Monday, September 18, 2023

The Gospel of John, September 17, 2023

With apologies for the audio.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Law and Gospel About Forgiveness

[Below you'll find live stream video of today's worship services from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, as well as the text of the message for the day. Have a blessed week!]

Today’s Gospel lesson unfolds before us like a play in three scenes.

The first scene takes place in a real life encounter: Peter asks Jesus a question about forgiveness and Jesus’ brief reply.

The second scene is the beginning of one of Jesus’ most famous parables; in this scene, Jesus shows us where forgiveness comes from.

The third scene shows us how forgiveness is often abused and the consequences for those who abuse it.

In the last verse of our lesson is an epilogue in which Jesus lays down the implacable Law of God that damns sinners to eternal punishment.

With that in the background, let’s consider our lesson.

On the heels of Jesus explaining the process by which those who sin against us can be restored to fellowship with Christ and the Church, Peter asks Jesus: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21)

I’m not sure that Peter is really asking Jesus anything here. I think that instead of actually seeking insight or information from Jesus, Peter is playing “star pupil”: “Look how liberally I’m willing to forgive those who have hurt me: up to seven times!”

But Jesus punctures Peter’s pomposity: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22) Jesus’ words can also be translated, “seventy times seven times” and “seventy times seventy times.” However the words are rendered, the meaning is the same: “God commands that we forgive others. Period. Without condition. Without counting.”

Those who harm us or harm others may have to deal with the earthly consequences of their actions. This is why God has established governments. But we are to forgive everyone, always.

Now, this law of God–the commandment that we forgive others–is like all the rest of God’s Law: It gives a baseline requirement for anyone who wants life with God and, at the same time, it shows us that if we think we can be saved from sin and death on the basis of our perfect obedience of God’s Law, we are in trouble! We are incapable of obeying God’s Law in our own power. Who has ever heard of anyone who has walked on this earth other than Jesus who always forgave, all the time, no exceptions?

I am born into sin and that makes it impossible for me to resolve to love God or love my neighbor. I can’t resolve to perfectly obey any of God’s commands.

But if I’m incapable of forgiving as I’m required to forgive in order to have life with God, then the question arises: What’s to become of me? God commands righteousness and I’m not righteous. I can’t make myself righteous. What’s to become of me?

The second scene of our gospel lesson for today finds Jesus start the telling of a familiar parable. It’s about the interaction between a king and a man who owes his king, according to the Greek in which the New Testament was originally written, “ten thousand talents.” A talent is worth about twenty years’ worth of wages. You can do the math.

Because the man is unable to pay off the debt, the king orders that the man and his family be sold into slaves until the debt is repaid. But when the man falls at the feet of the king and begs for mercy, the king, with no hope of ever being repaid, forgives the debt–he writes it off–and releases the man and his family.

Friends, in this part of the parable, Jesus tells us what is to become of us who are incapable of forgiving as God commands us to forgive, who are incapable of obeying the Ten Commandments.

Jesus Christ takes the debt we owe for our sins and in Him, we are forgiven!

Peter would later write that Jesus “himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)

In other words, Jesus, true God and true, sinless man, perfectly obeys all the Law of God we can’t begin to obey, then covers us in His righteous obedience.

In Jesus, our debt for sin–the sin for which we should be clapped into the prison of hell for all eternity–is forgiven.

God the Father hears Jesus’ prayer from the cross for us: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

All who take refuge in Jesus by daily turning from sin and following Him, throwing themselves at Jesus’ feet the way the man in His parable threw himself at the feet of the king, are forgiven and so, freed from sin, death, and condemnation…and thereby have an eternal, bottomless supply of grace by which they can in turn forgive others, any time, any place.

This is why Jesus teaches us to pray, “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Martin Luther’s explanation of this fifth petition in The Small Catechism is worth remembering: “We pray in this petition that our heavenly Father would not hold our sins against us and deny our prayers because of them. We know we have not earned, nor do we deserve, those things for which we pray. But we ask that he would grant us all things through grace, even though we sin every day and deserve nothing but punishment. And so we, too, will heartily forgive, and gladly do good to those who sin against us.”

At the end of scene two of our gospel lesson for today, the man in Jesus’ parable walks away with his debts forgiven, freed to live with the same kind of forgiving grace he’d been given for anyone who may be indebted to him. It’s the same freedom Jesus gives to you when you hear words of absolution: “For Jesus’ sake, all your sins are forgiven!”

In scene three, the forgiven man walks away from the king who has forgiven him, like we walk away forgiven and made clean by Jesus at the end of worship on Sunday mornings. But you know, saints are also sinners. And we sinners tend to have long memories of the sins committed against us and short memories of our own need for forgiveness.

The forgiven man spots someone who owes him the equivalent of one-hundred days’ wages, a fraction of the huge debt he was just forgiven. He clutches the other man by the throat. “Pay me back!” he demands. When his debtor begs for mercy, just as he has begged a few moments before, the forgiven man will not forgive the debt. Then he has his debtor thrown into prison.

The king gets wind of this and calls the man to appear before him. He tells the man: “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ [Then Jesus says] In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” (Matthew 18:32-34)

By the standards of the Law, you and I deserve to die, everlastingly separated from God.

But Jesus has canceled our debt to God.

He saves us by grace, that is, by God’s charitable love for us.

All who repent and believe in Him are justified, made right with God, by that grace.

When we receive the gospel Word–in Jesus Christ, all your sins are forgiven, all your debts to God are gone–we are debt-free.

And when we are no longer indebted for our sin, while we will surely live in this world in mutually accountable relationships with husbands, wives, children, parents, and fellow members of Christ’s Church, we don’t have to keep score, we don’t have to hold grudges, and we don’t have to play God. We can trust God to sort things out in His way and live unencumbered by guilt or shame.

There are times when, even after we’ve forgiven others, we must not forget. It would be foolish, for example, for someone who has been in an abusive relationship to go back to live with their abuser after they’ve forgiven, that is, let go of their desire to make the abuser pay.

In what I call the epilogue to today’s lesson, Jesus says, “This–[eternal imprisonment and torture for our sin]–is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35)

Clearly, Jesus means it when He tells us to forgive others. Failure to forgive is eternally fatal.

But what do we do when we can’t forgive? 

It happens to me. When that happens, I remember that Christ died for all my sins, including the sin of not forgiving others. So, I take refuge in Jesus.

This is what I think we can do. We can turn to Jesus and pray, “Help me to forgive that person as You forgive me, Lord. When I can’t feel forgiving, forgive them through me. You know I want to do Your will. You know also that I’m a sinner. Forgive them through me.” I have prayed that kind of prayer many times and as I turn to Jesus honestly, I find that he lifts the burden of my unforgiving attitude from me.

Jesus didn’t die for perfect people. Jesus died for imperfect people. And if you earnestly desire to do the will of God and follow Jesus, God will in no way pour contempt or condemnation on you. And He will make you an instrument of His forgiveness, even when you’re not “feelin’ it.”

The Greek New Testament word for forgive is aphiemi. It literally means release.

When I forgive you or you forgive me, we release each other from the debt we owe for our wrong. We also release ourselves from the strain on us when we pretend that we’re God.

It’s because God forgives us that we can forgive others. So, I tell you once more this morning: “Dear friends in Christ, in the name of Jesus, I forgive you all your sins. You are released by your Savior.”

Now, you can share that word of forgiveness and release with others. Amen