One of those bits of urban slang that drives English teachers wild but is highly communicative is the expression "true that" or the even slangier true dat." Our text confronts us with a truth we can't handle so we do everything we can to weasel away from it. True That.
First, let's establish the truth we are and aren't being confronted with. We are confronted in this text with what you wrongly think about in saying the Lord's Prayer. In giving us the Lord's Prayer, Jesus is giving us all Gospel. When praying this we aren't to be thinking about those it is difficult to forgive; those whom a black cloud still hangs over in our heart. No, Jesus plainly teaches us to pray: "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." We are to be thinking about those it is easy for us to forgiven. Our text, however, does confront us with the difficult cases.
But Out text does not confront us with those who do not admit they are indebted to us. Those who do not confess they have sinned against us. The situation in our text is "shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?" In Luke 17 Jesus says, "If he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, I repent,' forgive him." I'm convinced that people will do almost anything rather than deal with the real issue of this text. They will bring in the "what abouts." What about the person who isn't sorry or doesn't think they have done anything wrong? That's not what the parable is about. Both debtors acknowledged they owed the debt.
The text is also not about those who wish to go on accumulating debts. They not only aren't sorry for their indebtedness they defend their right to accumulate more. They defend their not paying their indebtedness off; they insist they have a right to keep on borrowing. This parable is not about those wishing to live in their sins, to be accepted in their sins. We only introduce that thought so has not to have to face the truth.
And in the immortal words of Jack Nicholson: "You can't handle the truth." I saw that movie 25 years ago. I can't even tell you what the truth Tom Cruise couldn't handle was, but I know that line began echoing in popular culture almost immediately. There are some truths that are too big, too heavy, too complex, too horrible to handle. Our text is the last type.
Your sins against God are immeasurable and they unknown by you. Your indebtedness to God isn't 10,000 talents. That would be the Greek word myriad, singular. This is the plural form which means innumerable, countless. You just think you know what your sins are. You just think you know their weight, their stink, their number. You just think you know you're indebtedness to God. You don't have a clue. And like the guy in parable, you think if God will just have patience, you can pay everything back. You're the child who breaks the heirloom vase and thinks the few coins he has in his piggybank can settle the debt.
You can't handle the truth that your sins against God are immeasurable, and just as hard is the truth that the sins of others against you are not to be compared to your sins against God. Try to get a feel for this using the figures given: The sins of others against you amount to 100 days wages. Your sins against God are more than the total total revenue from Egypt, the fine Rome imposed on Antiochus the Great, and the amount Darius tried to buy off Alexander the Great with (Trench, 153-54). All total that was 44,800 talents, but that sum can be measured. Our sins against God can't be.
You know what is so very hard about preaching this text? It is relatively easy for me to see the sins against me as minor compared to my sins against God. But I know people who've been sinned against horribly particularly when they were young, particularly by someone who should have watched out for them. And those sins against them by others loom very large. I've known prisoners of war who I feel the same way about. They were never the same. Every moment of every day was impacted by another's sins against them. What do we do with these?
Go back to what this text is not about: It's not about impenitent people. It's not about people who never acknowledge their debt to you. It is about our sins against God versus the sins of others against us. And as with all things, we must go by the Word of God. The sins of others against me are a countable, quantifiable number and weight. My sins against God are uncountable and unquantifiable. The two can't be rightly compared.
Now we come to the Lord Jesus' ultimatum, the truth which I can't handle. "Unless you forgive your brother from your heart, you will be handed over to the torturers till you have repaid a debt that can't be measured and is impossible to repay." From the heart you must forgive. None of this schoolhouse repentance: "Now shake hands and tell each other you're sorry." From the heart means the forgiveness is unfeigned, unfaked. Who can do that? It will take a miracle to get that done, and unless it happens the Law of Echo and that of the measuring cup come into play. We either are echoing the mercy of Christ we have received or the judgment of God upon our heads. And we are measuring out forgiveness according to the measure we received. Jesus says in Luke 6: "Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." But doesn't this say the measure starts with me?
I can't handle this truth. It drives me crazy to think God's forgiveness of me is based on my forgiveness of others. But neither our text nor Luke 6 start there. Luke 6 starts with "be merciful as your Father is merciful", and our text starts with our immeasurable indebtedness to God first being forgiven. The text says the Lord had compassion and forgave the debt letting us go scot-free. No, I can't handle the truth but the Truth can handle me and you.
Who is the Life? Who is the Way? Who is the Truth? Jesus Christ true God begotten of the Father from eternity and also true Man born of the Virgin Mary. To pay off your unimaginable debt, God did the unimaginable thing of descending into the womb of one of His creatures to take on flesh and blood, to co-sign on all your loans. Just think of the indebtedness you can count, do know, feel the weight of. Jesus said, "I'll take that." Having no indebtedness of His own because He lived a perfect life, He could pick up yours. And though there was hell to pay for just one of your sins, Jesus paid for all. There is none left to pay on your debt even if you can see a balance due, even if others say there is balance due, even if the Devil himself waves a Past Due notice in your face.
This is where all of us go off the rails with this text. We focus on the sins of others against us and our ability to forgive them rather than our sins against God and His free, complete forgiveness of them. The truth is not a one of us appreciates, believes, or celebrates just how completely forgiven we are.
You know the fresh smell of a baby. You come from the font smelling that fresh, that forgiven with not even a lingering whiff of the smell of sin remaining. When the pastor by the command and in the stead of Jesus sends your sins away from you in the Absolution, there is not a trace of those sins left behind. There's not the faint outline of Hawthorn's "A"; there's no ridges let alone welts where the Law branded you a coward, a thief, a gossip or worse; the Absolution doesn't leave behind a badge of shame. You come away from communing with the Body and Blood Jesus gave and shed on the cross with not even a taste of regret, shame, or guilt, but only of forgiveness on your tongue.
There is no remembering of our sins by God just because we cannot forget them. Truthfully, as we can't get our head around our immeasurable indebtedness to God, so we can't get our head around how completely He has forgiven them. Right after the sermon we sing the Offertory where we pray for a "clean heart", "a right spirit", and the "joy of God's salvation." Right before these words of Psalm 51 David prays, "Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." We have no English equivalent unless we coin the words "unsin" me or "unguilt" me (The Temple, 351). You leave here today: unsinned, unguilted, unimaginably forgiven.
Even the Old Testament wants to convey how beyond complete your sins are gone. In Isaiah 1:18 the Lord says He will make our scarlet sins as white as snow. But that's not enough for David. He needs more forgiving. After he has committed adultery and then murder in an attempt to cover up his sin, the Lord brings him to repentance and forgiveness. And the Lord shows David that he is whiter than snow. How's that possible? What is whiter than snow? A forgiven sinner.
A 19th century Presbyterian cleric has a traveler in Fairy Land dreaming "of pardons implored, and granted with such bursting floods of love, that I was almost glad I had sinned" (Phantastes, McDonald, 127). Such forgiveness changes people. It brings Zacchaeus leaping to his feet and willing to repay anyone he defrauded. It brings the sinful woman to the feet of Jesus to water His feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. It brings Joseph to be able to forgive his brothers for selling him into cruel slavery.
So, don't leave here with the bulletin cover art etched in your mind. The strangler is either God or you, and both are fearful prospects. But how on earth should we depict heaven's complete forgiveness? It's easy to paint judgment, law, punishment, but unearthly forgiveness? I know. How about the resurrected Christ showing us His pierced hands, feet, and side? Can you see any trace of your sin in them? In the words of Shakespeare then, "Let us not burden our remembrances with a heaviness that is gone" (Tempest, 5, 1, 200). Unshackled from the heavy weight of our sins we are freed to float to new heights of forgiveness.
True that. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (20171001); Matthew 18: 21-35