How often are we to forgive someone who has wronged us? Peter asks this question of Jesus. Indeed, it comes right after Jesus had been talking about reconciliation. He said that if someone wrongs you, go to that person alone and “show him his fault.” If he listens, then you two have been reconciled. If he doesn’t listen, then take a couple witnesses. If he still doesn’t listen, then take it to the Church. If he doesn’t listen after that, then “let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.” That is, let him remain estranged from you; you’ve done your best to try to reconcile.
But, this week the question is about forgiveness. Notice then the juxtaposition; there’s a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. It takes one person to forgive: the one wronged. It takes two people to be reconciled: the one wronged has to forgive and the one who did the wrong has to repent.
So, let’s talk about forgiveness. Should I forgive the person who wronged me seven times, asks Peter?
In response, Jesus says, “I don’t tell you until seven times, but, until seventy times seven.” That is to say, “Always forgive.”
Then, Jesus tells a story. It’s about king who has mercy on a servant of his who cannot repay his debt. The king cancels the servant’s debt, purely out of his grace and mercy. In fact, the servant only had asked for more time to repay, but the king did much more than that: he canceled the debt. The servant might be expected to be so happy with this cancellation of his debt that he would go and do likewise to those who were indebted to him. But, he didn’t, instead he withheld mercy from others who owed him much less than he had owed his king. So, the king was angry and made the wicked servant repay what was owed. Jesus concludes with “So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don’t each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds.”
It can be hard to forgive another person for “his or her misdeeds,” though, can’t it? I’ve certainly struggled with it, as I’m sure we all have. And, I’ve done things which have needed to be forgiven by others. We’re all sinners and imperfect and wrong each other throughout our lives. Yet, even though we wrong others and expect to be forgiven, when someone wrongs us, it can be hard for us to forgive. Perhaps that is why our Lord included it in his prayer which he gifted to us? “Father, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We pray that the Lord enable us to forgive others, just as He has forgiven us.
In fact, despite the great wrongs which people can inflict on each other, some of them quite hurtful or horrific, our Heavenly Father has forgiven us of so much more. We were born in sin, enemies of God due to the original sin of Adam and Eve. Think about that for a moment. After Adam and Eve’s sin, they were completely estranged from God. Their Fall even impacted the rest of God’s good creation, bringing decay, death, and evil into it. If someone messed up something I created, I’d be very angry. And yet, the Lord forgave them and promised them a Savior who would take away their sins and restore creation to perfection.
And so we are born into this sin, as defendants of Adam and Eve. Then, we add to this inherited sin our own actual sins throughout our lives. If we reflect on the Ten Commandments, and Jesus’ exposition of them on the Sermon on the Mount, we see that we have constantly sinned against the Lord. In fact, thinking of it this way puts the Sermon on the Mount in clearer perspective, I would say. The Lord is not giving us anything new. No, in fact, he’s preaching the Law in its full force so that we see the sorry state we are in without him and the fact that we need God’s forgiveness.
So, does the Lord forgive us “up to seven times?” No. He does much more. He forgives us “seventy times seven;” that is, always. The blood of Jesus Christ covers all sin.
That’s why Christ came to die and rise for us: so that we can receive this forgiveness. We owed a debt which we could not repay. We could not make amends to God through our own efforts. Indeed, how could we even make amends for the sins of our fathers up through Adam? We can’t. We can’t even make amends before God for our own sins.
That’s why God made amends for us by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins. He fulfilled the Law on our behalf and then atoned for our sins with his own blood and was buried in the tomb, even fulfilling the Sabbath rest for us. Then, he rose on Sunday to defeat death and sin’s grip on us. So, through his work, all our debts have been canceled. This is due to God’s mercy towards us. You have been forgiven freely by God of all your sins. And then the faith which God works in you through Word and Sacrament reconciles you to Him so that you are no longer enemies, but rather the children of God.
So, then, God tells us to go and do likewise. Have mercy on others. Show grace to others. Forgive others, even if they refuse to be reconciled to you. It is a hard thing to do, but what this world needs more of is grace and mercy, not retribution. Justice belongs to the Left Hand Realm of civil government, for that is what God has charged it with. And, Christ will bring the ultimate justice with him when he returns. For now, the Church and her people is charged with showing mercy, just as we received mercy.
(Image: Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, An etching by Jan Luyken illustrating Matthew 18:28 in the Bowyer Bible, Bolton, England. By Phillip Medhurst – Photo by Harry Kossuth, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7550154)