Sermon for Trinity 23 - Matthew 18:23-35 - October 19, 2014
What has Jesus said that causes Him to explain it with the parable we hear today? The Gospel lesson begins in the middle of something. That is plain from the first word, “Therefore.” The parable that we have appointed for today is an illustration of what has just been said. Jesus has been speaking about how to deal with an errant and sinful brother in the church. Jesus says in Matthew 18:15-17, “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” Jesus explains a godly process for retrieving an errant brother from a specific sin. Someone sins against you, you go to him alone and show him his fault. Christ will not let us sweep another’s sin against us under the rug. If your brother persists in his sin or defends his sin, then you fetch someone else to go with you. This is not to gang up on the errant brother but to show him the severity of sin but more so the severity of remaining impenitent about that sin. Finally, one is tell this sin to the church so that the church may censure the errant brother with the goal of his repentance. If the errant brother chooses to remain recalcitrant, dig in his heals and refuse to repent, the pastor as Christ’s representative, must excommunicate the impenitent sinner. Again, this isn’t an end unto itself. Even the removal of someone from the communion of the church serves the ultimate goal of gaining back the errant brother, bringing him to repentance so that he then confesses his sin and receive the forgiveness of sin. The whole assumption behind Matthew 18:15-18 is that the errant brother who sins against you refuses to repent, thinks that he hasn’t sinned against you, and that he has no need of confession and absolution.
This prompts Peter to ask “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21) Peter is wrapped up in procedure. His misses the point of the preceding verses, the point being the gaining of the errant brother and the reconciliation of the errant one with the one he sinned against. How often should I do this? How many times ought I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Peter reasons that there must be a next step in the procedure, or at the very least a protocol about the limitations of such forgiving an errant but penitent brother. The flesh wonders, “Just how many times can my brother sin against me and still be penitent, even though he knows better? Just how many times do I forgive him his sins against me, even if it is the same sin over and over?” Peter reasons that seven absolutions is enough. It is a large number, for a person should ‘get’ what he’s doing wrong by the second or third sin. It is also a holy number, for it is the number that symbolizes God’s holy presence among sinners. “How often do I forgive my brother when He sins against me?” Peter hears Jesus’ words from verses 15-18, which only apply to the impenitent brother who does not ask forgiveness, and wants to apply them to the penitent brother who sees his sin and asks forgiveness. Seven is quite generous.
Jesus is ever eager to teach His disciples, then and now, especially when it comes to the chief article of the Christian faith. He does not reprimand Peter for missing the point. He accepts Peter’s answer as a starting place and builds infinitesimally upon it. “Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’” (Matthew 18:22) Jesus goes along with Peter’s game. If seven is a number of God’s holy presence amongst sinners, why stop there? Ten is also a number of completion, which is why the Lord God gave Ten Commandments from Sinai’s heights. Both are excellent theological numbers. Why not combine them? Why not multiply them? How often do you forgive your brother? Four-hundred and ninety times! To take Jesus literally in this is to deny the symbolism of the two numbers, seven and ten. To take Jesus literally also shows that one has still hasn’t gotten the point. The person who is intent to count their brother’s sins against them all the way to seven will have no problem counting all the way to four-hundred and ninety. Jesus’ point isn’t to make His Christians into sin-counters. He wants to make His Christians into men and women who count no sin at all. Four-hundred and ninety is hyperbole and exaggeration. Four-hundred and ninety is symbolism for something else entirely.
Then comes today’s parable. Jesus follows His word about seventy time seven with a story telling Peter what life is like in the Kingdom of heaven, what life is like under the reign of God. The king is God the Father. He calls a great sinner into His presence so that the sinner might offer atonement, that is, payment for the great debt of sin he owes God. And it is great debt. Jesus compares this debt to ten thousand talents. I don’t know what the exchange is on talents to dollars. But ten thousand of anything is a lot. It is more than the man can afford. Being is such deep debt, his life, and the life of his wife and family, will have to suffice until satisfaction can be made. The man, seeing this living death that is his condemnation, pleads with the King that, given enough time, he will repay the entire debt. This is foolishness. He knows it. The King knows it. He is too deep in debt. For no man can ransom His own life before God. David writes, “For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.” (Psalm 38:4) He says in Psalm 40:12, “My iniquities have overtaken me, so that I am not able to look up; They are more than the hairs of my head; Therefore my heart fails me.” And in Psalm 65:3, “Iniquities prevail against me; As for our transgressions, You will provide atonement for them.” The Word of the Lord endures forever, for this King, who is God the Father, provides atonement for the irredeemable debt of sin this man owes him. He is moved with compassion, releases the man and forgives the entire debt.
Such is what God the Father does for us. For our debt of sin is too great for us to pay. But Christ pays this debt for us. He is able to atone for the sins of the whole world because He is fully God. Being divine He is holy and sinless. So His death, which is possible by His assuming of human flesh in the incarnation, offers a perfect, infinite payment to God the Father. There is no sacrifice for sin left to be made, nor are we to try to add our works, which the prophet says are like filthy rags, to Christ’s merit, for that is unnecessary and would make a mockery of the King’s compassion. When we consider our sin which we commit with our thoughts, words, and deeds, we see that we daily sin much and deserve nothing but punishment, both in this life and the life of the world to come. When we consider the sins we do because we fail to do the right thing, that only adds to the enormity of our debt. But God forgives the penitent. He justifies the ungodly who trust in the merits of Jesus. He does not justify anyone by their own works, merits, or contributions. The catchphrase “God has done His part now you do yours” is straight from Hell and devours souls. Neither will He justify anyone apart from faith, whether they believe in Christ’s atonement for them or not. He justifies, He forgives, those who are penitent, those who humbly confess their sins, no matter whether there are seven sins or seventy times seven.
But this man in the parable, the one forgiven so much, runs astray immediately and forgets the great gift given to Him. He demands payment of such a small debt that it is laughable, which is why Jesus tells it this way. It is comical to see the hypocrisy of this man forgiven so much, for that is so often exactly where we are, or at least where we are tempted to be. When we fail to forgive our brothers and sister, when we hold grudges against those who have hurt us and sinned against us, we neglect the great debt of ours that has been cancelled by the death of Jesus. When we refuse to absolve those who ask us to absolve them of their sins against us, we forget that we have been forgiven much ourselves. When we forgive those who sin against us that forgiveness becomes a sign that we have been forgiven much and we know it. So Jesus instructs Peter, and all of us, to forgive our brother from the heart, for that is how God our Father has forgiven us. He holds nothing back but gives His Only-Begotten Son for us to atone for our sins, and then gives us God the Holy Ghost through His Word, so that we might believe in that atonement and receive its benefits, the forgiveness of all our sins and our complete absolution from the guilt of sin.