Matthew 18:21-35

Forgive from the Heart

By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel


Roy Burkhardt had the task of finding working for New York parolees. He tells of one business owner who never failed to find some job for an ex-convict. After many years the employer asked Roy if he had never wondered why he worked so hard to find jobs for rehabilitated criminals. Then he told Roy Burkhardt his own life story:

It seems he was a young man working for a company in Columbus, Ohio, delivering goods and collecting money. Over time, he stole several hundred dollars from the company. One day his boss suddenly told him, “Go home. I’ll take your route today. Bring your wife and come to my house this evening.”

He waited at home all day with his wife asking why he wasn’t at work. Of those hours he later said, “Don’t tell me there isn’t a hell. I lived through it that day.”

In the evening, the young couple went to the boss’ house and was greeted warmly by the boss and his wife. After they had visited in a friendly way, the older man turned to the younger one and simply asked him to tell his wife why he had not worked that day. It was an ordeal, but the young man began unloading the grim facts of what he had done. His poor wife broke down and wept. Then the boss spoke again, stressing how morally wrong the man’s conduct had been, saying, “I could put you in prison, but I’m going to give you another chance.” He instructed the young man to report for work as usual the next day. “We will not let you handle money, yet,” he said, “but you will have an opportunity to redeem yourself.” So he went back to work and eleven years later became president of the company. As he related this story, his eyes filled with tears. It was why he kept giving others a second chance.

In one of my parishes we had a treasurer and bookkeeper who was a member of the Church Council and a very good friend of mine. Al had grown up in the congregation. His parents were active members and well-respected and Al and Char were just as active and committed. Then he was laid off from his job. We knew times were hard for this couple but then his wife had a good job at the bank and we thought they were making ends meet. He continued to keep the books at church, write checks, show up for Council meetings but I sensed something was wrong. Finally he came to me and said, “Pastor, I have to tell you something. I took a thousand dollars from the Church to pay my property taxes. No one noticed because I had to transfer money from one account to another. I have now paid it back with interest to the Church. Please forgive me.” I told him, “Al, what you did was wrong, understandable but wrong.” The Executive Board met and decided not to prosecute. Since he had already put the money back nothing was said. He resigned as treasurer and from the Council but nothing more. It was the right decision to make. He was given a second chance and he and his family are still active in that congregation.

Today’s Gospel lesson clearly teaches the principle of mutual forgiveness. Jesus told the story of a king who had a slave who owed him ten thousand talents. This was an enormous sum-billions of dollars in today’s money. Someone at our text study this week described   it by saying that a talent was the largest unit of money known and ten thousand was the largest identifiable sum. The king who owned the slave had every right to punish this servant by selling him and his family and all their possessions, but the slave begged for mercy and forgiveness. Our text says, “Out of pity for him, mercy, compassion, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”

It does not take much imagination to figure out what Jesus is saying in our text. God is the king and we are the slave. We have failed miserably to be the kind of people God wants us to be. We have sinned and erred and fallen short of the mark. God’s holiness and righteousness demand that we be perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect, but we are not. We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. But for Jesus’ sake and because of His death on the cross, God forgives us all our sins. Because of Jesus’ blood we are reckoned as righteous and accepted by God. So far, so good. God loves us, accepts us, and forgives us.

But the parable goes on and now the story becomes more uncomfortable. We are called to forgive others as we have been forgiven. The same slave who was forgiven his immense debt is confronted by another slave who owes him a hundred denarii what amounts to just some dollars. This slave, too, pleads for mercy, pity, compassion. “Pay what you owe” is the response. This slave did not receive mercy but was thrown into prison. It is no wonder that the king summoned his slave and pronounced him wicked. The king handed over the first slave to the torturer and repented of his mercy. Along with the good news of the Gospel to sinners comes the harsh news that we are to respond to forgiveness by forgiving others. As we forgive others, we too are forgiven. As refuse to forgive others, God will do so to us.

Jesus taught his disciples and us to pray for forgiveness as we have been forgiven: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” How many times do we forgive the sister or brother? Seventy-times seven or an alternative reading which says seventy-seven times. That goes against our grain. We may be willing to forgive once or twice but not over and over again. And even forgiving once may seem beyond us. Most of us would rather nurse or grudges and grievances rather than take the steps that lead to forgiveness and reconciliation. As one of the pastors said this week, “You don’t have to teach someone to hold a grudge, but you have to teach someone to forgive.” Real forgiveness goes beyond just words but to the reality behind it. We all need that second chance or third or fifth or seventy-seventh. Abraham Lincoln once said that the best way to get rid of an enemy is to make a friend of him. Leonard Felder explains in an article, “A Fresh Start,” if you have someone from your past with whom you have never been able to resolve differences or express your feelings, now is a good time to start.” There is nothing more cleansing,” Dr. Felder writes, “than working through your feelings toward someone whose impact on your life is still felt. You do not need to carry on your conflicts forever. Healing the hurt inside can free a person.” We are freed as we forgive and are forgiven.

And we are called to forgive from the heart. It is only as we come to understand how gracious God is to forgive our sin, that we can forgive our brother or sister. We can come to understand that punishment for wrongdoing is best left to the Lord. Revenge, recompense-all these things we can let God take care of. “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay.” Or the first Psalm, “The wicked will not stand in judgment, nor sinners in the congregation, for the Lord knows the way of the righteous but the way of the wicked will perish.” We have God’s promise to us that God will take care of the judgment; we do not need to judge the brother or sister. We can give our grievances, resentments, hurts, even those legitimate and sometimes terrible wrongs we have suffered-we can give all these things to the Lord and ask God’s power to come into our hearts and minds and transform us, rid us of our grudges, heal us of our pain, forgive us our debts. We can ask God to forgive us and give us power to forgive others.

John Patton in his book, Is Human Forgiveness Possible?, puts I this way:

“Human forgiveness is not doing something,
but discovering something —
that I am more like those who have hurt me,
than different from them.
I am able to forgive
when I have discovered that I am really in no position to forgive.”

In other words, human forgiveness is possible only when we have really experienced God’s forgiveness. We all need forgiveness, the second chance. Our sins are like scarlet, but they have been made white as snow. We have been washed in the blood of the lamb and our cleansed by the suffering and death of Christ. We have been forgiven and now we are asked to forgive one another from our heart. Amen.

Copyright 2005 James D. Kegel.  Used by permission.