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Sermon for September 11, 2005

Forgive Us Our Debts
Matthew 18:21-35

How do you respond when a mistake has been made with your fast-food order? If you’re 6’3” and weigh 270 pounds, people don’t recommend crawling through the drive-through window. But that’s exactly what happened when a University of Kansas football player realized a chalupa was left out of his Taco Bell order. He got so angry that he tried to climb through the 14 X 46-inch drive-through window and got stuck. The frightened manager and employees locked themselves in an office and called the police. The police pulled up to the drive-through and laughed hysterically as they discovered the legs and back end of the football player kicking in midair.

We hear stories of rage all the time. Two shoppers in a Connecticut supermarket fall to fist fighting over who should be first in a newly opened checkout lane. A Continental Airlines flight returns to base after a passenger hurls a beer can at a flight attendant and bites a pilot. During an argument over rough play at their sons' hockey practice, a father in Massachusetts bludgeons another father to death. I remember a long time ago I accidentally cut a man off in traffic. He followed me all the way to my home. As soon as we parked, he ran over to my car and he began screaming and shaking. I would not come out of the car, so he began pounding his fists on the hood of the car as he swore at me. I just sat there, scared, hoping the man would go away. My infraction didn’t seem to warrant his reaction.

Rage is literally all the rage today. A June, 2005 study estimated that roughly 1 in 20 people has had “intermittent explosive disorder” -- a form of destructive, uncontrolled anger. The numbers translate into many millions of circles of trembling misery and anxiety. Wives live in fear of their husbands' next tirade, and wonder if they dare bring children into such a violent world of wrath. Husbands find that sometimes the smallest provocation of their wives brings on a firestorm. Parents struggle to understand why a son puts his fist through things, kicks pets, or screams at siblings.

It’s easy to see the problems in others. But if we’re honest, we’ve all done it. At one time or another, someone says something innocent and we take it as a personal attack. Or we feel that a certain person is intentionally doing something to make us angry, and we seethe in resentment. We’ve all exploded irrationally at something minor and let the situation control us.

And then, every Sunday, we come to church and pray “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” If you are like me, you are good at praying the first part of the prayer. But when it comes to forgiving others just as God forgives us, that’s a whole different story. This morning we are going to look at forgiveness through the lens of one of Jesus' parables.

Like usual, the Apostle Peter asks one of his famously reckless questions: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive a person who sins against me? Should I forgive up to seven times.” I have to give Peter some credit. Seven times is a lot. Have you ever had the opportunity to forgive a person seven times? If you offended me or I bailed you out of trouble three or four times, I doubt I would want to be anywhere near you. Even the Rabbis in Jesus’ day taught that forgiving someone three times was enough. Peter takes the Rabbi’s three times, doubles it, adds one for good measure, and suggests with eager satisfaction that it will be enough if he forgives seven times. Jesus says, “Peter, you don’t have to forgive seven times.” I can imagine a satisfying smile beginning to stretch across Peter’s face. Perhaps there’s a split second of gratification gleaming in Peter’s eyes. And then Jesus says, “You need to forgive seventy times seven times,” or depending on some translations, “Seventy seven times.” Either way, ifs a lot! Christ’s answer is that there are no limits to forgiveness.[i]

Lets give Peter a break. We all want to feel good about how good natured and forgiving we are. We also know that most of us have at least one person who knows every button to push to upset us. The mere sight of the person causes us to make up excuses to leave the same room. The German philosopher Schopenhauer compared the human race to a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter’s night. He said, “The colder it gets outside, the more we huddle together for warmth; but the closer we get to one another, the more we hurt one another with our sharp quills. And in the lonely night of earth’s winter eventually we begin to drift apart and wander out on our own and freeze to death in our loneliness."[ii]

It always amazes me how unwilling we are to forgive others, especially after we know how willing God is to forgive us. I read a quote from a biography of German poet Heinrich Heine which said, “Forgiveness was not Heine’s business or specialty.” Heine used to say, “My nature is the most peaceful in the world. All I ask is a simple cottage, a decent bed, good food, some flowers in front of my window, and a few trees beside my door. Then, if God wanted to make me completely happy, he would let me enjoy the spectacle of six or seven of my enemies dangling from those trees. I would forgive them of all the wrongs they have done to me -- forgive them from the bottom of my heart, for we must forgive our enemies. But not until they are hanged.”[iii] Humans tend to hold grudges. It’s hard to let go of the past - to forgive completely.

I can imagine what might happen if we appointed a committee of people to write the Lord’s prayer. It may have come out like this:
“Call in the debts, O God. Avenge the sinner who ruined my life, O Lord. See the injustice and strike down the wrong-doer. You know the tormentors of our tortured world. Break them in pieces and cast them away. Get rid of that one competitor, the one associate, the one person who has shattered my life. And if it's your will, use me as your instrument of revenge."

But, Jesus teaches no such thing. He refuses to be the spokesman of our natural instinct for payback. Instead he teaches us to say: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.[iv] “I tell you to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven times.”

To drive the point home, Jesus tells a parable about a king and his servant. The servant owes the king an amount nearing national debt -- 10,000 talents. Just to put it that into perspective, King Herod annual tax revenues were about 900 talents, so 10,000 talents would have been equal to the national revenue for more than eleven years. The desperate debtor asks to be released from his daunting debt, and the king forgives the financial obligation. The king just writes it off when the servant pleads for mercy. A debt is something that we owe and have not paid. When we fail to do what we should, God has every right to demand payment from us. We become debtors to God. But instead of punishment, God cancelled our debt. God offers total forgiveness to all who come want it. We stand before God as debtors who deserve punishment. But through Christ, we are set free.

How do we respond to grace like this? We should fall on our faces in thanks. We should commit our lives to showing the same mercy to others and doing everything God wants us to do. But Jesus knows that this is not always the case. As he continues his parable, the forgiven servant walks arrogantly away from the king. After being forgiven for a mind-boggling debt of worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the foolish servant goes to one of his co-workers who owes him one or two grand. The coworker pleads for mercy, but the servant will hear none of it and has him thrown into jail. The rest of the servants can’t believe what’s happened, so they tattle to the king. The result is not pretty. I believe Jesus is saying this: a person must forgive in order to be forgiven. The one who can’t forgive a fellow human being, especially for a trifling offense, cannot expect to be forgiven the great debt we owe God.

What is your reaction to forgiveness? Is it grateful thanks or repeat offense? Do you forgive others, or continue to hold grudges? A devout Christian man named Chet has a whole lot of trouble offering total forgiveness. In 1991 his son was shot and slain during a robbery. So far as he knows, the killers have not sought his forgiveness. From what he knows of them, he doesn’t think it’s likely, either. So, he does not feel obliged to forgive them now. Chet says, “Don’t try to tell me I should feel guilty, because I have no intention at this point to forgive the animals . . . who viciously murdered my son. And anyone who disagrees has never walked in my shoes.”[v]

Chris Carrier. might disagree. Chris was kidnapped on Christmas Day, 1974 when he was 10 years old. When he was finally found he had been tortured, shot, and left for dead in the Everglades. Miraculously, young Chris recovered, though he lost sight in one eye. No one was ever arrested. A few years ago, 22 years after the kidnapping, David McAllister - confessed to the crime. McAllister was 77 years old, blind and dying in a nursing home. Chris Carrier, now a minister, forgave his abductor. Everyday Chris visits McAllister. He prays with the man, reads the Bible with him, and he’s doing everything he can to help the man make peace with God in his remaining years of life. Chris says, “While many people can’t understand how I could forgive David McAllister, from my point of view I couldn’t not forgive him. If I’d chosen to hate him all these years, or spent my life looking for revenge, then I wouldn’t be the man I am today, the man my wife and children love, the man God has helped me to be.”

I wish it was easy to forgive like this. The truth is it’s easier to be like Chet -consumed with pain and searching for understanding. Forgiveness is supernatural. We just can’t seem to muster it up on our own power. But Jesus can show us the way, because he knows the freedom in being able to forgive. He knew it on those last awful moments on the cross when he cried out, Father, forgive them . . .” Is there someone you need to forgive? Someone you’ve been avoiding? Is there an offense from the past . . . an insult . . . a cold-shoulder . . . perhaps a travesty that lingers on and needs to be pardoned? Forgive, the debt. Do it today. Because no matter what has happened, it's nothing in comparison with the debt that God has canceled for us.


1. See David Leininger, “The Freedom of Forgiveness” ( 1/15/96), www. sermoncentral.com, and William Barclay, Matthew II (Louisville: WJKP, 1975), 193.
[ii]. Fresh Illustrations for Preaching, 135.
[iii]. John Story via Presbynet, “Jokes” #3543
[iv]. Helmut Thielike, Our Heavenly Father (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), 104.
[v]. Quoted by Leininger.

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