The Sermon for Sunday, September 17th, 2023, the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
The Lessons: Ecclesiasticus 27:30 – 28:7; Psalm 103:1-14; Romans 14:5-12; Matthew 18:21-35
The Texts: Ecclesiasticus 28:1-7; Matthew 18:21-35
The Topic: The Imperative for Forgiveness
In his book, Lee: The Last Years, Charles Bracelen Flood reports that after the Civil War, Robert E. Lee visited a Kentucky lady who took him to the remains of a grand old tree in front of her house. There she bitterly cried that its limbs and trunk had been destroyed by Federal Artillery fire. She looked to Lee for a word condemning the North or at least sympathizing with her loss.
After a brief silence, Lee said, “Cut it down, my dear Madam, and forget it.”
It is better to forgive the injuries of the past than to allow them to remain, let bitterness take root, and poison the rest of our life.
The moral command to Christians to forgive people who have done them wrong is firmly based in the Law of the Old Testament. For example, we read in Leviticus this important injunction:
Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.
(Leviticus 19:18, KJV)
The implication of this commandment is that love and forgiveness must replace resentment and vengeance.
THE MOTIVES FOR FORGIVENESS THAT WE FIND IN ECCLESIASTICUS 28
In our First Lesson today, reasons are given for refraining from seeking revenge and for forgiving people the hurt that they have caused. The one who exacts revenge will find that the Lord will remember his sins and punish him for them (Ecclesiasticus 28:1). On the other hand, the one who forgives his neighbor, receives forgiveness from God for his own sins when he prays (Ecclesiasticus 28:2). The writer of Ecclesiasticus proceeds to question whether the man who bears hatred against another can receive pardon from the Lord, or whether the one who shows no mercy to his fellow man can receive forgiveness for his own sins (Ecclesiasticus 28:3-4). He even asks who can intercede for the forgiveness of such a man that nourishes hatred (Ecclesiasticus 28:5). The corrective for this refusal to forgive, continues the writer of Ecclesiasticus, is to remember one’s mortality, to abide in God’s commandments and covenant, and to bear no malice against one’s neighbor (Ecclesiasticus 28:6-7). To “wink at ignorance” (Ecclesiasticus 28:7b) expresses the idea of overlooking the faults of others, instead of bearing a grudge against them for those faults or the hurts they have caused in their ignorance. According to the author of Ecclesiasticus, the motives for refusing to harbor resentment against someone else are awareness of God’s forgiveness of one’s own sins, consciousness of one’s own mortality, and remembering God’s commandment not to bear a grudge against one’s neighbor, but to love him instead.
THE PARABLE OF THE UNFORGIVING SERVANT
When we consider the Lord’s Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, we see the insights from our First Lesson incorporated, but far greater emphasis is laid on God’s forgiveness of his people’s sins as the principal motive for their forgiveness of others. St. Peter’s question about how often he should forgive the brother that sins against him suggests that he agreed with the principle of forgiving others, but felt that somehow, somewhere, there should be a limit to the number of times a person had to forgive the same person. Perhaps Peter had in mind the person who keeps saying he is sorry to have offended you and keeps on offending you, so that you begin to think he was never sorry in the first place, or that his apologies are meaningless. Even if Peter was thinking along those lines, the Lord’s answer clearly shows no concern for this issue, but rather teaches limitless forgiveness. Who, after all, can remember that a person has sinned against one four hundred ninety times? The Lord’s reply to Peter completely contrasts to Cain’s descendant Lamech’s saying, “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold” (Genesis 4:24, KJV). Instead of limitless vengeance, the Lord Jesus Christ teaches his disciples to have no limits in forgiving those who have wronged them. Just as God the Father continues to forgive all of us all our sins, as Psalm 103 assures us in the words used of the Lord “Who forgiveth all thy sin” (Psalm 103:3a), so we must all reflect the fullness of God’s mercy in forgiving others.
The Lord’s Parable of the Unforgiving Servant depicts the situation of the sinner before God in terms of the desperate situation a king’s servant and his family would face in the ancient world when he had an enormous debt that he could not pay. One talent was worth more than fifteen years’ wages of a laborer, and this servant owed his master ten thousand talents! It was impossible for him to pay it back. The solution in the ancient world to this problem was for the master to sell the debtor and his wife, and all his children, as well as his possessions, and the whole family would become slaves to others. Knowing the oppressive fate he and his family would face for many years, the debtor fell down before the king and begged for mercy, asking only that he would have patience with him, and he would pay him all (Matthew 18:26). Moved by compassion, the master of that servant then forgave him all his debt (Matthew 18:27).
The fact that this is not the end of the story shows how deep-seated evil is in mankind. Instead of forgiving the smaller debt of a fellow servant who owed him money, the servant almost throttles him, and has him thrown into prison until he should pay the debt. He refuses to show any mercy to his fellow servant (Matthew 18:28-30).
Even here the Parable does not end, as if to leave the contrast between God’s merciful goodness and man’s resentment against man as the final word, a dichotomous reality of life that must be accepted.
The reporters do their work. The fellow-servants report back to their master how unmercifully and cruelly the forgiven servant treated his fellow-servant. The master then calls the servant he had previously forgiven and reverses his pardon, handing him over to the torturers until his huge debt is paid.
At this point, the Lord shows how the Parable applies to every Christian, by warning all his disciples that unless they forgive their brothers from their heart, the Father will hand them over to the tormentors (Matthew 18:34-35). Who are these tormentors? Ultimately, they are demons that torment the unforgiving in eternal hell, but in this life, the tormentors can be demons afflicting one’s thoughts with continual resentment, hatred, and the pain of the offence suffered, the details of the wrongs done. The Parable presents us with two great motives for forgiving others the wrongs they have done against us: firstly, we have all received forgiveness for all our sins, and therefore we should willingly forgive everyone who sins against us. Secondly, we must forgive everyone who has wronged us, or forfeit the forgiveness of our own sins and be tormented by the memories of the sins committed against us by others.
What will you do? Will you forgive everyone, or will you suffer the consequences of withholding forgiveness?
 p. 180, Craig Brian Larson and Leadership Journal: 750 Engaging Illustrations for Preachers, Teachers, and Writers. Grand Rapids, Michigan: BakerBooks, 2002, 2008.