoke our forgiveness? Are we in danger of losing our salvation if we do not forgive our brothers from our hearts?
When we take the rest of what scripture says about the assurance of our salvation and our eternal security, I cannot think that is what he is saying, so what are we to make of this very real warning?
Here is what I think Jesus is saying here. If we can go through life withholding forgiveness from our brothers, if we can act unmerciful towards others when we have been the beneficiaries of such great mercy, we need to ask ourselves if we ever really received the free gift in the first place.
We may have come before the king, we may even have said the right words, but something is wrong if that experience did not change us.
The king offered grace and forgiveness, but the servant showed that he did not understand it by his actions towards his fellow servant.
He either minimized his own debt to the king or he minimized the grace shown to him by the king.
The king’s statement implies as much, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’
I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. If you understood that, should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?
Let’s go back to the context of the parable. It is in answer to Peter’s question.
How many times should I forgive my brother for sinning against me?
Jesus says, Peter, if you understood what you will be given in me, in light of the coming cross, the answer would be obvious, as many times as they sin against you.
One way we show we understand the great gift of salvation is through showing mercy and forgiveness to those who sin against us.
We are left with this inescapable truth, Jesus ties the forgiveness we receive to the forgiveness we give. And this is far from the only time scripture says this.
Jesus says in the beatitudes Matthew 5:7 (ESV) 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
In Mark we read these words from Jesus, Mark 11:25 (ESV) 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
Paul writes to the Ephesian believers, Ephesians 4:32 (ESV) 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
And to the Colossians, Colossians 3:12-13 (ESV) 12 Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
To sum it up, one that understands their need for mercy will extend mercy.
As we close this morning, I want to leave you with one last thought that hopefully helps you this morning.
It comes from an earlier passage in Matthew, where Jesus is teaching his disciples how to pray.
In that prayer, Jesus teaches them to pray about forgiveness this way.
Matthew 6:11-12 (ESV) 11 Give us this day our daily bread, 12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Can you pray this prayer? Can you sincerely ask God to forgive you like you have forgiven others?
What if God used your standard of forgiveness towards others to forgive you of your sins?
To ask it another way, the way the parable puts it, what does your forgiveness of others say about the forgiveness you have received?