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Matthew 18:21-35

Most of you know that our two youngest daughters are Micaela and Eva. Micaela is the Spanish way of pronouncing Michaela, and Eva is the Spanish pronouncement of Eve. It’s that my mother-in-law is Mexican.
Micaela (Mica) and Eva, like other girls who grow up in this world, have become experts in the use of two words: “no” and “mine”. It is often difficult for them to share their favorite toys. When they play together there is sometimes a small altercation. You see, the interesting thing about children is that it doesn’t matter how the conflict developed the answer is always the same, “He or she did it first!” It doesn’t matter if it was a simple accident, or whether one of the children even says she’s sorry—it just seems, does it not?, that with too much frequency children are ready to fight rather than to forgive.
Today I want to talk about that theme. I want to talk about the importance of forgiving rather than fighting. Because I think that if I were to ask for a show of hands, the majority here would say, “Pastor, I already know where you are going with this.” Even adults are hard-wired to fight rather than to forgive—even Christian adults!
You see, if there is one thing that stood out to me going from a ministry primarily aimed at adults in Milwaukee to one aimed at teenagers in Nebraska, it’s that adults are just older teenagers. Oh, we may be better at controlling our emotions when we’re in public, but like our younger counterparts we too often end up fighting rather than forgiving—with a co-worker, with a spouse, with another member of the congregation—it’s amazing how the response never really changes over the years: “he or she deserved it, because he or she did it first.”
Now is that the manner in which God desires that we resolve our conflicts? Or is there a better option? Is it really possible to forgive rather than to fight?

Well, I can tell you that it’s not the easier option. I can assure you that it is much easier to fight than it is to forgive in life. And yet as Christians, Jesus hasn’t left us that option. Rather he says to Simon Peter as well as to us that we are to forgive. “How many times?” asks Peter. “Once. Twice. Three strikes and you’re out? Seven times, Lord?” “No”, Jesus answers. “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times, if that is necessary.” “So many times, Lord!” “Oh, yes, because those who are forgiven also forgive.” Let’s read our text.

[Read vv. 21-22]

Peter formulates for Jesus a question that every human being on the face of the earth has pondered before: “Is there a limit, Lord, to how many times I should forgive my neighbor?” Simple logic tells us that if someone keeps on offending us there comes a point when we are justified in saying, “No. No I’m not going to forgive you this time; you’ve done it too many times!”

It makes sense. And yet, a good truth to learn in life is that just because it makes sense doesn’t mean that it’s right. What Jesus does in this parable is he explains to us why we ought to forgive instead of fight, and the reason he provides is quite interesting—quite interesting indeed. Jesus says there is a very narrow relation between the amount of times God has forgiven me and the amount of times he expects me to forgive. He continues…

[Read vv. 23-27]

The parable explains itself. Jesus speaks of a man who for whatever reason owed an impossibly high debt to his king. He begs the king: “Give me time! I will pay you everything!” Well, the king knew that the man could work his entire life and he still wouldn’t be able to pay him everything. So he decides to have mercy. Mercy, you see, is not something you have to do. It’s something you choose to do. And that’s what the king decides to do. He says, “Well, I could put you in prison for this. I could sell your wife and children for this. In other words, I could make you pay! But I won’t. I will release you from your debt. As far as I’m concerned, you no longer owe me a dime.”

And the lesson? You and I are the debtors. We’ve all sinned against God. We’ve all sinned against each other. Isn’t it interesting that the person we promise to love and cherish in life is also the same person we probably sin against most in life, namely our spouse? It’s ironic how that works. Well, with each sin that we commit another debit appears on the holiness account that is filed away in heaven with God. And so you think your credit card has a lot of line items. Imagine, for a moment, the bill that God could send you in the mail! So many debts! “And so”, Jesus says, “the simple truth is that whatever promise we make to pay, or whatever effort with which we work, we’ll never be able to pay God what we owe him. It’s useless!”

Like in the case of the servant. He didn’t have anything with which to pay the king. I mean, he made a promise, but because of his situation his promise wasn’t worth anything. Well, do you really think that your own promises to do better are worth anything to God?

How many times have you and I said, “I won’t do it again! I’m sorry!” And then the next day, or the next week, we do it! And the person says, “What happened?” Well, I’ll tell you what happened, the debt just got bigger, that’s what happened. What’s the only way that any relationship on this earth will ever work? Someone has to forgive. And you know what? God does.

Now, loved ones, understand that this right here is the good news of the Bible. The good news of the Bible is not just that God loves you, although he does. The good news of the Bible is not just that God will take care of you, although he will. No, the good news of the Bible is that where God has every legal right to send us to the debtors’ prison of hell, he chose another option. He chose to have mercy. And in the same way that the master in our parable canceled his servant’s debt, with an official decree God has canceled our debt. In theological terms we would say he has forgiven our sins.

But this is where every earthly illustration fails to some degree. Because if you read the New Testament you will soon discover that God did get his payment. You see, the Bible makes it clear that God got every penny’s worth, it’s just that Jesus paid it instead of us. Again, that’s the good news! Jesus paid it on the cross. Now, how many of you are going to continue making your car payment once you’ve already paid it off? Well, in the same way, why would anyone ever keep making payments to God for their sin if it’s already paid off? And if Jesus paid off all your sin, why would you ever require someone else to pay off their sin to you?
Wouldn’t we call that attitude “ungrateful”? Can’t you just feel your heart sink when you hear how this one servant treated his friend?

[Read vv. 28-30]

It’s been said that “the world is full of ungrateful people”. Little children amaze us at the nature of their short-term memory. You can buy children an entire tree skirt full of presents and within minutes it’s like you’re not even there! It’s like the presents just appeared out of thin air—mom and dad you might as well not even waiting up for a good night hug—for the rest of the night you’re irrelevant!

Well, adults know how to say thank you, don’t they? Sure we do. We buy stationary. We return the favor. We engage in conversation—until someone crosses us. Then they owe us.

If you see your relationships in those terms—in terms of owing, in terms of deserving, in terms of paying—you will be forever disappointed in those around you. You will routinely see them as failures. You will rarely see any good. You will notice the most minor of offenses. You will remember every debt. You will go looking for evidence of repayment, and like the ungrateful servant demand of that person: “Pay me back what you owe me!” And it will never do any good.

Because here is the thing, guys. That person who owes you for what they’ve done to you—that person can’t repay you. They can’t. How do you repay someone for a wrong that you’ve done? Do you buy flowers? Do you lay low for a few days? Do you avoid the person altogether? Well, I put it before you today that this is the world’s way of dealing with offense, and I put it before you today that it doesn’t work. I mean, is it working that well in our world right now? No it’s not, because we’ll never stop owing each other—we’re sinners!

You say, well it’s not fair! No. No, it’s not fair. And neither is it fair that God forgives you. You see, that’s the essence of grace: God doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve. He doesn’t treat us with fairness! He treats us with mercy! And he says, “Well, I could treat you with fairness, but where is that ever going to get us? You can’t repay me. We both know it. And even if you could, there would just be something again. Come now,” he says, “there’s no way two people can have a relationship like that. So I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I will forgive you. And I won’t hold a grudge against you. And I promise you here and now that forever how many times you sin against me I will forgive you, and I still won’t hold a grudge against you! And that’s the way our relationship will be. And that’s the reason our relationship will last, because we’ll both know from the get-go that it’s not fair—the relationship never was based on fairness; it was based on mercy. It was based on my decision to forgive.”
You see, loved ones, we can’t control the way another person acts, but we can control the way we act towards them. We can choose to forgive because we know we too have been forgiven.

One more thought, and with this we’ll close. If you’re still holding on to a grudge, then the warning Jesus includes at the end of this parable is apropos.

Some people become so fixated on their horizontal relationships in life that they completely forget about their vertical relationship with God. That’s what happened to the unmerciful servant. The danger of living that way is this: on the Last Day every single one of us is going to have to stand before God and will have to answer for our own actions. You and I cannot answer for our own actions. There is nothing we can say. And so our assurance for going to heaven isn’t based on us answering for our own actions; it’s based on pointing to Jesus’ actions on our behalf, right? And that has everything to do with our vertical relationship with God.

But if our minds are so fixated on our horizontal relationships and what so and so did to me—I can tell you right now that on the Last Day God will not ask you what so and so did to you. That will not be the topic of discussion. But he will point to so and so and say, “Why didn’t you forgive them?” And then he’ll say, “Did I not forgive you?”

Our forgiveness to others in this life does matter.

[Read vv. 32-35]

Our forgiveness to other in this life does matter. If you’re struggling with that in life, my suggestion to you is this: don’t focus so much on what they did to you, but consciously focus your thoughts instead on what Jesus has done for you! His love engenders love. His forgiveness conjures up your forgiveness, so that it can also be said of you: those who are forgiven also forgive! Amen!