SERMON on forgiveness based on Matthew 18: 21-35

See the end of the sermon for the Bible reading

Our gospel reading this morning is a parable about forgiveness – so let’s spend this time looking briefly at the subject of forgiveness.

And we begin with a quote. ‘The wonder of forgiveness has become a banality. It can be the death of our faith if we forget that it is literally a miracle’. The wonder of forgiveness? The miracle of forgiveness?

Why would that unknown author describe forgiveness as a ‘wonder’ and a ‘miracle’? Perhaps our parable will help us to understand. Jesus tells it in response to Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive his brother who sins against him? Should it be up to seven times? An odd question to us, but religious teaching of the time taught that you only needed to forgive someone three times. So, Peter’s thinks he’s being generous by suggesting he should forgive up to seven times. He was probably expecting to be commended, but Jesus instead replies he should forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven. He should forgive so many times that no number is big enough to count the forgiveness in other words.

Then we have the parable. We have a slave who owes his master a lot of money (10,000 talents), but can’t pay him. A talent was itself a good deal of money. It’s hard to make a meaningful comparison with today’s money, so let’s just say the man’s debt was sky high. So his master orders that the man be sold (together with his wife and children and all his possessions) so that the debt can be paid off. It was a routine business procedure in those days long ago although deeply shocking to us of course. And the slave certainly wasn’t happy about it either. He pleads with his master to have patience with him and he will pay the debt in full (something that would have been impossible in fact). However, the master is moved by the man’s plight – and his eloquence and he takes pity on him – even to the extent of forgiving him the debt; an act of extraordinary generosity. The story gives no hint of how the slave felt about this but we can imagine he felt extremely relieved and very happy. But then he encounters a fellow slave who owes him a small debt of 100 denarii (1 denarius was the equivalent of a day’s wage for a labourer). Instead of following in his master’s footsteps and having patience with the man though he grabs him by the throat and demands the money he is owed. He has just been let off a huge debt himself – but when his fellow slave can’t pay he doesn’t copy his master, but rather flings the man into prison. This debt was nothing compared with the debt he himself had owed, but unlike his own master he has no pity; no compassion.

The master (the lord) gets to hear of this and he summons the first slave, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart’.

So, what this parable teaches is that we are, as Christians, to be forgiving people. Paul mirrors this teaching when he says in Ephesians 4:31-32: ‘Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you’. Yet forgiveness can be a hard thing to either offer or receive. There are times when we might prefer to hang onto our resentments and grievances and hurts. There are times too when we simply aren’t ready to forgive or be forgiven. Notice how we aren’t offered a scale of big and little sins in the Bible either: the minor ones that we’re expected to forgive and the major ones that we aren’t. We are simply expected to be forgiving people because forgiveness is important in helping us to live the best lives we can – and we are reminded of that importance because Jesus included forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer and those who wrote the Creed included ii there as well.

We say in the Creed, I believe in the forgiveness of sins’. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’. (Or in the traditional version, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’). We pray that our sins would be forgiven as we forgive those who sin against us. We must forgive in order to be forgiven. This teaching runs like a thread throughout the whole of the New Testament. Those who will not forgive others cannot hope that God will forgive them. As Jesus says in Matthew 6: 14-15 very explicitly. ‘For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.’ Divine and human forgiveness go hand in hand.

Forgiveness can be a ‘big ask’ for us though. It might be that we can all think of things that have happened to us where the very thought of forgiving the person who’s treated us badly is simply outrageous. Yet, we say that we believe in the forgiveness of sins, words not just to be said and believed – but lived and acted upon as well – whether difficult or not. There might not be a table of big and little sins in the Bible yet there clearly are some utterly ghastly things that happen in this fallen world in which we live. How can a murderer or a terrorist be forgiven for example? How can the family of the man in Staffordshire mauled to death by dogs possibly forgive the dog’s owner? Yet listen to what Sheila Cassidy who was imprisoned by Pinochet has to say:

I can only say: however much we have been wronged, however justified our hatred, if we cherish it, it will poison us. Hatred is a devil to be cast out, and we must pray for the power to forgive, for it is in forgiving our enemies that we are healed’.

Forgiveness is always a choice, it might not be something we can instantly do in a particular situation, it might take time but reach out to God and he will help us. He will delight to help us. Sheila Cassidy clearly made the choice to forgive and through that was healed.  The thing is you see if we ever find ourselves in a situation when we can’t forgive or won’t forgive then we find ourselves wrapped round in chains of bitterness and hurt and resentment. But when we are able to make that choice to forgive – then we cast off those chains and we free ourselves. The kingdom principle of forgiveness means that there’s no need to practice ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ which (as someone said), only results in everyone ending up blind and toothless.

Rowan Williams says when we are able to meet in the middle the one who has hurt us, or the one we have hurt and offer or receive forgiveness then we are ‘radically nourishing one another’s humanity’.

Another of my favourite authors C.S. Lewis describes the forgiveness of sins as facing the sin, seeing it exactly as it is; making no allowances or excuses for it – and by God’s grace sincerely forgiving the person who has committed it. It’s important to point out that forgiving someone doesn’t automatically include the need to have any continuing, ongoing relationship with that person which might in certain circumstances be damaging or even dangerous.

Going back to the parable the contrast between the two debts is staggering. The point about this is that nothing that others can do to us in any way compares with what we (the human race) have done to God. And if God can forgive us the debt we owe to him, we must forgive our neighbours the debts we owe to them. Nothing that we have to forgive can come close to what we have been forgiven.

The thing is God has forgiven us our many sins; as we sincerely repent of our sins he forgives us over and over again without keeping a record of our wrongs. We can be very busy making excuses for what we have done as deep down we don’t really believe that God will be able to forgive us. We think that we have to plead our case; coax God into forgiving us. When we get our heads round the fact that God has forgiven us our sins, that he doesn’t keep a record of wrongs then it should produce in us a free and generous attitude of forgiveness towards others which is what Jesus wants to teach us in this parable. Psalm 103: 12 says, “As a Far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our transgressions from us.”  I love that. If God continually shows us that grace and mercy, shouldn’t we treat one another with the same understanding and compassion?  God, who is the lord in this parable, becomes the standard for how we are to forgive others.

When we are like the unforgiving servant though then we set ourselves outside of Christ’s grace and the mercy of having been forgiven. Forgiveness is in fact the holy way of the Cross.  And as we follow the teachings of Jesus, who tells us to forgive others as we have been forgiven, then we release the power of God’s love and forgiveness into a world where rejection and revenge are commonplace; into a world which is in great need of deep healing.  Should we suffer from the emotional and mental lacerations of a wrong done to us, or perhaps a wrong that we’ve done to another person, then the wounds will never heal, emotional and mental health will never be fully restored without forgiving others as well as forgiving ourselves.  Forgiveness heals us and it heals others. To be a Christian means to ‘forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you’. 

Do you agree with the author who described forgiveness as a ‘wonder’ and a ‘miracle’? I leave it to you to decide.

Just as I began with a quote let me end with another. An attempt was made on Ronald Regan’s life in 1982 when he was president of the United States. His attitude towards that made an impression on his daughter, Patti Davis: ‘the following day my father said he knew his physical healing was directly dependent on his ability to forgive John Hinckley. By showing me that forgiveness is the key to everything, including physical health and healing, he gave me an example of Christ-like healing.’


Bible reading Matthew 18: 21-35


21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him, 25 and, as he could not pay, the lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”