Forgive and Forget?

Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Date: Pentecost XVIII (Proper 19), Holy Cross + 9/14/08
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

Peace be to you and grace from Him who freed us from our sins. In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

So central to the Christian faith is the forgiveness of sins that it is the one petition in the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus expands on in the Sermon on the Mount, saying, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15). That strange statement is not to say that the forgiveness of your sins depends upon your forgiving others but rather that if you do not know how to forgive others it can be questioned whether you know or possess God’s forgiveness at all.

Now, it’s not a big reach for us to identify with St. Peter in today’s Gospel when he asks Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” For, it’s not a problem unique to first century Palestinian believers requiring some special knowledge or revelation discovered in an archeological dig somewhere. We have asked the same question every day. “How often shall my brother sin and I forgive?” “How long do I have to put up with you-know-who?” It’s not that we are denying forgiveness. We know we “should” forgive others who trespass against us. It’s, rather, a question of limits. There has to be a limit, doesn’t there? Especially if we sense our patience and loving attitude has set us up to be used or abused by others. In a less refined way we ask Peter’s question in words like, “How long do I contain myself? How long before the pressure cooker blows its lid? What’s the limit of endurance? There has to be a day of reckoning when the accounts are settled up with those who have abused, wronged and misused us, doesn’t there?”

And you’d be right in saying that. There has to be a day of reckoning, a day to settle the accounts. If we didn’t hear Jesus say that in the parable he told in answer to Peter today, we didn’t listen carefully enough. For, to speak about Divine forgiveness is not to speak of a soft and easygoing God who winks at sin. Forgiveness is not just a sympathetic pat on the head supposing that God, for all his tough talk, doesn’t really take sin that seriously. For the parable says that the kingdom may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with His servants. The day of reckoning had come, and one of His servants who had piled up quite a debt was summoned to appear before the throne. The amount of the debt was so huge the servant couldn’t pay it. So the king gave orders to foreclose on him, to sell him with his wife and children and with everything he had and the payment to be made.

We all agree, that’s the way things work in real life—especially in these days when “foreclosure” is a word heard almost daily. Regardless of the credit plan chosen, the bills come due and we are called to account. Pay up, or else! And who will dare to say that our account with God is clear or that our debt is, after all, such a small thing, a trifle that we’ll have enough resources in the end to take care of it ourselves? Like the man in the parable we must come to the realization that the price of sin is beyond our paying. As the psalmist says, “If you, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who can stand?”

Things were bad. There seemed to be no way out. The only option was to literally throw himself on his knees and on whatever mercy there might be. And to his surprise—and remember that this is a story about the Kingdom of God, not Wall Street or the county courthouse—“out of pity for him, the Master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” Amazing! Amazing mercy. Amazing grace! You see, the psalmist who wrote, “If you, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” continued, saying, “but with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Ps. 130:3-4). That this has been God’s plan from the beginning is shown as when Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, sung of him before his birth, “You my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk. 1:76-77). This is the Gospel, the Good News of God’s divine plan of salvation through forgiveness. On the one hand it fits our logic that in His holiness God demands payment for sin, but on the other hand is this seemingly illogical, almost unbelievable answer to our predicament of sin—that God Himself in Jesus Christ has paid our debt for us. And yet it is believable, and you better believe it! Your sin and mine is not a trifle that can be atoned for simply by spreading a little good will around. It has no price to match it save the agony of God’s only Son, the death that He went into and the hell He conquered. By His sacrifice, the burden has been lifted and the debt on our accounts is cancelled.

As faith breathes a sigh of relief at that Good News, however, then there’s this: “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” The time has come to settle accounts with one another. So the servant who had been forgiven sought out those who had accumulated debt with him. Though compared to the debt of which he himself had been forgiven, these owed far less, nevertheless, he seized one and began to choke him, saying, “Pay what you owe.” But when he pleaded mercy as this same servant once had pleaded for mercy himself, he would not forgive. When asked for the same gift he had received, forgiveness was denied. It’s spelled, simply, H-Y-P-O-crite. The idea is that the person who receives forgiveness is to become a forgiver him or herself. If you can’t forgive another, it is rightly to be questioned whether you have really ever received God’s forgiveness for yourself in the first place.

Some try the excuse, “I can forgive, but I can’t forget,” which means they cannot forgive. If by forgetting you mean I will not be able to even recall the past sin in my memory, we deceive ourselves. If you must use the word “forget,” then use it in the sense of the phrase, “forget about it!” For, to forgive, to truly forgive, means that, even though you may very well “recall” it, you are there promising never to let that past sin exercise its power between us ever again. You may well remember where you buried the hatchet. Forgiveness means you will not go back and dig it up again.

You see, the master heard about his servant’s hypocrisy. So he summoned the servant and said, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” No answer was needed. And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers. “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Forgiveness isn’t a game—and it’s not for weak stomachs or knees, either. It is nothing less than the power of Christ living in His people now as they continue to deny self, take up their cross and follow Him.

On the one hand, you are commanded and ought to be able, even overjoyed to forgive someone who pleads for your forgiveness. As the angels rejoice over one sinner who repents, as the father in the parable rejoiced over the prodigal son that returned, so the love of God ought to drive you to confess your sin and plead for forgiveness and reconciliation with your fellow Christian. But there’s one more thing. And that is the person who refuses to forgive you or to receive your forgiveness. While love does not keep track of wrongs, and never quits hoping and seeking reconciliation and peace, there is a difference between my responsibility TO my brother and the feeling that I need to somehow be responsible FOR him. When your brother refuses your good faith efforts at reconciliation, let it go…let it go for another time. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19).

When Christians gather on the Lord’s Day as Holy Church, we gather primarily to receive God’s gifts of the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. For when we receive them, we are then enabled to share them with others.

Forgive and forget? Rather, forgive! Forgive, and forget about it!