The Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 13-14, 2008
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Dear Friends in Christ,
In the past few weeks we have been reminded of the great power of nature. We have watched the power of hurricanes Gustav and now Ike hit our gulf cost. Another storm, hurricane Lowell came in off the Pacific and caused flooding in west Texas. In preparation for these great storms, warnings were issued and people were ordered to evacuate. In fact, the fears leading up to Ike were so great that the National Hurricane Center stated that anyone remaining in Galveston would face certain death. Such is the power of a hurricane. It can blow buildings over, wash them away in floods, roll them over with storm surge.
Why do we have such storms? Why do we have terrible blizzards in the winter? Thunderstorms and tornados in the summer? You might get the idea that someone doesn’t like us - that someone is angry with us. And you would be correct. Nature lashes out at man on account of sin. This is part of the curse that God placed upon this world when mankind fell into sin. Nature is no longer benign. It is an enemy to be conquered and restrained. But in the end, one or the other, nature always wins. It is a fruitless struggle.
Now we must be careful here. It not this or that sin that causes some event. Or if it is, this is hidden from us. I cannot say that Galveston was hit because there’s brothel there. God has not revealed this. What we do know is that all nature groans under the weight of sin. (Romans 8:21-22) So because this is a fallen and corrupted world, because this world is no longer perfect as God first created it, we struggle against the forces of nature.
We can from nature deduce that God is angry over the sinfulness of mankind. We can deduce that we need to repent of our sins. Yet, nature can never tell us if there is any hope. Nature calls us to repentance, but it cannot tell us if there is any value in repentance. If all we have from God is the witness of nature, we would be driven to despair.
This bring us to our text. It is a continuation of the conversation Christ had with his disciples in last week’s text. Peter poses the question of how many times we are to forgive others. Here we might look at Peter’s question like this: How many times should I forgive the same person for the same sin? Christ quickly changes the focus. It is though Christ countered with the question: Well, how many times does God forgive?
Christ uses a parable. As we have noted parables are stories that use common imagery, but have a sort of startling improbability to them. It’s like you think that you’re watching “Little House on the Prairie” but you suddenly realize no, you’re watching “Battle Star Galactica” and Cylons are attacking Walnut Grove.
In the parable a man is brought before his master and ordered to pay a debt he owes the master. The man is a tenant farmer in a feudal system. He is bound the land. It’s rather like a sharecropper, but with no option to relocate. It was a form of slavary. In this case the man had borrowed money from the landowner. In our terms it would be like several million dollars. It is a sum greater than a man would hope to earn in a life time. The ruler orders that the man and his family be sold at the slave auction along with all his possessions. As bad as the man’s situation is, to be sold at auction would be even worse. He would be separated from his family. He would lose all his possessions. He would be in the lowest state of servitude. He would be on the same level as a galley slave. He would have no hope of freeing himself. For to free himself, he would have to pay the debt. But even after the sale of himself, his family and his possessions, it would still be an impossible task. Compounding this, literally, would be interest on the original debt. In short, the man was screwed.
The man begs for mercy. Does he deserve mercy? No. He deserves to be sold into slavery. But the landlord forgives him this incredible debt. Here is the point of focus for us. This is where our attention needs to be. The odd thing in this parable is the grace and mercy of the master. This is the thing that should not have happened.
Yet, this is exactly the point. What we owe to God on account of our sins is insurmountable. Further, it’s like the company store in the old coal mining towns. The debt is passed down to one’s children. We call this original sin. So we are held accountable to God for our sins and our father’s sins. Do we not say this in the close of commandments? “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation...” (Exodus 20:5) Nevertheless, God, in Christ, forgives us our sins, as black as they are. Sin is not winked at. Christ pays the price that we could not pay, in our place. Again, here is the odd part of the story. We are forgiven. That shouldn’t happen. But it does. All who are in Christ, who plead Christ before the judgement, have their debt paid.
What follows is almost a distraction, but needs some comment nevertheless. Each person either gets it or they don’t. Those who understand what has been done for them will reflect this in their life. For a person to understand this, they must first see their own sin in relation to God’s demand. When they understand this, they also understand what has been forgiven. Then whatever sin one has endured from their fellow man seems trivial. Some treat forgiveness casually. They have no fear of God because they don’t see their sins. Such as these will see the sins of other as though through a magnifying glass. They will have no forgiveness for others. So the actions of the ungrateful servant are actually normal for one who never saw the magnitude of their sin in the first place. In just the same way, one who sees their own sins will naturally be forgiving. This is normal. What remains bizarre is that the master would forgive. He gains nothing. He does so purely out of love.
A final note about the fear of God. What happens to the ungrateful servant? He loses his master’s forgiveness. He is condemned and punished. We serve a fearsome master. He is absolutely just. It is right and proper that we should always fear His wrath. We never fear as much as should. All to often we are like the ungrateful servant with no fear of our Lord. He has the right to condemn us. He is righteous and just in doing so. But in Christ, there is forgiveness and life. We can come before our master and plead Christ. We still fear. For our Master is fearsome. But we can also love and trust in Him because His grace and mercy are just as total and complete as His righteousness and justice.
In the forces of nature unleashed upon our world, we see a clear sign of the wrath of God. He is angry over sin. God is to be feared always. But in God’s Word we learn that there is more to the story. We learn that we have a God who also loving and forgiving of sin. And so we do not flee from God. We come before Him with fear and trembling and plead Christ. For He has born our punishment and paid our debt. And seeing this reality changes who we are. We are set free from our sins to live and free others from sin.