“From the Heart”
Sermon, Trinity 22, Gospel, Matthew 18:21-35
In the world of politics and the celebrities, the apology is just about non-existent nowadays. This is the age of the non-apology apology, an apology that is forced out when someone is caught saying or doing something outrageous, or insulting, or damaging to one’s reputation, something so public that it can’t be swept under the rug or left to blow over. The most common non-apology apology is, “I’m sorry if what I said offended you.” Not, “I was wrong to say that.” but, in effect, “I’m sorry that you are so thin-skinned as to take offense.” I heard a good one on tv this last week: “I regret saying that.” Yes, I’m sure this person does, now that his offensive comments have been splashed across the internet and news programs. I’m sure he now regrets that he said them and they were recorded. But is he just sorry he was caught? Is he sorry from the heart? Other apologies talk about mistakes, as if things just happened without the persons really meaning to do them. “I made some mistakes.” or my favorite, “Mistakes were made.” Mistakes were made by whom? I don’t know. It’s a mystery. All of these non-apology apologies ring false to our ears. We know that they are not from the heart, which makes it very hard for us to forgive or sympathize with the false apologizer.
But today’s Gospel text is not about politicians and celebrities. It is about our brothers and sisters in the church. Right before our sermon text Jesus tells His disciples how to deal with a brother or sister in the church that has sinned against them. He says first go to the brother or sister and confront them with the sin face to face, not gossipping about him behind his back. If the brother listens to you then you have gained him back, so to speak, back into the sheepfold of the faithful. But if he doesn’t listen, then you take one or two others along from the church and try again. If the brother still does not listen, then the matter is taken to the whole church. If the erring brother still refuses listen to the church, then he has essentially separated himself from her.
Peter gets this, and he also gets that before he confronts his erring brother about his sin he must forgive him already before he goes. But how many times should he forgive him? What if the brother repents but falls back into the same old pattern of sin again? There must be a limit to forgiveness. So he asks Jesus how many times he has to forgive his brother, seven times? Jesus says seventy times seven, in other words, always. Then Jesus drives the point home with a wonderful parable about a servant who has been called to give an account of his debt to his king. The servant owes a staggering amount, equivalent to hundreds of millions, if not billions in today’s dollars. The king says he and his family are to be sold as slaves to pay off the debt. The servant pleads with the king who then, out of pure mercy, forgives that enormous debt. But the servant, who should have been eternally grateful and forgiving of others, goes out and corners a person who owes him a small amount, about twenty dollars or less. The man is caught by surprise and asks for time to pay. But the first servant grabs him by the neck, starts choking him, and throws him in prison. When the king finds out how the man whom he had shown so much mercy behaved, he throws him in prison and says he will stay there until he has paid it all, in effect, forever. Then Jesus says, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
“From your heart”, that’s the kicker. It’s hard enough, but not impossible to get out the words, “I forgive you.”, but we can do it, especially if we’ve been wronged just a little bit. But suppose a cheating spouse who left you for someone else comes back years later and said, “I’m sorry for what I did to you and the kids. Please forgive me.” Or suppose a business partner who embezzled money from your partnership and destroyed the business comes back asking for your forgiveness. Or suppose a sexually abusive father who stole your childhood and your ability to ever trust any man completely with your heart, now wants you to forgive him before he dies. You might be able to force the words out, but could you forgive in your heart? That would be another thing, altogether. Perhaps impossible.
But Jesus is serious about about our hearts. He wants us body and soul, heart and mind. He wants us to be pure like His Father is pure, not just outwardly, but inwardly. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:2) Jesus’ standard of purity goes beyond our actions. It reaches into our hearts. For instance, it’s not enough to avoid committing adultery physically, Jesus says that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:28). Jesus knows how money can replace God in our hearts as number one. He says, “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:21). Jesus knows what’s in our hearts, like he knew what was in the Pharisee’s hearts when he said to them, “Why do you think evil in your hearts?” (Matthew 9:4.) And He expects us to forgive our brothers and sisters from our hearts. But how?
In order for us to forgive others from the heart we need to know first how much we have been forgiven. So, like the King in the parable, Jesus holds up God’s law as a mirror, so that we may see and acknowledge our debt of sin, a debt so large that we can never pay it off. This is what we are do when we confess that we are poor miserable sinners in the confession before the service proper starts. That we are poor miserable sinners is not news for God. He sees our sins. But he wants us to confess our debt, so that we realize that we have nowhere to go but to Him. We throw ourselves on the mercy of our King, who forgives us out of pure grace, for the sake of His Son. Then we feel the wonderful joy and relief of the absolution of sin, the cancelling of our debt. Out of that gratitude to our gracious, forgiving King we in turn forgive our brothers and sisters what they owe us. Like the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears, we are forgiven much, so we love much. At least that’s the way it is supposed to work. At least that is the way it should be.
But are we not often like the ungrateful servant who after being forgiven all his debt, demands justice from a brother for a measly amount? Yes, he was within his rights. The other servant owed him money and couldn’t pay it back. He had been wronged. He was within his rights to throw him in prison by the law of the world. And we hold grudges because we feel we have been unfairly wronged. But in the Kingdom of God, among our brothers and sisters of the faith, we live by grace. If a brother sins against us, we are to forgive him in our hearts before confronting him so that we may lovingly bring him to repentance. How many times should we forgive our brother? How many times have you been forgiven today? Last week? The last ten years? Forgiving a brother seventy times seven does not seem like a lot any more, does it?
But of course it is for us, because the Old Adam in us does not want to suffer wrong from anyone. The devil wants to tear the church apart through division, so he whispers in our ears, “You were right.” “Let the other person stew for a while before you forgive them.” And the world says, “Don’t get mad. Get even.” No, our hearts can’t forgive the way Jesus wants us to. But take heart. That is, take Jesus’ heart. For He has given it to you in Baptism. You who have been baptized have put on Christ. In some mysterious way you live in Christ and He lives in you. He has broken that heart of stone in you and replaced it with a heart of flesh. His heart beating in you forgives your brother when you can’t by your own power. His heart in you loves the brother or sister who has hurt you. The blood from His heart that was pierced for your debt strengthens you to forgive your brother’s debt. And when you do forgive your brother you can rest assured that Jesus lives in you.
That is why Jesus said in His prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. in the sixth chapter of Matthew. (Matthew 6:12). The Lord has given us a way to see if our faith is strong or weak. If we do not forgive our debtors, we may be sure that our faith that Jesus has forgiven us our debts is weak or non-existent. Therefore we should not expect our debts to be forgiven. For we receive forgiveness of sins through that faith that Jesus died for our sins. On the other hand, if we forgive our brother his debts to us from the heart, we may be assured that our faith is strong and that our sins are forgiven. This is a blessing to us.
So let us rejoice that we have been shown our debt before it is too late, and let us admit in our hearts that all we have we have by the pure love and grace of God. And let us continue to share that love and grace with our brothers and sisters in this body of Christ, the Church, in our forgiveness from the heart. Let us show our heartfelt appreciation for all we have been given by God by giving back to Him a portion of what we have received from Him as a sign of our gratitude and trust in His providence. And let us give praise and thanksgiving to the King who has set us free from slavery to debt by lives devoted to His glory and to setting others free as well by sharing the Word of salvation. We are free and we know it from the heart, our heart and Jesus’ heart. Amen.