Sermon for 10-16-11: “Do You Want to Know a Secret? Part 5: The Unforgiving Servant”

October 18, 2011

Today’s sermon explores the connection between being forgiven by God and “paying it forward” by forgiving others. Failing to forgive is a deadly spiritual cancer. The sermon deals head-on with the punchline of the parable in Matthew 18:35: “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” As I said in the sermon, if Jesus’ words here don’t put us on the hot seat, we’re probably not hearing it properly!

What does it mean to forgive “from your heart”? What happens when forgiveness doesn’t come easily? What’s the solution to the problem of forgiveness?

Sadly, no video this week. I updated my iPhone to iOS 5, which inadvertently deleted the video of the sermon. 🙁

Stained glass depicting the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. From Scots' Church, Melbroune. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sermon Text: Matthew 18:21-35

If you’re a fan of college football like me, you’ve probably heard about coaches being on the “hot seat.” It’s a constant topic of conversation among college football fans. Mark Richt, UGA’s coach, was on the hot seat when Georgia lost to Boise State and South Carolina at the beginning of the season, but he’s won every game since then so that hot seat has cooled off considerably—much to the chagrin of us Tech fans, that’s for sure! 

I suspect many of you—in today’s economy, in today’s job market—have felt on the hot seat. If you’re in commission sales with a quota to meet, you may feel like you’re on the hot seat if you’re not selling enough. If your job is in danger of being outsourced, you may feel like you’re on the hot seat. If you’re unemployed and can’t find a job that will pay the mortgage, you might feel like you’re on the hot seat, If you own your own business, trying to make ends meet for you and your family in a tight economy with a lot of competition, you may feel like you’re on the hot seat. If you’re in high school, trying to keep your grades up to qualify for the Hope scholarship or get into a better college, you may feel like you’re on the hot seat. If you’re in college, trying to maintain your grades in order to keep your scholarship or get into a good grad school, you may feel like you’re on the hot seat.

To say that the first servant in today’s parable was on the hot seat is a major understatement. He owed a ridiculously large sum of money… Ten thousand talents meant hundreds of millions of dollars. Did the king let the servant borrow his platinum American Express card without a credit limit? Regardless, the servant was in so much financial trouble that Dave Ramsey himself would throw up his hands and say, “No financial peace for you! You’re hosed.” And he was hosed, at least until he pleaded with the king: “Give me more time. I’ll pay it back!” He could never pay it back. The king knew that. But the king had mercy on the servant. Wiped the slate clean! Can you imagine if the friendly folks at Bank of America took your Visa statement and said, “You’re off the hook!And, hey, don’t worry about your credit score. We’ll make sure it’s above 750. If only the bank that has my student loans would tell me I’m off the hook!

So the king forgives the debt and the first servant is off the hot seat. But not for long! Because, as you know from the parable, when he has an opportunity to forgive one of his fellow servants who owes him a far more manageable amount of money, the first servant throttles the second servant and throws him in prison. Word gets back to the king, who’s furious. So the king rescinds the original offer of forgiveness and tortures the guy until he pays off his original debt—which he would never be able to do.

And then in verse 35, Jesus gives us this kicker: “So my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Is your seat feeling a little warm right now?

If it isn’t, maybe you’re not hearing this parable properly! Frankly, this parable sort of kicks my butt. After all, we preachers preach assurance of salvation all the time based on God’s unconditional pardon, unconditional forgiveness, unconditional grace—and yet it seems pretty clear that Jesus is saying that forgiveness depends on one condition. God will forgive your sins so long as you forgive other people. Can God’s gift of forgiveness be so easily taken away from us? That’s a frightening thought.

It’s frightening because we know firsthand how difficult forgiveness can be—don’t we? Why do you think Peter asked Jesus “how many times” he needed to forgive someone? Because he didn’t want to have to forgive more than necessary. Because forgiveness is hard! And sometimes even if we try to forgive someone who’s wronged us, how can we know for sure that we’ve truly done it? How can we know for sure that deep within the dark recesses of our hearts we’re not harboring some resentment? How can we know for sure that we’re not holding some grudge—even a small grudge—because we haven’t fully or completely forgiven someone?

No, this parable puts us squarely on the hot seat. It makes us uncomfortable. Now, brothers and sisters, we Methodist pastors don’t want you to be uncomfortable in any way. We want to offer you an ice pack while you sit on the hot seat. We want to offer you a cold glass of lemonade. We want to turn down the thermostat. I want to turn down the thermostat on this parable! But I don’t want to turn it down too much—because God knows that sometimes it’s good for us to feel some pain and discomfort. God gets our attention through these things. They can motivate us to change. But I am turning it down the heat just enough to say that we must interpret this parable in light of everything else we know from scripture. Everything else we know about the gospel. Failing to forgive someone is a sin, by all means, but like all sins, it’s a forgivable one—so long as we recognize this failure to forgive as a sin and repent of it as we become aware of it.

Notice that that’s not at all what the first servant does in this parable. He doesn’t even know he has a problem with forgiveness. He doesn’t see the irony: he’s been forgiven this exorbitant sum of money, and he can’t, in return, pay it forward by forgiving someone else an infinitesimally smaller amount. It’s as if this priceless gift of forgiveness that the king bestowed upon the first servant were wasted! It’s as if he’d forgotten just how much trouble he was in before the king bailed him out. It’s as if he were just taking this gift for granted. Do we understand, Jesus asks us, what it means to receive God’s gift of forgiveness? If we’re not paying it forward by forgiving other people their sins against us, then maybe we haven’t received this gift of forgiveness in the first place. Or, as John Wesley would want me to point out, maybe we received the gift and lost it through our own sin. Either way, if we fail to forgive, it could be a sign that we stand in need of God’s saving grace.

Jesus knows that failing to forgive others is a deadly spiritual cancer! We don’t have to even go to hell for eternity in order to experience a little bit of hell on earth by failing to forgive! Someone else has said that failing to forgive someone is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die. Failing to forgive someone means that the person who hurt us continues to hurt us, continues to have power over us, continues to dictate how we feel and behave. God wants us to be free from all that, but how?

Years ago, in his stand-up routine, comedian Steve Martin said that he knew of a surefire way of making a million dollars. He asked, “How do you make a million dollars? I’m going to tell you how to make a million dollars. Are you ready? First, you get a million dollars, and then you take it and…” You see the problem? Making a million dollars is a whole lot easier when you’ve already got millions of dollars. In the same way, forgiving someone is a whole lot easier when the Holy Spirit has transformed our hearts in such a way that we have become a forgiving people.

Forgiveness, in other words, isn’t primarily something that we do; it’s something that we are. This is what Jesus means when he says in verse 35 that we need to forgive “from the heart.” Isn’t that always the problem? The heart! We can fake people out with our actions; we can even go through the motions of forgiveness; and by all outward appearances look O.K.; but Jesus is always concerned about what’s inside here. That’s what needs to change. And what’s inside here does begin to change when we accept for ourselves God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life in Jesus Christ.

That’s where it starts. Because once we experience this gift of firgiveness, we begin to see that forgiving others is but a tiny drop in the very large bucket of the forgiveness that God has given to us. This doesn’t mean forgiveness will always come easily. In order to do it well, it takes the old-fashioned work of prayer, fasting, worship, Bible study, receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion, and other means of grace. In other words, it takes God!

I read something last week by a favorite theologian who observed that the number one problem with many pastors these days is that they go about their jobs as if God doesn’t exist. I’m guilty of that! Every church committee meeting that I go to ought to begin with ten minutes of silent prayer before we make any decisions! I often ask myself, “What am I going to do to solve this problem?” I need to be reminded from time to time that I’m not smart enough to solve many problems. I should ask, “What does God want me to do?” Right now the United Methodist Church is wringing its hands about how to make the church grow. That’s the subtext of so many clergy meetings I go to. Apparently we’ve decided that the Bible isn’t good enough for us, so we talk about the latest strategies and tactics and trends from the world of marketing and business.

I’m not saying that we have nothing to learn from that world, but that shouldn’t be our starting point.

“How do we make the church grow?” is the wrong question? The right question is “What is God calling us to do? How can we do God’s will? How can we be faithful to our Lord?” Answer those questions and I suspect everything else will take care of itself, right? Doesn’t Jesus say something about “seeking first God’s kingdom”? Each one of us should fall on our knees and answer those questions! And I’m sure what I’m saying applies equally to laypeople, right? Let us not go about our business—whatever that business may be—as if God doesn’t exist! We can’t do it on our own.

It takes practice to forgive but that’s why we have each other. The church should be a community in which we constantly practice forgiveness. Let’s learn together how to do it better and more easily and more quickly.

But… The first and most important order of business is to accept God’s gift of forgiveness. All of us, after all, are a lot like the first servant in today’s parable. Apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ, we all stand before God with a debt of sin that we cannot begin to repay. Apart from Christ, we are all in a world of trouble because of our sin. Apart from Christ, we all stand to lose everything, eternally, in hell, when we die.

As you can see from this parable, however, God is ready and willing to forgive us and save us from the consequences of our sin if we turn to him and ask for the forgiveness that comes through faith in Christ. Receiving this gift of forgiveness isn’t hard to do, or at least it shouldn’t be. As with the servant in the parable, it’s a matter of swallowing our pride and owning up to our sin. Confessing that we are sinners who are in desperate need of God’s grace. Trusting that because of what God did through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus, we can be forgiven and experience new and eternal life. Resolving to live differently than we did before, and continually repenting as we become aware of the ways in which we fail to live that way. If we haven’t received this gift of forgiveness, God is offering it to each one of us today.

Why go another day without settling your debt with God? Especially when “settling your debt” means recognizing that you can’t settle your debt. But you can fall on God’s mercy and trust that God has paid that debt in full through the cross of Christ.

You know what drives me crazy? It’s that sometimes even people who go to church, even a good old Methodist church, don’t know for sure whether or not they’ve received God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life. They might say, “Well, I was baptized, so I think that means I’m O.K.” Baptism by itself doesn’t mean you’re saved. They might say, “Well, I went through confirmation class and was confirmed when I was a 12, so I hope that means I’m O.K.” Confirmation, by itself, doesn’t mean you’re saved. They might say, “Well, I go to church, so I’m pretty sure that means I’m O.K.” Going to church, by itself, doesn’t mean you’re saved. My point is that there doesn’t need to be any guesswork here—any wondering or wishing or hoping. I don’t want you to walk around worrying that after you die your debt with God is going to catch up with you. I want you to know for sure that God has forgiven you.

I want you to get out of the hot seat with God. God doesn’t want you to live on the hot seat. You may be on other hot seats in your life, as we’ve discussed, but you don’t need to be on the hot seat with God anymore.

Why do you no longer have to be on the hot seat anymore? Because Jesus Christ has paid your debt! If you believe that, will you say it with me? Jesus Christ has paid my debt. Because God has set you free from your debt. God has set me free from my debt. Because God loves you. God loves me. Because you’ve been reconciled with God. I’ve been reconciled with God. Because you’re a child of God. I’m a child of God. Because Jesus Christ has saved you. Jesus Christ has saved me. And that changes everything for us now! And that changes everything for me now. Amen. Can you believe it? Do you believe it? If you believe it, say Hallelujah!

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