Dear People of God,
It’s a most unforgiving story. It is told by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his book, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well.[i] It’s about a man who lives in a small, Eastern European town. Unhappy, quite angry with the local church, he thinks its people are hypocrites and its pastor unable to do or say anything right. For many years he goes all through town, putting down the church, criticizing the pastor.
One day, the man suddenly feels quite sorry for what he’s doing. He has a change of heart. So, he goes to the local pastor and asks him for forgiveness. In fact, the man says he is willing to do anything to receive forgiveness. He’s willing to do what it takes to set things straight. To make amends.
The pastor tells him to take a feather pillow from his home, cut it open, scatters its feathers to the wind. Then, return to see him. The man does as he is told. He takes the pillow, cuts it open, and throws the feathers out into the wind. Then, he hurries back to the pastor, asking him: “Am I now forgiven?”
“Almost,” comes the answer, “You just have to do one more thing. Go, find all the feathers of your pillow! Gather them together! Put them back in your pillow!” “But … that’s impossible,” the man quietly responds, “The wind has blown them all over! I’ll never be able to find all the feathers so I can put them back in my pillow!” “Exactly,” says the pastor, “and though you really want to correct the wrong you have done me and this church, it is impossible. It is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words, as it is to gather all the feathers and put them back in your pillow!”
Sadly, the pastor does not forgive the man who spoke badly of him and the church. Sure, the man sounds like he is sorry for what he has done. He says he has had a change of heart. But, the pastor doesn’t forgive him. He doesn’t think he is worthy of forgiveness.
At first it seems the Apostle Peter, here in Matthew, has a much better understanding about forgiveness. But Jesus is about to give his thoughts on the subject. And his thoughts are going to challenge the pastor’s response. This teaching of Christ will stun the apostle Peter. It will likely not be easy for us to hear or accept. That’s because Jesus says: “Always forgive others from your heart.”
Before He tells the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Jesus responds to the Apostle Peter’s question. “How many times, Lord? How often should I forgive those who sin against me?” It’s a great question, right? The Apostle Peter wants to be a person who often forgives others. That’s a nice quality to have, don’t you think? Some healthy behaviour, wanting to forgive others often! Thinking he knows the right answer, Peter immediately answers his own question! “How many times? How about … up to seven times?”
With his answer Peter shows he’s familiar with Jewish teaching on the subject. Jewish leaders turn to the prophet Amos and come up with their own standard for forgiveness. Amos repeatedly writes: “for three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.” Tradition teaches that if a person sins once against another, he must be forgiven. If they sin a second time, they are to be forgiven. If they sin a third time, they must be forgiven. But, not the fourth time! Three strikes and you’re out! There’s no forgiveness after the third time. It’s reached a limit! Peter knows this, so he answers: “How about up to seven times?” Impressive! Double the standard … plus one![ii]
But Jesus has his answer ready. “No,” he says, “not up to seven times, but up to seventy-seven times.” Wow. Jesus’ number doesn’t come anywhere near Peter’s generous number. It’s much more than only seven times! It’s way more than the Jewish standard! And we might wonder why Jesus’ answers, “Seventy-seven?” A number to which there’s only three references in ancient Greek literature. Because this particular number always refers to something immeasurable. So big, it cannot be measured. “No,” says Jesus to Peter, “don’t just forgive up to seven times. Instead, forgive immeasurable times. So often, there’s no counting.”
Forgiveness is immeasurable. Yet many of us share a misunderstanding of it with the Apostle Peter. Like the pastor in Rabbi Telushkin’s story. Maybe someone we know operates like this. Maybe we fall into this trap ourselves? Peter’s question is great. But, there is problem with his question. It assumes limits. Limits to how many times we can or should forgive others. Jesus teaches that there are no limits. Jesus says to forgive seventy-seven times. He asks us to extend the gift of forgiveness many, many more times than only seven.
Simon Wiesenthal is a young, Jewish man during the Second World War. In his book entitled The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness,[iii] Simon tells the story of how he struggles to forgive someone. It happens at a Nazi concentration camp in occupied Poland. He’s been assigned to clean garbage in a hospital the Germans had improvised for wounded soldiers. A nurse comes up to Simon and orders him to come with her. Reluctantly, he follows. She leads him to the side of a wounded Nazi Secret Service Trooper. Not wanting to die without coming clean. The German soldier asks Simon to lean in close because he can barely speak. He tells a horrific story. How he and other soldiers packed over two hundred Jewish men, women, and children into a house, doused it in gasoline, threw grenades into it, shot anyone trying to run.
All through the confession, Simon says nothing. Simon is of the opinion this soldier is way beyond his limit for forgivemess. He never answers the man’s request. The trooper dies without receiving his forgiveness. Only much later, after the war, Simon admits to praying that God has forgiven him realizing this person too needs forgiveness. Jesus says there’s no limit. I don’t know what I would have done in Simon’s case. These are very difficult situations. But, when we’re asked to forgive others immeasurably, we’re asked to do something that’s difficult. It can sometimes seem impossible. Still, to Peter’s question Jesus responds: “Forgive immeasurably.”
Peter isn’t left with just this “simple” response. Jesus uses the opportunity to tell a parable. A story about how things work in God’s kingdom. Jesus explains why he calls for immeasurable forgiveness. Why putting limits on forgiveness is not an option. We now arrive at the story of the unmerciful servant.
The story is a parable with three acts. In the first act, there is a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants. He wants to receive back what his servants owe him. But one of his servants does not have enough money to pay back the king his ten thousand talents. He begs the king to be patient with him and the king actually grants his request. Not only does the king take pity on his servant; he cancels the debt and lets him go!
Jesus, of course, is trying to teach us something about the kingdom of heaven. He’s trying to teach Peter, the apostles, his followers, the Church… Us. In the heavenly kingdom, God is King. The King who wants to settle accounts with his servants--humans who fell into sin and suffer its brokenness. Somehow our accounts have to be settled. Our debt has to be paid. The price for disobedience to God, the King, who asked of humanity “not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 3:17). Disobedience, resulting in death (Genesis 3:17).
But we can never pay the price of our debt on our own. Ten thousand talents! A number also representing an immeasurable amount! A debt so big, it simply can’t ever be paid back by us. So, the King provides a way out: His Son, Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross pays the price in full. Pays our accounts in full. All we have to do, all we have left to do, is get on our knees. Ask the King to be patient with us. Repent. Ask for help, for forgiveness. And, receive. Receive … immeasurable forgiveness for an immeasurable debt. Seventy-seven times!
However, immeasurable forgiveness to an immeasurable debt comes with responsibility. This we learn in the second act. Here we see the same forgiven servant and one of his fellow servants. Again, accounts need to be settled. Again, the servant in debt begs for patience. But this time the request is not honoured by the forgiven servant. Sadly, he does not forgive the one owing him one hundred denarii. Instead, he throws him in prison!
Wait a minute, we think. This doesn’t make any sense! Shouldn’t the servant have known better? A forgiven servant refusing to forgive another servant doesn’t make sense. But remember, Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, His followers, the Church... Us. Is it true? Can forgiven sinners refuse to forgive others? Can Christians be so un-Christian? In a moment of honesty, many of us are likely able to say “Sadly, yes.” Yes, it is true. We can identify with limiting forgiveness, like Peter. We can maybe think of people we simply refuse to forgive, like the servant. Aren’t there moments we too demand repayment?
And for what? One hundred denarii? A number that stands in complete contrast to the ten thousand talents in this parable because it is so much less! A debt meaning next to nothing compared to the debt we each owe the King. No, as forgiven servants of the King we’re called to forgive others. No matter how hard. No matter if it takes time. No matter if we ask for help. “Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another,” says the Apostle Paul in Colossians 3:13. “Forgive just as the Lord forgave you.”
And what if we don’t, comes the question? Jesus doesn’t leave us wondering. He tells us in the third act of the story. And that is not really such a flattering picture either, is it?
In the third act, the king and the forgiven servant reappear on the scene. Because the forgiven servant does not forgive his fellow servant, even after pleading: “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back!” Even after wanting to set things straight. People get upset! They tell the king who calls the forgiven servant back to him. But this time the king is not so nice! His attitude has changed. “You wicked servant, shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” This time the king does not let him go. This time the king takes no pity on him. This time he has him tortured.
What happened? The king, it seems, has a problem when the gift of immeasurable forgiveness is not shared with others. The king has a problem with the servant’s unwillingness to let go of only one hundred denarii following his own letting go of ten thousand talents. The king expects his servant to respond differently to his canceling the debt and letting him go. Specifically, and especially, because his own servant also falls on his knees and pleads, repents, asks.
In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace, Christian author Philip Yancey says: “I really wish these words were not in the Bible. But they are, from the lips of Christ himself! God has granted us a terrible agency: by denying forgiveness to others, we are in effect determining them unworthy of God’s forgiveness, and thus so are we. In some mysterious way, divine forgiveness depends on us.”[iv]
Earlier, in Matthew 6, Jesus himself said: “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). In the heavenly kingdom, forgiveness is not optional. In your and my life, forgiving others is necessary. Says Yancey again: “In the final analysis, forgiveness is an act of faith. By forgiving another, I am trusting that God is a better justice-maker than I am. By forgiving, I release my own right to get even and leave all issues of fairness for God to work out.”[v]
Sure, it’s easy to say: “forgive because God forgave you.” Still, that does not make it easier, sometimes, does it? We need help. We need help forgiving others. We know we have been forgiven – we can still use some help with exactly how we go about forgiving others. Again, Jesus does not leave us wondering. In the final verse of our text we read: “forgive your brother [or sister] from your heart.”
Again, earlier in Matthew, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). In the same sermon he says: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). And he made this the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart; your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 37-39). The heart needs to be right. Yes, that is a required condition. Torture – whatever it is – waits unless there’s forgiveness from the heart. Hearts storing up treasures in heaven. Hearts in love with the King. Hearts having embraced or continually seeking to accept immeasurable forgiveness as the answer to an immeasurable debt.
Yes, this is a challenge. It is challenging. Forgiveness will take work. Time. It may involve sacrifice. Remember, the King in this parable is familiar with this struggle, the tension, the difficulty. After all, the gift of immeasurable forgiveness to immeasurable debt came only through sacrifice. The sacrifice of his Son’s death on the cross. Up to seven times? Thank God, no. Seventy-seven times! Straight from the heart of God.
And so, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Ephesians 1:3, 7).
Prayer of Response
Heavenly Father, we give you thanks for your rich and wonderful gift of forgiveness. We thank you for your immeasurable forgiveness – a gift so great it is able to cover all our sins, all our brokenness, all our wrong doing. Help us ask for it. Help us accept it. Help us embrace it. And, help us to live out of it every day. We confess at times it is difficult to be as generous as you are; we admit to sometimes demanding repayment. As you freely give, so may we give or learn to give more and better as we place our trust, our faith, in our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. In his name we pray, Amen.
Order of Worship
Welcome & Announcements
*Call to Worship
Leader: In your wisdom, O God, you call us here to worship you.
All: We gather, alive to the Word of God.
Leader: You call us to be fully alive with your life abundant, ready to listen and respond with heart, soul, strength, and mind.
All: We listen, alive to the Word of God.
Leader: You call us to be always watchful for your Word of wisdom, sometimes startling and unexpected, sometimes still and quiet, but always dwelling among us.
All: We watch and wait for the Word of God.
*Songs of Praise:
“To God Be the Glory,” PsH #473
“Out of Need and out of Custom,” PsH #259
*God’s Greeting (from 2 John 3)
Leader: May grace, mercy, and peace be with us from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, in truth and love. Amen.
Confession of Sin
Leader: The proof of God’s amazing love is this: while we were sinners, Christ died for us. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need. Trusting in God’s faithfulness and compassion, let us confess our sin before God and one another.
Let us pray:
Most gracious and most merciful God, we confess to you and to one another that time after time we have entered your presence with countless prayers but with hearts that have been closed to your grace. We have lifted our hands to you in praise, but our feet have still walked in the ways of evil. We have rehearsed your commandments but have refused to see your face in the needs of our neighbour. We pray, Lord, that you forgive our lack of faith and pardon our acts of injustice. Grant us healing that comes from your presence and the cleansing of your all-powerful Word, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Assurance of Forgiveness
Leader: The God who challenges us is also the God who encourages us. The God who confronts us is also the God who accepts us. Be assured that God is with us even now, accepting, guiding, and forgiving. In Christ we have the forgiveness of sins and the riches of God’s grace. Thanks be to God.
*Song of Thanksgiving:
“Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone” (Chris Tomlin)
“And Can it Be” PsH #267
God’s Will for Our Lives
Leader: We respond to God’s forgiveness by living our thanks according to God’s Word. Hear now God’s will for our lives:
God commands us to serve him alone as God, to serve him according to his Word, to speak of him only with deep respect and love, to attend faithfully the assembly of God’s people on the day of rest, and every day to let the Lord work in us through his Spirit; to respect and cooperate with all God-given authority, to live purely and joyfully with the gift of sex, to nurture human life as God’s precious gift, to use the resources of this earth as stewards of God’s creation, to use the gift of speech for promoting the truth in love, and to exercise purity of heart in all of life. May the Spirit of God guide us to be obedient to this Word.
Prayers of God’s People
Bible Reading: Matthew 18:25-31
*Song of Preparation:
“Speak, O Lord” (Stuart Townend)
“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” PsH #568
Sermon: “Without Any Limitations”
*Song of Response:
“You Are My King/Amazing Love” (Chris Tomlin)
“Forgive Our Sins As We Forgive” PsH #266
“Freely, Freely” (Carol Owens)
“Praise and Thanksgiving” PsH #631
*Prayer for God’s Blessing, “Gracious God, we thank you for being with us. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all. Amen.”
*Indicates, please stand if you are able
[i] Telushkin, Joseph. Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well. Quill William Morrow and Company Inc., New York, 1996. Page 3.
[ii] See comment from Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook Matthew 13-28. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 2004. Page 236.
[iii] Wiesenthal, Simon. The Sunfower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. Schocken Books, New York, 1997. Pages 52-56.
[iv] Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace? Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, 1997. Page 88.
[v] Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace? Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, 1997. Page 93.