Forgiveness Given; Forgiveness Received

Text: Matthew 18:21-35

In the name of Jesus: Amen.

How many times are we to forgive someone that sins against us?  You know what I am talking about.  How many times are we to release someone else from the retaliation that they very well may deserve to receive?  Yes, how many times are we to forgive loved ones when they hurt us?  How many times do we erase a person’s record of sin against us? How many times are we to free people of their bondage of remorse, shame, and dejection?  What is the secret number?  Three times?  How about seven times?  How about seventy times?  What about 490 times?  Just what is the numerical standard for this?  Is there a mathematical formula in calculating this?  Could there possibly be a spread sheet and situation calculator that will determine this for us? 

In today’s Gospel reading, “Peter tried to set what he regarded as a generous limit to the practice of forgiveness.”[1]  He questioned Jesus if forgiving a brother seven times was enough, for seven times is indeed generous.  In response to this, Jesus shares with Peter that a Christian is to forgive seventy times seven.  Yes, Jesus clarifies that “unlimited forgiveness is characteristic of the Christian Gospel.”[2]

It is rather striking to hear this from Jesus.  Jesus does not affirm Peter’s submission of seven times and he doesn’t even provide some sort of forgiveness formula for dealing with being sinned against.  Rather, He intensifies Peter’s generous number of ‘seven’ by saying that a Christian should forgive seventy time seven.  That is, Jesus is not setting a limit but showing that there is simply no measurable number that one can ascribe to the practice of forgiveness.  Yes, forgiveness is unlimited; it is not a numbers game.  Forgiveness has nothing to do about keeping score. 

Now, if it is true—and it is—that there is simply no limit to the amount of times that we should forgive a brother or sister that sins against us, we are then faced with a pretty profound dilemma.  You see, “relationships between sinful people are often marred by sinful words and actions, some recurring over and over again. In every marriage, in every family, in every friendship, Christians will be faced with the situation in which forgiveness is requested of them—again. We too may wonder with Peter whether our forgiveness toward others has limits. [Furthermore,] our own [sinful] nature leads us to want to limit forgiveness, [as well].”[3]  

That is just typical of our sinful nature is it not?  The old Adam, that is our sinful nature, will tend to limit forgiveness to others, while Jesus on the other hand says that it is limitless.  The reason why this is true is that our sinful flesh is all about justice and keeping score of other people’s wrongs towards us, but rarely wants justice for ourselves.  That is the way that it is with the old Adam.  We want to be let off the hook, but rarely apply that same standard to others.  We don’t want to pay our debts, but expect others to pay theirs.  We want free handouts but expect others to dig themselves out of their own graves.     

Dear friends who have you withheld forgiveness from?  Who is in need of your forgiveness?  Has the sinful nature had its way with you?

Keep in mind that forgiveness is not merely attempting to forget the wounds, sin, and pain that have been done to you as if they never happened, though this is a possibility.  Furthermore, forgiveness is also not a dismissal of someone’s sin towards you, as if this sin was not a series offense.  Forgiveness is also not turning a blind eye towards someone; it is not giving someone the silent treatment like some immature schoolgirl.[4]  Forgiveness is also not getting someone out of trouble with the law scot free, as they say.  Finally, forgiveness is not something that the sinful nature can do or wants to do.   Forgiveness is none of these things.  Rather, forgiveness is an action that is done by you through the leading of the Holy Spirit by the Gospel.  It is releasing someone from your vengeance, your plans of revenge, and your retaliation agendas. 

Frankly, even though it is tremendously important for others to be forgiven by you and me, this granting of forgiveness is just as important for you and me as it is for them.  In other words, in the familiar words of John Kleinig – a quote that we have heard several times before in sermons here at Zion, but a quote worth hearing again – when “Satan gets another Christian to sin against us in deed or word . . . Satan gets us to brood over it, like a stuck track or a video loop, repeatedly and obsessively in our minds, with every greater emphasis on the gravity and injustice of it. As we process the offense and its effect on us, Satan gradually distorts our remembrance and our assessment of it. He uses this offense to encourage us to bring our mental accusations against the offender in the court of our minds. There he presides over the proceedings as we hold a secret trial in which we both prosecute and pass judgment on the wrongdoer.”[5] 

“The more we brood on the offense, the angrier we get against the offender. We remember all the other offenses that we have ever suffered from that person and all the other people that have ever hurt us. And that fuels our anger and our desire for justice. We maintain that we are in the right; we are justified in our judgment of them. We hold the moral high ground against them. Then, before we know it, anger leads to bitterness and resentment. This, in turn, leads to outrage, hatred, and lust for revenge. And so we end up stewing in our own poison.”[6] 

“When we begin to hate those whom we should love [and forgive], Satan has us where he wants us. Once hatred sets in, he can slowly and patiently dislodge us from the Church and from Christ.”[7]  My friends, this “Hatred is spiritual suicide. It marks the end of eternal life, the new life we have in Christ. Anger is seductive because it makes us feel justified in hating those who have hurt us. We are right and they are wrong. We are right in hating them and taking revenge on them because they are our enemies.  The revenge that we take is subtle and hidden. We don’t usually attack them physically or verbally, but emotionally and spiritually. We write them off and give them the cold shoulder. We reject them in our hearts, dissociate ourselves from them, and treat them as if they were dead to us.  Sadly, by cutting ourselves off from our brothers and sisters in Christ, we cut ourselves off from Christ as well. The upshot of that is withdrawal from the family of God and increasing isolation in the darkness of hatred. That is a kind of spiritual suicide, for hatred opens up a secret place for Satan in our hearts.”[8]

Baptized saints, this lack of forgiveness wreaks havoc in the lives of Christians, churches, and communities.  It is destructive.  It is the wishes of Satan and the results of our sinful nature. 

Indeed, today’s Gospel reading causes us to ask the question, “Who have you and I withheld forgiveness from?  Who has been tried in the courts of our mind?  Who has been damned by us resulting in our withholding of forgiveness?” 

While these questions are indeed right and true and good for us to ask, what we have uncovered today is that first and foremost it is you and me who are in need of forgiveness.  The reason why this is so?  Are not our debt, sin, and failures greater than all of these insignificant, stupid, and trivial things that have been done to us by our brothers and sisters?  Thus, who are we to withhold forgiveness from those who Christ died for? 

But what of serious offenses of sin; what about those sins that were committed against us that are too dark and too painful to mention in the light of day?  Whatever has been done to you or not been done to you, you do not have the right to reign down eternal damnation, hell, and vengeance upon these individuals so as to separate them from the Lord, for you are not the Creator.  You, who have ears, hear this, repent. 

You, who have ears, listen to another word.  Consider the beginning of today’s parable in our Gospel reading.  Yes, in today’s Gospel reading we hear that you and I have been “rescued and released from an unfathomable, crushing debt that, by legal right, would otherwise have condemned”[9] us to a lifetime in hell.  Yes, your sin of withholding forgiveness is forgiven by the one who does not withhold forgiveness from you—Christ forgives you.  Yes, your sin of putting people on trial in your mind is forgiven by the one who was tried and condemned guilty on your behalf—Christ forgives you.  Yes, your sin of limiting forgiveness from others is forgiven by the unlimited forgiveness of Christ-crucified—for you.  King Jesus cancels all of our whopping debt of sin-a liability that you and I could not possibly recompense and He does this for you and me because He is rich in love and abounding in grace.  He forgives you and me and considers it well worthwhile.

By the way though, as forgiven people, you can and will forgive.  Indeed, “only forgiven people can really forgive.”[10] This is so, because the Holy Spirit through this Gospel will lead you and me to forgiveness while granting grace and peace to our sometimes confused emotions.  Indeed, as forgiven people we pray that the Father would set us free from harboring grudges and withholding forgiveness, for Christ sake.  As this happens, we rejoice in the forgiveness received by us and given to others.  As we fail, we rejoice for the forgiveness given by the Lord and received by us. 

Baptized saints, because of the Father’s merciful nature, you and your neighbors have been forgiven an insurmountable debt of sin, ransomed by the death of Christ.  This is true today, is true for the next seven days, and will be true until He comes again—for you.

In the name of Jesus: Amen.

[1] Francis C. Rossow, Gospel Handles: Finding New Connections in Biblical Texts (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2001), 67.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Balge, R. D., & Ehlke, R. C. (1989). Sermon Studies on the Gospels (ILCW Series A) (p. 306). Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House.
[4] Pastor Jason Zirbel, “Forgiveness: Limited or Limitless?” (11 September 2011) September 2014).
[5] John W. Kleinig, Grace Upon Grace (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2008), 234-236.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Matthew 11:2-20:34: Concordia Commentary, 938.
[10] Francis C. Rossow, Gospel Handles: Finding New Connections in Biblical Texts, 68.

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