READ: MATTHEW 18:23-35
It’s yet another The-Kingdom-of-Heaven-is-Like parable. This parable – often called The Unjust Steward – is in answer to what Peter imagines to be a very practical and quantifiable question: How often am I required to forgive one who sins against me? In fact, the matter seems SO practical and numeric to Peter that he even starts the bidding: would seven times be enough?
The parable response from Jesus is also matter-of-fact(s). But the facts don’t start where Peter starts – with himself. Jesus’ response has a different protagonist – a different leading role, you might say. The Cliff Notes read like this:
- Stars a king who is balancing his books.
- The king is brought one of his borrowers.
- The borrower is way under water! – Funny money in today’s economics.
- The borrower clearly cannot pay.
- The king (in a very pre-abolition way) orders the debtor to be sold into slavery along with his family and the funds from said sale considered payment.
- The debtor begs for patience / for the time to “get square” with the king.
- The king, in a very compassionate but matter-of-fact way forgives / cancels the whole debt!
It stands as fact that the man who stood to lose his life and the lives of his loved ones into slavery because of what he owed and could not pay now owes nothing! This wildly good-news fact is all on account of the king.
This is what The Kingdom of Heaven is like, says Jesus. It’s a great story! Who of us wouldn’t like to be on the borrower’s end of that kindness? But does that answer Peter’s very practical, very numeric, self-justifying question: How many times do I forgive my neighbor? Did Jesus answer the question, or (to borrow some debate verbiage) did He “pivot?” Peter is looking for a number – Seven? More or less than that? Instead, he gets a story about a king and should-be slave. It seems a bit like two ships passing in the night, no?
Forgive us our trespasses as we (in turn) forgive those who trespass against us…
When we Christians fail at forgiveness, we fail like Peter. We lose grasp of the King and His gifts for us in favor of the quota – our supposed achievement of the kingdom for Him. And what a joyless and painful way of living this is. Forgiving our spouse or family member only for the sake of “meeting the quota” – only with the goal of getting to that threshold when we can pull out the list of wrongs against us as leverage for our justification. This is, of course, sin. But in Jesus’ parable, this is symptomatic sin. It is a view of “forgiveness” totally divorced from the King’s compassion – His mercy toward us and His debt-erasing kindness for us in Christ His Son. Like Peter, we’re fond of the idea of forgiveness, but we fail to believe in its value and power for us when we anguish and chafe at the notion of forgiving others.
And so, dear Christians, we repent. God the Spirit, grant us contrite hearts for our Peter-like love of quota – our devaluing of the King and His debt-canceling forgiveness to us.
The Lord, your King, has endured the debt you and I could not pay. He took the deadly expense upon Himself, dying for your sins and mine. But debt forgiveness is more than the King securing the payment (the cross). Forgiveness is the King then delivering the benefits/liberty of that act (the cross/atonement) to you. Forgiveness is not like pizza for pick-up. Forgiveness is with delivery.
For the Christian to be concerned with forgiving others who sin against them is, at its heart, for the Christian first to be concerned with God forgiving them – delivering the fruits of the cross to their soul and conscience in the absolving Word of Jesus.
Luther says very simply, “If God does not forgive without stopping, we are lost” (LC – 5th Petition). God’s Son died once for your sins and that one-time death is enough. But its benefits – the cancellation note – that is forgiveness. Forgiveness – the delivery of Jesus’ dying for you – is not once. Forgiveness is the King’s compassion demonstrated at the cross delivered to you again and again and again. The King’s forgiveness is life for you. And in that compassionate Word from the King, forgiveness flows through you to those who sin against you. Forgiveness for us is the recipe for forgiveness through us. Go your way, then. Your sins are forgiven you.
Father in heaven, do not look upon our sins or deny our prayers on account of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that You would give them to us by grace, for we daily sin much and deserve nothing but punishment. So we, also, will sincerely forgive and readily do good to those who sin against us. In Your mercy, hear us, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.
Rev. Kyle Madson