Forgive with God’s Mercy (Oct 11, 2020)

Forgive with God’s Mercy (Oct 11, 2020)

October 11, 2020
Dan Laitinen

Forgive with God’s Mercy

Matthew 18:21-25

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Brothers and sisters in Christ, Think about this: do you struggle with forgiveness? Some time ago I gave my word to someone under the guise of trust. But I felt betrayed when I felt that they broke that trust and my private confession became a very public affair. 

Do you struggle with forgiveness? Often it’s more difficult to forgive the people closest to us – those who live under our roof, or go to our school or church – than an acquaintance or stranger – because we wake up to do life with these people every day. And forgiveness feels like giving them a free pass to hurt us again. 

As a Christian forgiveness is some thing that you are going to need. Some of you have people you’re very mad at, and you’re in denial about the fact you haven’t forgiven them. Some of you have people you definitely haven’t forgiven that you avoid and you know you have a grudge. Some of you have little irritations in relationships that disturb you somewhat. A lot of you can’t think of anybody you need to forgive. But just wait…

Jesus says the anger that fuels unforgiveness is dangerous. It imprisons you starting in this life and going on into the next. But God offers another path. One that starts with his mercy and grace through Jesus and then flows from you to others. His mercy is freeing. His grace is forgiving. And forgiven people forgive.

In today’s sermon lesson from Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus doesn’t ask us, “Do you struggle with forgiveness?” No. He asks, no matter our offender, no matter their crime, “Why haven’t you forgiven them?” He gives Christians a command, 


“Forgive with God’s mercy.”

  1. Remember who you are
  2. Own the debt
  3. Trust God’s promises

Let’s evaluate. In the account from Matthew 18, Jesus’ disciple Peter approaches Jesus with a question: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (v.21) Some commentators note that the rabbinical law of the day said forgive your neighbor once. Ok. Forgive your neighbor twice. Ok. But if they sin against you a third time, you don’t have to forgive them. That was a popular formula. So Peter thought forgiving your neighbor seven times was pretty impressive. Triple the forgiveness and add one! 

But Jesus replies, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (v.22) Some translations make this 70 x 7 times, which is 490 times. Neither number is to be taken literally. Both of them tell us to just keep on forgiving indefinitely. Number-less forgiveness.

III. Remember who you are

“Indefinitely?!” You say. I can’t do that! Look how she betrayed my trust! Look how he ruined my life! Look how they treated me! 

Jesus answers: Forgive with God’s mercy. First, remember who you are. You’re my follower. A Christ-follower. A Christian. Why is forgiveness so critical for a Christian?

We find the answer to that question at the end of Jesus’ parable where Jesus teaches: 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

The servant who originally had his large debt forgiven, is handed over to the jailers to be tortured. This is how God will treat those who do not forgive others from their heart. Jesus is saying that an unforgiving heart leads to eternal punishment. 

Objection: My eternal life depends on Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross, not whether I forgive my neighbor! Right? 

Answer: In Matthew 25 Jesus teaches about his return on Judgment Day. He gathers the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. He says to the sheep, “When I was hungry you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger you welcomed me in. I needed clothes you clothed me…Now take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (Summary Matthew 25:31-39)

Point: When you closed your heart to the poor, when your faith was left in-activated, you proved you never received the eternal riches of Christ on the cross. 

Same point in Matthew 18:21-35. If you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart, you prove you’ve never received the eternal forgiveness of Jesus on his cross. 

I have two rose bushes in my front yard. One is green and buds. The other is brown and shrivelled. The green leaves and buds do not make the plant a rose bush. They indicate that the rose bush is indeed alive. 

There’s no better indicator that you’re alive and well in Christ – just as the Bible says you are by his atoning blood on the cross – than whether you forgive or not. 

Forgive with God’s mercy. Start by remembering who you are: a sinner who had an unpayable debt, paid for and forgiven at the highest cost: the blood of God himself. An alive Christian simply forgives. An unforgiving Christian is dying in the prison of unforgiveness. Sadly, left unresolved, a Christian starving others of forgiveness is imprisoned even before the die and bear the consequences. 

Rose bushes are planted to bloom. Hammers are made to hammer. Ovens are made to bake. Politicians are made to…instill fear and retain power. But Christians are made to forgive. “Forgiveness is God’s command.” (Martin Luther) Forgive with God’s mercy. First, remember who you are: a forgiven son and daughter of God. Forgiven people forgive.

III. Own the debt:

So forgiven people forgive. Now how will we do this? Notice the master in the parable. He takes pity (σπλαγχνίζομαι) on the first servant. The word σπλαγχνίζομαι literally means to have your heart go out to a person. By nature we want to characterize our offender. We want to monster-ize them. De-humanize them. 

Illustration: Imagine you’re at work. Let’s say you’ve lost a very important client to a co-worker who cheated. Now they’re getting a raise and you’re not. You’re complaining with other co-workers and friends around the water cooler and what do say about the co-worker who cut corners? “He’s a cheater.” That’s his DNA. The sum of his character and all he’s about! But a good friend asks you, “Wait. Dan. Haven’t you lied on your expense report? Doesn’t that make you a…” “Weeellll,” you say, “Yes. But you have to understand the circumstances. It’s complicated.” You too have been a cheater in your mind or actions!

Therefore, take pity (σπλαγχνίζομαι) means seeing the other person – the offender – not as a caricature, but a human being just like yourself. Not excusing the behavior. Rather, empathizing with the fact that they’re human. You’re human. They’re sinful. You’re sinful. You must identify as from sinner to sinner – to empathize, not characterize – your offender. You’ll never escape the prison of unforgiveness if you always and ever caricaturize. 

Second, the master cancels the debt. This is the heart of forgiveness. Forgiveness is costly. It’s personal. It hurts. But the master owns the debt in order to cancel it completely. The servant owes the master 10,000 talents. A denarii was a day’s wage for the average worker. An average annual salary was about 300 denarii. One talent was worth 5,000-10,000 denarii. Some commentators estimate that this servant’s debt was upward of a trillion US dollars today. The first question is how did he lose that much money?! One answer the commentators give is the servant wasn’t like what we think of servants (a cook, gardener or butler) but this servant was like a vassal-king who owed allegiance to his master: the rich and powerful overlord king. The overlord king had entrusted a large amount of money – at a great risk of his kingdom – to be invested by the vassal king who would build an empire: infrastructure, buildings, the necessities to have more security and expand his kingdom. But what has this servant done? He’s either incompetant or corrupt! He’s blown through trillions of dollars and doesn’t have anything to show for it. He is wicked. He is guilty. He deserves punishment. The master had every right to take the servant for all he was worth: house, money and family. But instead the master absorbed the loss. He cancelled the debt. The king ate the loss. That’s what forgiveness is: it’s paying down the debt of your offender, eating the loss yourself, and letting them free. 

ILLUSTRATION: My vicar year I was at a pastor’s conference in Omaha, Nebraska, when my bishop (instructor-pastor) told me, “Vicar, my friend asked if you’d drive a used car that he just bought for his son to such-and-such a place. He will lead you there. It’s sitting in the parking lot. By the way, do you know how to drive stick?” I had driven stick a few times before years before, so I thought, “How hard can this be?” Well, I got into the car that looked 30 years old and the first thing this friend showed me was how to turn it on. You had to put the right blinker on, then put the key in, then blinker off, then crank the key fast and it should fire up. Sure enough, right blinker, key in, blinker off and crank and it started! I managed to get the car up to speed, following this stranger, and onto the highway. But suddenly the car started to smell like smoke and the speedometer started slowing. I got over to the right lane and there was smoke. I pulled over to the shoulder and the car halted to a stop. My bishop’s friend never saw it happen. He kept going for miles. I didn’t have his number. I didn’t know where I was. I’ve just probably burnt out this guy’s car he just bought for his son. Hours later, after a tow and ride back to the hotel, I felt like absolute garbage. It could’ve been the car, but I felt it was really on me for saying I could drive stick. But I had probably burnt out the clutch. My bishop’s friend never asked for money or repair. He never even bothered me about it. He ate the loss. At no cost I was off the hook free.

So Christians cancel the debt. Eat the cost. It will hurt. But forgiven people forgive. If you’re forgiving only the offenses that cost you nothing – the offenses that are free from suffering – and you only hold on to the offenses that hurt, you’re doing it all wrong. Forgiveness should hurt. That’s the point. You’re taking the debt and absorbing it yourself. Not shaking people down until you feel like they should be forgiven.

Finally, the master lets him go. (v.27) The servant who was forgiven a trillion dollars can’t let go of quite a minor debt owed to him by a fellow-servant. So what does he do? He throws him in prison until he should pay it all back. Not so the Christian. In order to own their debt – really forgive – take pity, cancel the debt, let go. Objection: but they’ll do it again if I don’t hold them accountable! Answer: Forgiveness is cancelling the debt. They need to be held accountable for not hurting you or others again. That’s where building or re-building trust comes in. But to really help that person, before rebuilding trust, they need to know they’re forgiven. You will forgive 70 x 7 even as trust and reform happen. 

III. Trust in God’s Promises

So far we’ve seen the urgency and necessity of a Christian to forgive. We’ve seen how to do it. But what’s the ultimate key to forgiveness? The key to forgiveness is not simply following a formula or practicing principles. Forgiveness means following Jesus. 

This parable is about a King who has great wealth and power. He is wise, just and fair. He holds his servants’ destiny in his hands. He has a book with all the debts and debtors. He’s wise and fair and just, awarding punishment where it is due. 

But this King is also perfectly loving. He takes pity, cancels debts therefore freeing prisoners. 

This King is Jesus Christ your Savior. He is perfectly just, fair and righteous. His heaven is made for the holy and righteous. What you and I were not. So out of love he took pity on you and me, sinners. He didn’t cancel our debt at the risk of his kingdom. He cancelled the debt at the cost of his life. He cancelled the debt, owning your sins and mine. It was personal. It was costly. It hurt a lot. Why did he do it? To set you free. Free from sin. Free from guilt. Free to live for an audience of one in a life of worship. Free to forgive. Because that is who you are: forgiven. Trust in God’s promise: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

Carpenters build. Bakers bake. Jesus forgives you. And forgiven people forgive. So forgive with God’s mercy. Amen.