Matthew 18:21-35

Choice of the Chosen

By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy, and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I want to begin this morning by telling you two stories of forgiveness. The first story stars me; I was the gracious forgiver. I was supposed to meet a friend of mine for breakfast; he coming from Northfield, and me driving from Stillwater. The spot we had agreed upon was the IHOP Restaurant by the Mall of America in Bloomington. Our meeting time of 7:30 came and went. I quietly sipped my coffee and read my paper until about 8:30, and then drove back to my office. When my friend looked at his appointment book later that day, he was horrified. He called me and apologized profusely, which I graciously accepted, and offered him my forgiveness. Besides, I knew that the next time we met, he’d probably buy my breakfast.

The second story is about another pastor; I’ll call him Pastor Roy. A pillar in his congregation had died over the week-end, and the funeral was scheduled for 1 PM on a Wednesday. Pastor Roy wrote the sermon on Wednesday morning and left for lunch at 11:30. On the way home he stopped for milk and noticed a FOR SALE sign on a ’66 Mustang in the parking lot. When the owner came out, he asked about the car, and the owner suggested Pastor Roy follow him home and he could take if for a test drive. Well, he did more than that; he took it for a drive and then brought it to his mechanic for a complete analysis.

Back at the Lutheran Church, the organist began playing the prelude at 12:55. At about 1:05, the packed house started turning their heads, looking for Pastor Roy. The secretary called his home but there was no answer. At 2 o’clock, in desperation, the secretary called the neighboring Presbyterian Church and asked the pastor if he would conduct the funeral, and he rushed right over. And at 3:30, Pastor Roy finally returned to the church, saw all the flowers in the narthex, and became sick to his stomach. That evening, he went to the family’s home, and when the widow answered the door, looked at Pastor Roy and said “I will never forgive you. Not ever!” And she slammed the door in his face.

Maybe you’re struggling with the issue of forgiveness today. You have been wounded by someone and cannot bring yourself to forgive them. Or you have been the offender, like Pastor Roy, and you find yourself alienated by someone you care about deeply and it makes you sick to your stomach. This sermon is for you today, as we consider this most difficult human action.

The gospel story today begins with Peter asking Jesus how many times he ought to forgive someone. I’ve asked that question, haven’t you? A co-worker spreads gossip about you, then apologizes and of course you forgiver her. The second time, you also forgive her. The third time, you’re not so sure. A brother-in-law backs into your garage on Thanksgiving Day and you tell him it’s okay; on Christmas Eve, he does it again, and this time it’s not okay. I accidentally ran over my neighbor’s cable TV line with my lawn mower – twice. Apparently, his limit of forgiveness was one!

So Peter asks Jesus what the legal limit for forgiveness ought to be; “Seven times?” Peter asked. The prevailing practice for Jews was three strikes, so Peter thought he was being generous. But Jesus astounds him. “Not seven times, Peter; but seventy times seven.” In another gospel, Jesus says “seventy times seven.” And before you do the math, Jesus wasn’t setting the bar at 490. Jesus was saying “there is no limit to our forgiveness.”

Then Jesus tells Peter a parable of a landowner who was owed 10,000 talents by one of his employees. As was typical, when the slave could not pay, the landowner ordered him to debtor’s prison. But the slave had a wife and kids, so he fell to the ground and pleaded with his master for patience. And the master let him go; in fact, he didn’t offer him patience, he forgave the entire debt.

Leaving the master’s house, that same slave ran into a fellow slave who owed him 100 dinari. He grabbed him by the throat and began to squeeze; “Pay up, you lazy thief!” And when the man pleaded for patience, the first slave had him thrown into prison.

Astounding, isn’t it? That one who was just forgiven much will refuse the same gesture and forgive little. Pastor Ed Marquardt of Seattle attempts to calculate the value of a “talent” used in this story. The first slave who was called into the master’s office, owed 10,000 talents; in today’s economy, that debt would be 25 million dollars. A slave could never pay such a debt. Yet he refuses to forgive a fellow slave the debt of 100 dinari; today’s equivalent of 50 dollars.

Well…word got back to the master, who called the first slave back into his office. “I forgave you this great debt, and you wouldn’t forgive even a small debt? Off to prison with you!” And Jesus concludes the parable by saying “So shall my heavenly father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Those seem like harsh words from Jesus…that even though we have been forgiven sin upon sin by Christ’s death on the cross, each one of us will be held accountable for those sins if we don’t forgive one another. We owe God the 10,000 talents; that is the penalty for our sins, anything that we might forgive on this earth is seemingly paltry by comparison. That’s the meaning of the parable Jesus told.

And I know it sounds harsh, because the wounds and insults and violations that are done to you in this life don’t seem paltry to you. C.S. Lewis once said “Everybody thinks forgiveness is a good idea until they have something serious to forgive.”

That’s true. I know your stories; you have told me how your hearts have been broken by unfaithfulness, by brutal words and unkind deeds. You have told me how you have been swindled out of thousands of dollars, how you have been treated unfairly by an employer, how you have been abused physically and emotionally. You cannot or you will not forgive; that has been your story for years, for decades, for generations. And you carry this burden with you through your living, like a prisoner’s ball and chain, you drag it through life. Wounds turn into anger, and then bitterness, and then righteous indignation. Carrying this resentment affects you physically and emotionally, it affects the dynamics of your family, and there is no relief in sight. But still you hold fast; as if saying to Pastor Roy “I will not forgive you, not ever!”

The Greek word for forgiveness means “to send away” or, quite literally, “to let go.” That suggests, and I believe it, that forgiveness is a choice. It is not something that simply happens over time; it doesn’t just go away if we ignore the pain. Forgiveness is a conscious decision on the part of the offended person to let it go. There may never be a reconciliation between the parties, there may not be a miraculous reunion of hugs and tears. In fact, the person you choose to forgive may not ever know that you have done so; they may not even be living any more. But you will know. You will feel the weight of 10,000 talents lifted from your shoulders when you choose not to carry it around anymore. You do not forgive them for their benefit; you forgive them for your own.

I have told you before that the home I grew up in was not the best; not the healthiest. I carried the greatest angst toward my dad; in my heart, I held him responsible for the pain in our home. Then one evening, shortly after Marsha and I were married, we attend a lecture at the old St. Paul Auditorium that spoke about the process of forgiveness, and how it begins with a choice to do so. In the middle of that lecture, without saying anything to Marsha, I got up from my seat, found a pay phone in the lobby, and I called my dad. When my mother handed the phone to my dad, I simply said “Dad, I forgive you.” “For what?” he asked. “For everything.” Then he said “okay” and he hung up. My dad did not change because of that brief conversation, but I did. The resentment was gone. The angst disappeared, and when he died eight years ago, I grieved deeply because I came to love him so much, in spite of all his human flaws.

People say that the Christian faith is identified by its generosity. They say the hallmark of a Christian is kindness and compassion. One bible camp song announces that “they will know we are Christians by our love.” But I think the thing that sets us apart from every other faith, every other religion, every other belief system is that we have the capacity to forgive others because we have been so generously forgiven. We know what it’s like to be set free from our sins. And God gives us the ability to grant the same to others. It is not easy letting go of the past, but it gives us the opportunity to move joyfully into the future. Let go. Let go. Let go. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Copyright 2008 Steven Molin. Used by permission.