Matthew 18:21-35
Trinity 22

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

 An official announcement was made this past week by the White House about applying for student loan forgiveness.  Many people with federal student loans can get $10,000 of their debt cancelled–a few even $20,000. This has caused a significant amount of debate and controversy and court battles.  Many have asked, why should this benefit be given only to some and not to those who fulfilled their obligation and paid their loans off properly according to its terms?  That seems rather unjust.  Others have suggested that this is actually a Christian thing to do since the Bible talks about forgiving debt, and one translation of the Our Father even prays “Forgive us our debts as we also forgive those who are indebted to us.”  Of course, it’s one thing for you to forgive a debt that’s owed to you personally; it’s quite another thing for the government to do so forcibly on your behalf.

But my purpose here isn’t to get into the politics of this, but to focus on one of the arguments that has come up in this debate which teaches us something about the Gospel and Christian forgiveness.  The argument goes like this: the $10,000 in student loan debts isn’t actually being forgiven, it’s just being transferred; someone else is going to have to pay that debt off–other taxpayers or whomever.  And that is absolutely true.  But what we sometimes miss is that’s always the case with forgiveness.  Someone always has to pay.  To forgive is to say, “I don’t hold this against you.  I’m willing to pay the price for what you did without me getting any payback.  I release you from that.”

Someone always has to pay.  Forgiveness simply means that the one who incurred the debt, who did the wrong, doesn’t have to pay the price because someone else is willing to pay the price for them.  This is true of money debt; it’s true of sin debt.  One way or another, the debt gets paid.

I’ve been asked a couple of times by parishioners–and perhaps you’ve wondered this yourself–why was it necessary for Jesus to have to share in our flesh and suffer and die and shed His blood?  Why couldn’t God simply forgive everyone’s sins simply with a wave of His hand?  Couldn’t God have just said of our sins, “Don’t worry about it” and leave it at that without all the blood and death?  The answer is, “No, not if His justice and mercy are real and true.”  

To sin is to offend against the justice and righteousness of God.  It is to rebel against His commands in favor of doing things your own way.  Your sin is not just the equivalent of getting a few parking tickets, a few minor misdeeds.  According to Scripture, your sin is treason against the King of the Universe.  It is the act of a traitor who wants to take over the Lord’s throne. In the end someone has to pay the price for that.  A just God and Lord doesn’t simply say, “Oh, whatever.”  Such sin, such sinners cannot stand in His presence.  His very nature requires that it be dealt with.  It is written in Hebrews 9, “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.”  So the question is, who’s going to pay that price?  Is it you, or is it someone else who is willing to pay it for you?  Someone’s got to pay.

In the Gospel reading, the first servant owed the King an enormous debt, 10,000 talents.  Just one talent was worth about 6,000 denarii, and each denarius was about a day’s wage for an ordinary laborer.  So to pay off a debt of 10,000 talents would take the equivalent of 60 million days of work.  How this servant got into such debt, I don’t know.  But his claim that he could pay it off if he was given enough time is just laughable.  There’s no way he could ever climb his way out of that hole he had dug.

This first servant is a picture of each of us.  We have run up such a tab against God with our thoughts and desires, words and deeds, that we can’t even begin to grasp how big it is.  Even if we spent the rest of our lives trying to make ourselves right with God again, even if we entered into a monastery or convent and devoted every possible moment to making up for our sin and trying to become righteous, it wouldn’t be enough.  All we can do is throw ourselves at the King’s feet and humbly beg for mercy.

And thanks be to God, He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  He’s not in the business of payback.  The Lord has taken pity on you and canceled your debt.  He didn’t just reduce what you owed and put you on an interest-free payment plan.  No, the debt is completely erased.  It’s gone.  You are debt free.  You are forgiven.

Now understand, the debt still had to be paid; just not by you.  The debt is very real; and so the payment must be very real.  Just like the king in the Gospel lost 10,000 talents by forgiving the servant, someone had to absorb your debt.  And that person is the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.  Our Lord became a human being in order stand in for us and pay what we humans owed.  But since He is also God, the payment He earned was infinite, even as God Himself is infinite.  Jesus took on Himself your debt, your sins, and they were crucified with Him.  By dying in your place, Jesus settled your account with God forever–not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  And by rising again to life, He earned eternal life for you and restored your relationship with the heavenly Father.  All this He has done without any merit or worthiness in you but only because of His fatherly, divine, goodness and mercy.  You are free from the power of sin, free from hell, free from being afraid of God.  Overflowing forgiveness has been given to you.  Like the servant, you’ve been given a new life, a new start.

Since that is true, since God has answered for all sin at Calvary–for everyone–since it’s all covered by Jesus’ blood, who are we to act otherwise?  Who are we to hold onto what God has let go of and dealt with and done away with, whether it’s our own sin or somebody else’s?

The first servant in the Gospel failed to understand this.  He didn’t seem to see the connection between how his debt had been forgiven by the mercy of the king, and how therefore he was also to be forgiving toward others.  And so he went out and grabbed his fellow servant by the throat and demanded, “Pay me what you owe!”  How could that servant behave the way he did?  It seems to me the only way he could act like that was if he didn’t really trust that his debt was truly forgiven.  Still in the back of his mind he was thinking, “This can’t actually be true.  Sooner or later, the king’s going to be coming for me, and I better build up as much in the way of assets as I possibly can, so that maybe I’ll have a little bargaining power.”  Do you see?  If the servant truly believed that the debt was forgiven, he would have been like a renewed Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Day, a new man, giving away and passing on with cheer the same compassion he himself had received.  Instead he didn’t believe it; he didn’t walk by faith.  And so he put himself outside the king’s mercy and ended up suffering the king’s judgment.  

Jesus issues a very clear warning to us here.  To insist on payback with others is to invite God to get payback with you.  To refuse to forgive others is to refuse to be forgiven by God.  After all, you can’t be on your knees before God and angrily at one another’s throats at the same time.  The attitude of humility before God seeking His mercy is the same attitude we should have toward others in giving mercy.

Someone’s got to pay.  Either you can spend your life making sure other people pay for their sin-debts against you and be consumed by your anger and bitterness and efforts at making them pay for how wrong they were.  Or you can pay using Jesus’ account.  You have this limitless resource that Jesus has earned, that covers all sin–including those sometimes terrible sins that have been done against you.  Jesus accounted and paid for all of it.  With the abundant overflow of His mercy toward you, you are made able to forgive the debts owed to you by others.  Because You have full access to Jesus’ account, you are given to say to others, “I’m going to treat you without a desire for revenge, without a desire for payback, without you having to make it up to me.  I’ll take the hit, since the hit was already absorbed by Christ for both of us.  I release you from your debt to me.  I forgive you.”

Through Jesus God has forgiven the sins of every single human being, even those who won’t repent and believe and be saved.  So also in Christ we forgive even those who won’t say they’re sorry or be reconciled to us.  Forgiveness is not dependent on the repentance of the person who committed the sin but on the actions and the attitude of the one who was sinned against.  You can forgive someone even if the other person hasn’t changed.  Isn’t that how it is with God?  God has forgiven the whole world’s sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It’s all covered.  People may still reject that and refuse to believe that and live outside of that forgiveness; but that’s on them.  If they are eternally condemned, it’s because of their own unbelief.  But what we are given to do is to stand with Christ and offer His mercy.  No sin is greater than God’s forgiveness; and it is by His forgiveness that we forgive others.  When someone does us harm, we remember, “Jesus paid for that sin, too. And if He paid for their sin, it’s no use for me to behave as if He didn’t.”

Real forgiveness like that will always be hard.  But all the truly hard stuff was done by Jesus.  All the sin-debt was transferred to Him–atoned for, punished, taken away, released and gone.  Period.  So when you find it difficult to forgive, or when you find yourself feeling unforgiving again toward a person you’ve once forgiven, the way to deal with that is to return to the cross.  You can’t forgive someone from your heart when your heart is empty.  Fill it with the merciful, debt-releasing words of Christ in Scripture.  Fill it with the sanctifying flood that flows to you from your Baptism into Christ the crucified.  And be filled once again with Jesus’ body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all sins.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠