Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

S. Pentecost 16.23 Matt. 18:21-35, Gen 50:15ff

And in anger his master delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Manystruggle with this passage. Reconciling it with last week’s Gospel about telling your brother his fault (if he sins against you), and, if he doesn’t listen, taking 2 or 3 witnesses to “show him where he’s wrong” and if he doesn’t listen to them, telling the church, and if he doesn’t listen to the church, shunning him, Amish-style, with today’s “forgive everyone everything” message challenges conventional thinking.

But, if you read the rest of the NT, you’ll notice that Paul, many times, says a divisive person—someone causing offenses and division contrary to the teaching we’ve learned from God’s Word—should, after the 2nd admonition, be booted from the congregation. Jesus tells the disciples they will have many adversaries and enemies, and, as we heard last week, that he will seriously f…uh, “mess up” those who offend his little ones and that whoever is not with us is against us, that the path to heaven is a narrow and difficult mountain pass that few find, while the road to perdition is a big superhighway jammed with traffic.

Summing up: being a Xn is an adversarial business in a mostly hostile world and, just as the genuine prophets were scorned and martyred, hated and hounded, so Xns can expect to be. Jesus says, (Matt. 10) he did not come to bring peace on earth, but a sword and division.

One other thing: being forgiven and making amends aren’t at all contradictory. When Zacchaeus says he’s paying back fourfold the folks he stole from, Jesus doesn’t say: “Oh, forget it, you’re forgiven!”. No; Jesus commends that plan. 😉

So: “forgiving from the heart” simply does not mean (in the scriptures) kissing and making up with every adversary and being friends with the whole world. “I’d like to teach the world to sing…” isn’t a Christian song (sorry, hippies. It’s not in LSB. It’s a Coke ad 😉

In fact, while last week’s Gospel starts with “forgive everyone”, it ends with excommunication of the unrepentant—which is exactly where today’s Gospel ends up—with the unforgiving servant excommunicated. When Peter asks if we have to do the Matt. 18 3-step 7 times and Jesus says “More like 77!” it shows how much cancer must needs cutting out of Xt’s Body [and ours].

Jesus’ answers Peter’s question with a story about a servant who owed 10,000 talents (a talent’s about 20 years of wages for a common laborer, so 10,000 talents is roughly about 10 billion dollars in our currency—an amazing debt to wrack up). But he’s forgiven the debt by his master (!) but then he turns around and tries to collect about 10,000 dollars owed him by a buddy. But, when his master finds out, he delivers him—not to “jailers”, but, in Greek, torturers!—God has torturers! Think on that, kids!) till he pays every last penny (which he obviously cannot do). Jesus, laconically concludes with: “So God will do to every one of you who doesn’t from the heart forgive his/her brother.”

This is the word of the LORD. Thanks be to God!”

One word here, clarified should make this all easy to grasp: the word “talent”. Long story short: a “talent” is a unit of money, roughly 20 years worth of a laborer’s wages in the biblical world. But in the parables of Jesus, a “talent” is not a unit of money, at all! These are “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning” and clearly the “talents” the Master is doling out to servants are not units of money, but, rather, stand for our holiness or righteousness before God…

Once you grasp that, I think all difficulties disappear. The master is always God, and the “talents” we owe him are the holiness in which he created us and which we have squandered by our sin. Sin has wracked up a massive holiness deficit for each one of us, billions and billions we do not have and could never produce.

Trying to justify ourselves to God by our good works (even the good work of letting off the hook people who owe us money 😉 will not work, will not pay our debt. Only Jesus can and has paid the debt every sinner owes in full, not with gold or silver but with his holy precious blood, with his innocent suffering and death, that we may be his own and live under him in his kingdom…”

Note: the servant never says: Forgive my debts which I could never repay” but “Have patience and I will pay it all back”. The 10 grand the fellow servant owes the wicked one are simply the sins he’s committed against him directly.

But Jesus has forgiven all the sins of all the world by his death on the cross. To try to “collect” holiness from our fellow sinners is a fool’s errand. And it makes God pretty cross when we try that, because it shows we have no faith that Jesus really has forgiven the sins of the world.

The real point here is simple: forgiveness isn’t ours to give or withhold. When we’re sinned against, we realize Jesus has already paid that debt, as he’s fully paid ours. Holiness simply doesn’t come from what we do or say, but from what Jesus gives in his Gospel word and sacraments…

If we have faith, we know the sins of the world are forgiven. That’s what Jesus is saying to Peter. It doesn’t matter how many times they ask. They’re asking the wrong person, really; so you go: “Jesus forgave you that long before it happened, so I do, too…

I have many faults 😉 but grudges or withholding forgiveness is not one. Because I know I’m nothing but a poor miserable sinner! And I believe Jesus forgave the sins of the world, so no one really sins against me, but against Jesus—to whom all holiness is owed and from whom alone all holiness comes by faith as a free gift. To try to withhold the forgiveness Jesus has already granted is simply a brave (but stupid) battle against reality—it’s cutting your own throat because denying Jesus’ forgiveness of others denies it for you, as well!

The world’s sins are like a bunch of keys dropped in a river of molten lava. Just let ‘em go; because man: they’re gone!

I realize this isn’t how most people think about forgiveness. Most think of it as something they do. And that, my friends, is living by the law; and by works of the law no flesh shall be declared righteous, holy!

Forgiveness is never a law thing; IT’s a faith thing—something Joseph in our OT reading seems to utterly lack. Joseph’s brothers are a manly group, and cowardice is one fault none of them have displayed in the story, so far. But here, they’re afraid Joseph will kill them in retribution, so they beg forgiveness.

And Joseph doesn’t actually forgive them. He says they did him serious wrong, but God worked it for good, and that he, Joseph, has saved and will keep saving them all. But that shows Joseph has no faith! He believes in the power of his good works to save. And Israel ends up in horrible slavery for over 400 years thanks to Joseph! It’s probably the reason there is no tribe of Joseph, but two tribes named for his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh who, apparently, went a different way from their dad.

So, we end with the faith thing, today, as always. It’s true, as Luther says: “We are beggars after all”—all of us, charity cases. And, as Jesus has (rather recklessly 😉 forgiven the whole world’s sins, so we live off that and know he’ll make all things right, in the End. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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