Forgiven and Forgiving

Scripture: Matthew 18:21-35

Before getting started in the nuts and bolts of my sermon, I do want to mention that in the passage today, it talks about talents and denarii. A denarius was a day’s wages, so the one servant owed a hundred days’ wages.

Ten thousand talents was an unimaginable amount of money. Most scholars say it’s more than you could make in multiple lifetimes. So think of it like, maybe, millions of dollars, or even tens of millions of dollars, when you look at that passage.

We are going to be continuing, today, our series on the Lord’s Prayer. (Even though we didn’t read it as one of our Scripture passages this week.) In previous weeks, we had touched upon, first, an overview of the prayer, how this is an intensely personal prayer.

The disciples wanted to get it right, because they’re concerned with prayer. In this prayer, it starts by saying Abba, which means Daddy. It’s a very intimate prayer.

It has seven petitions, three which are about God – those are the first three, that we already covered. “Thy holy name,” “Thy kingdom come,” and “Thy will be done.” Then there are four petitions for people, and they are signified by “us.” Last week was “give us this day our daily bread.” This week is “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Once we have the right perspective, of understanding who God is and what God has done, then we can begin to ask for His blessings and His grace and His guidance.

Today’s phrase, I believe, has two key components to understand: what does it mean to “forgive,” and what does “debt” mean. We are going to start with the second, with “debt.” Why use that word in the disciple’s prayer, and not “sins” like in Luke?

When you say prayers in different denominations, when you say the Lord’s Prayer (or the Disciple’s Prayer), Presbyterians and some Reformed churches are pretty much the only ones these days that use “debts” and “debtors” (even if we are right). Others say “sins” and “sins against us” or “trespasses” and “trespasses against us.”

Why use the words “debts” and “debtors”? I’m glad you asked. Why, when asked about forgiveness in this passage today, did Jesus then give a parable about debt management? I think we have trouble understanding it because we don’t understand what sin truly is and the gravity of sin.

Sin is the deliberate breaking of God’s will and way (which as a Christian you know through the Holy Spirit being in you), and this creates several kinds of debt.

First, it damages the one you sin against. This creates an imbalance between you that needs to be addressed; you “owe” them because you either didn’t supply something you should have, or took away something you shouldn’t have. (Contrary to popular mythology today, there are no “victimless crimes”).

Secondly, it damages the you. Physically sometimes, but certainly spiritually and mentally, sin damages your ego and self-image, and ability to relate in a positive manner with others (where “positive” means in a way that honors God).

Thirdly, sin damages your relationship with God as creator and supposed sovereign Lord, and creates a de facto debt because you have broken your vows or covenant with God. He is the ultimate injured party. So we owe an unimaginable debt to God, for every sin we have ever committed and ever will commit. It’s an insane amount, a lot like what the one servant in the parable owed.

As Paul noted in his epistle, “the wages of sin is death”. When Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God told them if they did so they would die. This death was spiritual (immediate separation from God), emotional (being ashamed of themselves and each other, leading to covering up and blaming – the blame game).

I always like to say, if anybody doesn’t believe in original sin, then they haven’t had children. Because the first three words you learn are “no,” “mine,” and “uh-oh,” usually followed by “not me!” You see this in chapter 3 of Genesis, when God comes into the garden, He asks, “What have you done, Adam?”

Adam says, “It wasn’t me. It was that woman you gave me.” Then God turns to Eve and asks, “What have you done?” She says, “It wasn’t me. It was that serpent that tricked me.” We like to blame other people, other things, because we’re ashamed. So we separate ourselves from each other, not just from God but each other.

Eventually we experience physical death. All of this is the wages of sin. This is the ultimate debt we owe for sin – our very life.

When Jesus was on the cross, in John, one of his last “words” was “It is finished”. The Greek word for that is tetelestai. It literally means “the debt is paid in full.” This was what was posted on the pardon of any inmate released from debtor’s prison, so that if somebody came questioned them, they could show and it would say, written across it, tetelestai, the debt is paid in full.

Some may argue, there is no debt in sin except to God, but let me ask you, when someone sins against you, or “does you wrong,” don’t you feel there is a debt incurred? We have sayings like (and I can’t use the proper term because we’re in a church) “Karma’s a female dog”, or “Payback is hell”, or “let the scales of Justice balance”.

We recognize the imbalance against us, and we want things made right. We seek redress – emotional or legal, or both. If you know Christ and if you’ve accepted Him as Lord and Savior, we recognize the debt we have incurred when we finally accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

We recognize that He is the only one who can cancel that debt by His blood, that His death saves us from our sins, and that His resurrection brings us new life and new creation as the scales are balanced, and we are reconciled with God.

So is it appropriate to use the words debts and debtors? I think so. Because I think it is getting to the heart of what we are experiencing each and every day. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

There is a lot of debate about what constitutes “forgiveness” or “forgiving”. I don’t know about you, but I grew up with “Forgive and Forget” as an adage we learned from our parents. But what about those hurts that you can’t forget? \

What about the folks that experience abuse, or a rape victim, one who finds such sayings not only hard to deal with, but actually harming and impeding their healing. How do we forgive, and what does that mean? After all, it really impacts our understanding of what we are saying when we repeat “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Let me suggest to you, forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. God may be able to say, as I quoted earlier in the Assurance of Pardon, “I will cast your sins as far apart as the east is from the west, and will remember them no more”; and we may read in the psalms about the “sea of forgetfulness.”

But He is perfect in wisdom and knowledge. We are not. The only way we can learn from our mistakes, and the mistakes of others, is to remember them. One of the ways in which we hold on to hope in times of real trial is by remembering God’s goodness and His promises to us.

Let me suggest to you as well that forgiving likewise isn’t saying “OK. It will be like it never happened.” Because it did happen, and in the case of something like adultery and other sins like it, you need to start over rebuilding the trust that has been destroyed by the adulterer’s actions. It damages your relationships with others, and especially with any kids.

If we think of forgiveness in terms of debt, then I think it becomes easier to understand how to achieve it. I think, in part, this is what Jesus was alluding to in our passage today. There’s an illustration about an old country doctor. (I’m sure none of you know any of them.)

He had served his small rural community for decades, over fifty or sixty years, then he died. His widow was not destitute, but she was in bad straits because of all the expenses that were incurred. So she decided to see if there was anybody that owed her husband anything for his services as a doctor.

She went to his ledger book. On each line he had the name, he had the treatment that was done, he had what the value of the treatment and procedure was. But she found in many cases, a line had been drawn through, and he had written “forgiven,” with his initials. Some of the poorest, some of the most destitute people, as a good Christian man he had forgiven their debt.

She went to court to try to collect on these unpaid debts, because they didn’t say “paid in full.” When she went to court, she discovered something, that her husband, in the process of crossing it out, writing “forgiven,” and initialing it, had written, essentially, a legally binding contract. Those debts were forgiven.

Basically, what the doctor had done is that he had paid the debt himself, by crossing out the ledger. That is so much like what God did for us. There’s no way we could pay for the debt we had, so He paid for it Himself, through His Son.

Forgiveness means that we forgive the debt that is owed us. We no longer hold it to account in our ledger. It doesn’t deny it occurred. It doesn’t forget, and move on in blissful ignorance. Forgiveness means we give up our right to collect on the debt; that we let go of the harm done to us, and turn it over to God.

We trust God to handle it – and the one who sinned against us. It means we give up the anger, the plotting for vengeance, and demand for restitution. (Not that there won’t be consequences; a rape victim may forgive her or his rapist, but the demands of the law still must be met, and jail time necessary, and rehabilitation attempted). What it means is, we don’t hold on to and nurse that grievance in our heart.

When I counsel couples, I always like to say you can tell if someone has truly forgiven a debt by their arguments with that person. The goal of an argument is no longer debate or communication, the goal of an argument is to win.

In “winning,” people will often bring up an old wrong to lash out at their opponent and try to make them feel guilty for the advantage is brings. That person has not truly forgiven that wrong. If they had, they would have set it aside, and not tried to use it to wring some concession with it – allowing the person who committed the wrong to “partially pay it back”, as it were, by conceding the point.

Forgiveness is hard to conceive. How can someone do that? How can it possibly be forgiven? Not too many months ago, there was a story in the papers about Dylan Roof and the nine victims in the church in Charleston, South Carolina. For those of you that have the internet, I don’t know if you had the opportunity to see the sentencing that was there.

The families, as they always do, get to speak to the one who is being sentenced. It’s considered part of justice. I watched some of those. I couldn’t watch all of them, because it was breaking my heart. It brought me to my knees. It was humbling to me.

These families, who had had their loved one killed, in such a pointless manner and reason, looked at this murderer and said, “We forgive you, and we pray that you will find a right relationship with God and with others. That you will find it in your heart to repent and be forgiven by God, even as we have forgiven you.” I don’t know that I could have done that.

A little further back, in 2000, there was a Texas woman who had killed her husband with an ax, and she was on death row. While she was on death row, she was converted and she became a believer in Jesus Christ.

When the time came for her execution, the family of the deceased, and the pastor who had been working with this woman, all wrote letters to the commission there (because the governor doesn’t grant clemency in Texas, the commission does). They all wrote letters saying “Please commute this sentence. She’s a changed woman. Maybe life in prison, but not execution.”

The commission decided “No, we’re not going to do that. Justice will be served.” And as is tradition, again, for the purposes of justice, the family of the deceased was there when she was executed. They looked at each other and they shared blessings. The last thing that the woman said was “I’ll see you on the other side.” They had forgiven, and even loved, the one who had killed their son and brother.

How do we do that? We need to understand all this, because it impacts us when we say “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Think on that for a moment. We are asking that God would only forgive our sins and the debts we create against Him, and others, as much as we forgive others sins and the debt they incur against us.

Let me say that again. That’s a little complex. We are asking that God would only forgive our sins and the debts we create against Him, and others, as much as we forgive others sins and the debt they incur against us. That was the point of the parable, and what Jesus said right before it.

At the core of this phrase is the reality that this (like all the other phrases in the prayer) is all about trust in God, and our relationship with Him, Abba. Do you trust in the sovereignty of God as Creator and King to take care of justice, and vengeance if he chooses, or even their transformation if that is His plan? Do you trust in the sovereignty of God enough to release your claim on the one who sinned against you, and give it over to God?

Do you trust in the provision of God to provide the tools to overcome your anger and pain, and to recover from the harm you have suffered, and to bless you and bring about good out of your pain and suffering?

Do you trust in the love of God for you as shown to you in Jesus Christ to heal you of your hurts, and bring you to a place of joy and peace as you move forward in your faith walk and witness to the love and grace of God? Do you trust enough in the love of God to let go of the anger, and instead grab hold of the promises of God, and fill your heart with that hope?

The challenge for each of us as believers is incredible; can we truly erase the ledger of wrongs against us? Can we really let go of our desire for “fairness”, and to gain redress and restitution for the damages we have suffered?

In the passage today, Peter was being very generous. Rabbis said you have to forgive a family member up to three times. You don’t have to forgive a Gentile once. So after Jesus goes through the process for sin and dealing with it, in the earlier verses of Matthew 18, Peter says, “How often do I have to forgive? Seven times?” This is twice as much as the rabbis say! And it was everybody.

Jesus says, depending on your translation, seventy-seven or seventy times seven. Four hundred ninety times. This doesn’t mean that we keep a little ledger board and mark off each time. He was essentially saying it’s infinite. You never stop forgiving.

This challenge, about letting go our desire for fairness and redress, awesome (or awe-ful) as it would be, as it is, would be mistaken, to think it is “Can we?” For most of us, the challenge that we think of as we look at that challenge is to say “Can I do all that?” Can I really be like those families hurt by Dylan Roof? Can I really be like that family who lost their son?

I think the answer was given to us in our Scripture passage today through the parable, and the answer is “No!” Not on your own! We are like the unkind slave! Forgiven our multitude of debt, our impossible to pay back number of debts, then we turn around, and we throw others into debtors prison.

So often, in our hearts, at least. We cut off all contact. “I’m not going to have anything to do with that person anymore.” And you hold a grudge for years.

Elsewhere in the Gospel, when told about the cost of getting into heaven, the disciples said “Who can do this?” meaning, “This is impossible!” and Jesus agreed, “yes it is.” But then he said, with God, though, all things are possible.

You see, by the grace of God the Father, through the love of Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can forgive others as we have been forgiven. If we are obedient to the Word and way of God, He will make the way for us to do this.

If we love God first, with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our strength, our perspective – that same perspective we prayed for at the beginning of this prayer – will allow us to see what we need to see to accomplish the goal of this request, forgiving our debts as we forgive our debtors.

At that point, the challenge changes, and we see it more clearly for what it is. It is not “can” we do all this. It becomes “will” we do all this. We have the freedom to choose, and we not only ask God for the help to choose rightly, and to follow through on our choice, but to hold us accountable for that choice. That’s why that bit, not just “forgive us our debts” but “as we forgive our debtors.” Hold us accountable, Lord. Remind us of our place.

I don’t know how many of you remember the story of Saul who became Paul on the road to Damascus. He made his way into Damascus anyway with his servants. There was a Christian there, a guy named Ananias, and the Lord spoke to Ananias.

I want you to think about poor Ananias in Damascus. Here was the chief persecutor of the Christians, and God told him to go to this guy, bring him into his home, which would expose their safe houses to him, and teach him the basics of Christianity!

His first response was totally understandable, as he said (and I admit I paraphrase freely here) “Are you out of your cotton-picking mind!” In the end, though, he trusted God. He set aside his fear, his anger, his pain, and his outrage, and went to see Saul.

And then he spent months with this arrogant, hateful, murderer teaching him everything that he knew. And he taught him so well that Saul, who was truly changed by what he experienced and even took the name of Paul, became the premier Apostle to the Gentiles, and the shaper of a majority of our New Testament understandings today.

Few of us are called to make that large a sacrifice, to forgive as much as the families hurt by Dylan Roof did, or to be as brave and long-suffering as Ananias was. But in this day of so much hatred, payback, lashing out, and evil, we need to look tp this prayer. We need to take this phrase seriously.

And we need to follow through on it in our lives that others may come to know just who God is, and the good news He has for each and every one of us called according to His purposes. We need to make sure that we find ways to be held accountable, so that we give God glory by our lives and our love, and bring praise to His name.

Only then can we fulfill the promise of this request, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” that we have made to God, and only then can we truly know the joy of forgiveness and a new heart that God promises.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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