This is a version of my sermon from 17 September 2017.
What we have in this Gospel passage is a classic teaching strategy that our Lord uses often: he gives a straight-forward didactic statement and follows it up with a parable to illustrate what he means. The teaching is simple: Christians are called to extraordinary forgiveness.
As we seek to understand this, it should first be emphasized that this passage directly continues from last week’s passage about church discipline. There we heard about the three step process of reconciling impenitent sinners with Christ and the Church: go to that person yourself, then bring other witnesses, and finally bring it before the Church authorities gathered in council. The goal there was to bring the sinner to a place of recognition of sin so that he or she could repent and be restored. The predictable question that Peter now brings up is how many times we should let someone get away with this. If we’ve got a repeat offender, how many strikes until they’re out? Jesus teaches us that the quest to regain one’s brother or sister in Christ must be laden with forgiveness!
It should be pointed out that the call to forgive one’s brother 70×7 times is an amplification of what is found in Genesis 4:10-15, where God swears to take vengeance on anyone who harms Cain seven times.
And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.” Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him.
Grace, mercy, and forgiveness existed in the Old Testament, but is expanded all the more in the New Testament! Never fall into that awful trap of thinking the Old Testament is all doom and gloom versus the sunshiney New Testament of love and forgiveness. There is no such division.
Let’s also not forget the Lord’s Prayer and its context (Matthew 6:12-15): “And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors; And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Particularly note the fact that we must forgive others if we are indeed to be forgiven ourselves.
Am I an Unforgiving Servant?
The reading from Sirach 27 and 28 gives an excellent insight into the mind of the unforgiving servant himself, and should be used for one’s own self examination. For those whose eyebrows rise at the mention of books like Sirach, I would like to quote from the Articles of Religion, one of our Anglican formularies that we’ve been exploring this year. “And the other Books (as Jerome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine”. This is precisely how we’re using Sirach right now, learning about godly living. With that in mind, let’s revisit that passage (27:30-28:7), because it describes the unforgiving servant brilliantly! It’s almost as if Jesus had this sort of wisdom teaching in mind when he made up this parable. As we look at this, I want you take heed from Jesus’ warning at the end – that the unforgiving servant is thrown into debtors prison after all. We must be forgiving people in order to truly understand and receive the forgiveness of God. With that in mind, let’s look at what an unforgiving person is like.
Anger and wrath, these also are abominations, and the sinful man will possess them.
We begin with the reminder that anger and wrath are native to the sinful heart.
He that takes vengeance will suffer vengeance from the Lord, and he will firmly establish his sins.
Furthermore, when we act in unrighteous anger, we “firmly establish” that sin, making it worse.
Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.
Instead we must forgive those who wrong us, that we may also be able to receive God’s forgiveness.
Does a man harbor anger against another, and yet seek for healing from the Lord?
Does he have no mercy toward a man like himself, and yet pray for his own sins?
The lines about harboring anger but then praying to God for ones own forgiveness is especially poignant: this is spiritual hypocrisy, and even we may fool others and even ourselves, there is no fooling God, who looks upon the heart.
If he himself, being flesh, maintains wrath, who will make expiation for his sins?
Maintaining wrath – clinging to your rights to your own anger – is itself sinful.
Remember the end of your life, and cease from enmity, remember destruction and death, and be true to the commandments.
Instead we should look ahead to the end of our lives; remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return; consider the reality of the final judgment, and be true to the commandments – the teachings of Christ.
Remember the commandments, and do not be angry with your neighbor; remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook ignorance.
The summary verse emphasizes knowledge: it is good to know the commandments and the covenant, and ignorance ought to be overlooked, or leniently forgiven. If one sins because of ignorance, they need instruction much more than they need punishment. Again, this conforms excellently to the context of Christ’s teachings: the goal of all discipline is reconciliation.
The Easiest way to forgive is to remember you’re forgiven.
As we close with an eye to what positive teaching we can learn today, it is that the easiest way to forgive others is to remember that you yourself have been forgiven. There are a number of things that we can take home today to helps us remember this basic lesson.
One is the Collect of the Day. “O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts.” If we understand that forgiveness is an important part of God’s stance towards his people. If he is indeed to direct and Rule our hearts, then we must definitely learn how to forgive others.
Another resource is the Lord’s Prayer. I hope you pray this at least every day, not just when you’re in a corporate worship setting. On your own you can pray at your own pace, emphasize different lines more personally, pause and give more thought to the words you are saying. Consider especially this week the half-line “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” When you pray that, you’re making a promise, in line with our Lord’s own teaching. See that you follow through on that promise.
And last of all I’ll leave you with our Lord’s final words in this discourse. “`You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” He could not make it any clearer. Forgive those who wrong you. He who would be judge presumes to take the throne of Christ for himself. Forgive your brother from your heart.