“The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” (Matthew 18:21-35)
Forgiveness doesn’t count. Oh, don’t get me wrong! I don’t mean that it doesn’t matter of that it’s not important. By no means. No, forgiveness counts for a lot in that respect. In fact, it’s everything. We’d be lost without forgiveness. But when I say, Forgiveness doesn’t count, I mean it in the way that Jesus teaches it, which is to say, forgiveness doesn’t keep score. Forgiveness doesn’t count. It doesn’t keep score or keep track of how many times it has to forgive or how much sin it has to have mercy on. That’s the way it is with God toward us, and that’s the way it is with us toward one another. God forgives us, freely, fully, completely. Therefore we are to forgive one another in the same way: freely, fully, completely, not counting or keeping score or keeping track. That’s the connection Jesus draws for us today in “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.”
Our text is the Holy Gospel from Matthew 18. What sets the parable up is Peter coming to Jesus with a question. As we heard last week in the first part of Matthew 18, Jesus has been teaching his disciples about life in the church that he’s going to establish, about how we are to deal with a brother who sins against us, how we are to seek to gain that brother back. So that prompts a question now from Peter: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
Peter here is trying to quantify forgiveness. He wants to keep score. He may think he’s sounding generous and magnanimous, suggesting what seems to him like a lot of times to have to show forgiveness. “Seven times! Aren’t I being grand and merciful, Jesus? I’m willing to go up to seven whole times!”
But Jesus ups the ante: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Whoa, whip out your notepad, Peter! Seventy times seven! “Let’s see, that comes to . . . carry the four . . . 490 times I’ve got to forgive the guy who does me wrong! That’s a lot! I’m gonna need a bigger scorecard. But if I keep a careful record, and I keep track of every infraction, then I guess that on the 491st time that bozo does me wrong, then I don’t have to forgive him! If only I can hold out that long. . . .”
Well, no, that’s not how it goes, Peter. It’s not like: “488, forgive; 489, forgive; 490, forgive, but that’s it. . . . Ah, 491, now I can finally get my revenge!” Bzzt! Wrong! Of course, we understand what Jesus is saying. By picking such a ridiculously high number, Jesus is saying, in effect, “Don’t keep score at all!” Not seventy times seven, not seventy-seven, not even seven. Don’t keep track of how often you forgive. Just forgive, whether it’s the first time or the 491st. Forgiveness doesn’t count.
And to drive home the point, Jesus goes on to tell what we commonly refer to as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. You know the story. I’ll just paraphrase it a bit. There’s a servant who owes his king a whole bunch of money–bazillions and bazillions of dollars. “Bazillions” was an ancient unit of measurement, by the way. This guy had a debt so big even Bernie Sanders would not have suggested the taxpayers cover it. I mean, this was a big debt!
And now the king is going to foreclose on the guy and call in the debt. The servant is hauled in, called on the carpet before the king, and he’s told, “Pay up!” The guy is shaking in his boots, because he knows he has no means whatsoever to pay off this enormous debt, and he knows what the king could do to him.
But this king doesn’t do what he could do to the servant. He doesn’t toss the guy in the hoosegow and throw away the key, leaving him there to rot in debtors’ prison. No. He could have done that, by rights. But he chooses not to. Instead, he has pity on him. The master has mercy on his servant and forgives him his huge debt and releases him.
So now the servant is free. He has learned a powerful lesson about mercy and forgiveness. Or has he? Apparently not, because the first thing he does with his freedom is to go out and find a fellow servant who owes him a little bit of money. It’s an extremely small amount, in comparison to what he owed the king. I mean, we’re talking chump change here. But this servant, who had been forgiven such a huge amount by his master, will not show even a small fraction of that mercy toward his fellow servant. He grabs him and starts to choke the poor fella. “Pay me what you owe me!” he demands. He shows no pity toward the man who owes him a measly few bucks, and he has that guy thrown in prison. The unmerciful servant has obviously not learned how forgiveness works in this kingdom. He shows that he really does not want to operate on the basis of mercy but on the old way of accounting and scorekeeping and payback and revenge. Sadly, he has rejected the ways of his king.
The king finds out and says to the man: “If that’s how it’s going to be with you, so be it. Go to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200.” And then Jesus puts the punch-line warning on the parable. He says to us: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
The meaning is plain and clear: Forgiveness is the way it works in the kingdom of heaven. If you want to operate on some other basis, if you’re intent on scorekeeping and payback, you yourself would be in a heap of trouble. That’s not how your heavenly Father has dealt with you. So why do you act that way toward your fellow forgiven sinner? God has forgiven that other person, just as he has forgiven you. Then why would you act as though you are greater than God? To not forgive is really to set yourself up as an idol. You think you’re greater than God. God forgave that person, but you think you ought not to have to. Who are you, O man, to not forgive someone whom God has already forgiven? Who are you, O sinner, to not forgive someone else, when you yourself have had all your sins forgiven by God? You see, unforgiveness is a matter of idolatry and ingratitude. It is to reject the ways of God’s kingdom.
For all our unforgiveness, forgive us, O Lord! Give us a new and merciful heart, reflecting the mercy you have shown toward us! Help us to realize that you have forgiven that other person who may very well have wronged us. But scorekeeping is not the way it is with you, O Lord. Help us to forgive, even as we have been forgiven.
Jesus teaches us the importance of forgiveness over and over again in the gospels. It obviously is an important matter in his sight, and he must realize how slow of heart we are to “get it.” Mercy toward sinners, love toward one another–these are major themes in Jesus’ teaching to his disciples. This matter is so important, Jesus even puts it into the prayer he has us pray every day. For in the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” You see, every time we ask for God’s forgiveness–and we sin much daily–we’re reminded to extend that forgiveness toward those who do us wrong also. I’m not the only person God has forgiven. Christ died for that other person, too.
Well, see, now we’re getting at it. Forgiveness has to do–it has everything to do–with the death of Jesus Christ for sinners. He not only died for me and you, he also died for that brother who sinned against you, that person you don’t like because he did you wrong. But then sometimes I’m the jerk who does wrong to somebody else. Now magnify that offense by bazillions and bazillions, and you might begin to come close to measuring the offense you and I have committed toward God, thumbing our nose at the God who created us and loves us so much. So we’re all in the same boat here. And we’d all be up a creek without a paddle, if it were not for the unfathomable mercy our king and master has shown toward every one of us. Forgiveness is the way of the kingdom. There is no other way.
Whether in a congregation or in a household, we need forgiveness in order to live together as a family. The more time you spend together, the closer you are, the more opportunities there are to hurt one another. So we need to be able to forgive one another to live in harmony. Lord, help us to forgive as you have forgiven each one of us, fully and freely, for Christ’s sake.
Well, this would all be just moral lecturing, if it were not for the inexhaustible mercy God has shown us in Christ. If I want you to forgive your brothers and sisters here in this church or in your family at home, I’m not just going to lecture you on the importance of forgiveness. Just telling you what you ought to do will not enable you to do it. No, here again I want to point you to the cross of Christ. There see the great mercy God has shown you, sending his only Son to take all of your sins–all of them, the whole enormous debt–and to die for them, in your place, paying the unpayable debt you owed. For his holy blood is of infinite value, because he is the eternal Son of God. At the foot of the cross is where we learn forgiveness. In Holy Baptism, God washed away all your sins and made you his child, to reflect his character. In Holy Absolution, time and time again, God continues to forgive you. And in Holy Communion, you receive Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness is where it’s at. It’s standard operating procedure in the kingdom of God. And with this forgiveness, you also receive what it leads to, namely, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”
In a sermon on the Unforgiving Servant, Martin Luther sums up the point of the parable like this: “Should we then bite and scratch each other like dogs and cats? No, but we should heartily forgive and ask: [Why] should I accuse my brother? If God is merciful unto me and for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ forgives me so great a debt, why should I make so much ado about a penny or two? I will call it square, forgive and forget, and thank God that He has forgiven me and made me a partaker of His grace.”
Dear ones, God does not count your trespasses against you. Forgiveness doesn’t count. It doesn’t count or keep score or keep track. It doesn’t measure how big the debt is that we’re forgiving. Forgiveness just . . . forgives. It’s like that with God toward us. God has forgiven our whole huge mountain of debt, all of it, because of what Christ did for us on the cross. And God keeps on forgiving us, time after time after time–way past 490–when we sin against him. Forgiveness doesn’t count. And forgiveness is our way of life, literally. Because of God’s forgiveness toward us, we have life, new life, eternal life. And in this life that we share, we then forgive one another. That’s how it goes in God’s kingdom. Forgiveness doesn’t count.