My homily from this past Sunday:
During World War II a young Nazi officer lay dying in a Polish hospital. He wanted to confess his horrible actions, be forgiven, and die in peace. So he asked a nurse to bring a Jewish man to his bedside. When the Jewish man arrived, he listened to the soldier’s confession. The soldier confessed how he had herded Jewish people into a house, set gasoline cans inside, and then ignited them with hand grenades. The soldier also recalled how he gave orders to shoot a father and a daughter when they tried to escape. “We shoot,” he cried, “oh, God…I shall never forget it…it haunts me. Please forgive me and let me die in peace.” The man got up and left the room without saying a word. Later some rabbis confirmed this man’s actions and wrote this: “Whoever is merciful to the cruel will end up being indifferent to the innocent…. Let the SS man die unforgiven. Let him go to hell.” (Concordia Pulpit Resources, 9:4, p. 10). Ouch!
Jesus, though, has something different to teach us today. Our Lord Jesus calls us to trust His forgiveness so that we will also forgive one another.
In the verses just before our Gospel reading Jesus teaches us to go to our sinning brother, tell him his fault, and seek to gain him back in forgiveness. Peter was listening carefully and catching on. His newfound insight led him to ask a question: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
Now Peter was being very gracious and generous. Writings from Jewish rabbis around that time show that the going rate for forgiving someone was three times. After that, a person ought to know better. So Peter was being very gracious. He doubled the going rate and added one more forgiving act for good measure. After all, “seven” is the Biblical number of completeness.
Our sinful flesh always wants to put limits on forgiveness. We also ask Peter’s question: “How often shall I forgive?” Sometimes we might even ask it this way: “How often to I have to forgive?” Too often there’s no sweeter sound to our sin-clogged ears than, “Don’t get mad; get even.” We don’t want to appear weak or soft on crime, and we certainly don’t want to be “taken advantage of.”
Oh, to be sure, forgiveness is very laudable – in the right situation. I remember when Pope John Paul II forgave the man who tried to assassinate him. He was applauded for his graciousness. But then again, John Paul was considered a “man of God”—as such he’s supposed to be more forgiving than most. We also hear talk of forgiveness after school shootings such as Columbine several years ago. But then again, the evil shooters took their own lives, and we don’t have to look them in the eye anymore. Still, we, along with Peter, like to ask, “Isn’t there a limit to my forgiveness?”
However, Jesus answered Peter this way: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” It really doesn’t matter how you do the math – is it 77 times, or 490 times? – Jesus is teaching us to live and practice unlimited forgiveness. And His parable gives the reason why. A certain king forgives a servant, but the servant can’t forgive his fellow servant.
Yes, let’s consider the enormous, massive, infinite debt of our own sins. Augustus Toplady wrote a well-known hymn. You know it. “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee; Let the water and the blood, From Thy riven side which flowed, Be of sin the double cure: Cleanse me from its guilt and pow’r” (LSB 761:1).
How much guilt and power does our infinite debt of sin have? Mr. Toplady did some calculating. In 1775 he was “inspired” by the national debt. (Yes, there was one back then too!) Toplady wanted to show how a sinner’s debt can never be repaid. Since we sinners sin in all we do, he said, “Let’s say people sin once every second.” Yes, you heard correctly: one sin per second.
Let’s crunch the numbers. That adds up to 3600 sins per hour and 86,400 sins per day. Each year it adds up to 31,536,000 sins. When we can first drive a car, at age 16, we’d carry 504,576,000 sins on our record. When we’re 30 years old, enjoying family times with our children, we’d lug around 946,080,000 sins. When we’re 50 years old, the children are grown and the house is empty, our conscience would be overloaded with 1,576,800,000 sins. And when we reach 80, getting ready for the end of life, we’d have have to wrestle with 2,522,880,000 sins. Wow!
What’s the point? Our debt of sin is infinite. We cannot even begin to pay it back, no matter how many times we promise to “do better.”
But here’s the good news. There is forgiveness for our infinite debt of sins. As God told His Old Testament people: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her… that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins” (Is. 40:1-2).
Yes, double – double forgiveness – for all sins! Jesus has more forgiveness than you’ve got sins for. No matter what your debt is, Jesus paid it and forgives it—“not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and with His innocent suffering and death.” The king in Jesus’ parable absorbed the loss of the servant’s “gazillion” dollar debt. In the same way, Jesus Himself, our King and Savior, has absorbed the debt of our sin. He did not demand justice. He did not hold a grudge. He simply absorbed it, paid it Himself, and forgives. Unlimited forgiveness.
This is what our Baptism tells us. Our infinite debt is washed away. This is the infinite mercy of God that drives us to our pastor to confess our sins and hear the words of Jesus’ forgiveness. And when we eat and drink Christ’s Body and Blood, we receive Jesus’ even more infinite forgiveness.
Now we can consider the debt of our neighbor’s sins. In Jesus’ parable this debt seems large—a paycheck for three month’s work. But compared to the massive debt of billions of dollars, it’s nothing. This is the way to view our neighbor’s sins against us. Yes, our fellow Christians sin against us, disappoint us, anger us, even offend us. But what is that debt compared to how we have sinned against God? Honestly, it’s nothing. It’s a mere speck in our brother’s eye compared to the 2 x 8 plank sticking out of our own eye.
St. Paul said it well: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:12-14).
It really is a matter of faith toward God as well as love for our neighbor. If we cannot forgive our brother or sister, then we really have not trusted God when He revealed our infinite debt of sin. It also means that we don’t trust God’s forgiveness that comes through His beloved Son. You see, God also gives that same forgiveness to our neighbor. If God forgives him or her, why can’t we?
But God does forgive our neighbor. And so the best thing we can do for our neighbor who sins against us—whether a loved one, a friend, a co-worker, a fellow member at church—is to give your forgiveness too. That’s how our neighbor can see God’s forgiveness in action.
You see, the Church is the Body of Christ. As Christ forgives us, we also get to forgive each other. Jesus doesn’t want His body members to harm each other by not forgiving. No, He wants the same forgiveness that He gives to flow through His whole Body. When we trust and rely on Jesus’ forgiveness for us, we can also freely forgive each other and trust that Jesus has forgiven our neighbor as much as He has forgiven us.
Keep this in your mind and heart as you come to the Lord’s Table today. Jesus places His forgiveness into your mouths in the same Body and Blood that carried your infinite debt of sins to the Cross. He unites you to Himself and restores you to His image as one who forgives. Your hands and mouths that receive Christ’s Body and Blood may also speak and show His forgiveness to others. Amen.