In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
When I was a student in school, I enjoyed math. It came naturally to me. I liked the multiplication tables and the patterns in the numbers. My 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Fischer, told my parents that I should go into computers as a career. What I especially liked was how everything makes sense in math. There are clear right and wrong answers. If you use the formulas and do the work correctly, everything works. There’s no uncertainty about it. There’s a goodness and beauty to the algebraic equations and the geometry and the physics of things. Of course, then I took AP Calculus as a senior in high school which didn’t make quite as much sense to me, I got a C, and that’s where my math journey ended.
Whether or not you liked math in school, the reality is that we all tend to approach life in a mathematical way. Particularly in our relationships, we want the equation to be balanced and proportional, for everything to add up and be equal so that no one gets taken advantage of. You do this for me, then I’ll do that for you. If someone mistreats us, we’re inclined to subtract the amount of kindness we show them. We keep a mental tally adding up the wrongs that have been done to us. In the legal realm, we believe that there should be measured consequences for people that do wrong. What God says in the Old Testament makes a lot of sense, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth.” That’s a balanced equation. It’s a fair and just punishment. It’s proportional. And in the realm of the Law, that is good. Another way of saying it is that the punishment should fit the crime. Restitution should be made that is mathematically equal to what was stolen and the financial damage that was caused, and so forth. When God established this form of justice for Israel, it actually protected people from disproportionate punishment that was vengeful, from increasingly violent retaliation. With governments and civil authorities, an eye for an eye is a just way of doing things, and a much better way than mob rule or vigilante justice.
God’s Law is mathematically satisfying like that. Of course, a huge problem arises for us when we hear what the just punishment for our own sinful rebellion against God is. “The wages of sin is death.” That may not seem fair until God’s Word brings us to see the depths of our own depravity in thought, word, and deed, our failure to love and trust in Him as we should, our constant obsession with ourselves and our own needs and desires. We are like the servant who owed the king 10,000 talents. Just one talent was the equivalent of about 6000 days of work. So, doing the math, that’s 60,000,000 days of work which the servant would have to do to cover his debt. In other words, he could never pay it back. That massive amount of debt points to the absolute futility of us trying make up for the debt we owe to God. It’s a sign of how deeply ingrained our sin is that we think we can make things right with God by just being a good or spiritual person. Even if I spent every moment of every day doing good works to try to pay my debt to God, it wouldn’t be anywhere near close to enough. And besides, if I’m doing these things for my own benefit, to save myself, are they even good works to begin with?
Our only hope comes not from the Law but from the Gospel, not from mathematical precision and fairness, but from forgiveness and mercy. When the first servant in the Gospel pleads for more time to pay his debt–as if that would help–the King does an amazing and unexpected thing. He completely forgives the debt! No math was applied here in coming up with a payment plan or marking it down by some percentage. Rather, it was just completely wiped off the books. And this is exactly what God has done for us in His Son Jesus. Our Lord absorbed the debt we owed; he took the hit and paid the price. His death on the cross purchased our freedom and released us from that worst of all bill collectors, the devil. Your account is settled by God’s mercy. You are free from the power of sin, free from hell, free from being afraid of God. You are forgiven. You’ve been given a new life and a new beginning.
So now what? What does this mean for the way we live and for our relationships with others? The fact is that it’s hard for us to give up our mathematical, record-keeping ways, isn’t it. It certainly was for Peter. He comes up with a mathematical rule, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” We might say that number’s actually a little too generous, considering he didn’t take into account whether these were minor sins or major sins. We might come up with a more sophisticated sliding scale: Ten times if it’s something little; only one time if it’s something big.
But Jesus’ answer shows that Peter shouldn’t really be using math at all. Our Lord says, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Now, that’s still math, you may say. But the point is clear. Are you really going to be keeping track all the way up to 490 times, making a little tally mark in your notebook of other people’s sins against you? How absurd would that be? Jesus’ point is to stop counting, stop using mathematical rules of the Law as your guide. You have freely received an immeasurable amount of forgiveness from God. Pass that forgiveness along to others also without measure.
Interestingly, Jesus’ words could also be translated as “Not seven times but seventy-seven times”–which is significant because there are exactly seventy-seven generations from Adam to Christ. In Adam all die, but then Christ comes in whom all are made alive. Every generation is covered, no one is left out of the full gift of divine forgiveness through the shed blood of Christ. But whether it’s seventy-seven or seventy times seven, the meaning is the same–perfect forgiveness multiplied without measure for all people. That is how God is toward us. That is how we are to be toward others. To limit your forgiveness is to limit God’s forgiveness, and that invites His judgment.
So it is that the first servant goes out from the king’s presence. You would think he’d be filled with joy with such a huge burden lifted from his shoulders. You’d think he’d be like Ebenezer Scrooge with a changed and merry heart on Christmas morning. But instead, the first servant in the parable goes out and finds a fellow servant who owes him 100 denarii, 100 days’ worth of wages. That’s not a small amount of money; just like the sins done against us sometimes cause us not a small amount of pain. But in comparison to what he had just been forgiven, it was pocket change. And yet, the first servant grabs the other servant by the throat and says, “Pay me what you owe!” And when he couldn’t and begged for time, the first servant had him thrown in prison. He couldn’t let go of his mathematical bookkeeping ways and allow the king’s freeing mercy to be passed along to others, to the great grief of everyone who saw what was happening.
When the king heard about this, he was enraged. “You evil servant! . . . Should you not have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?” The king had the servant thrown into jail until he paid off all the debt. Hell could be defined as the place where everyone gets to pay off their own debt for all eternity.
Jesus says, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Hear those words well. If you are harboring a grudge or withholding forgiveness or desiring revenge, hell is your destiny. Let those words crush that hardened, unforgiving heart. Repent, so that Jesus’ forgiveness might freely flow first to you and then through you to your neighbor. For He desires to rescue you from your unforgiveness.
Unforgiveness is a hardening of the heart, a clog in the artery of faith that is eventually lethal. When we refuse to forgive, we put ourselves in opposition to God and destroy our own desire to be forgiven. People who harbor grudges rarely, if ever, are found on their knees confessing their own sins before God. People who try to settle the score for every wrong done to them rarely acknowledge the score God settled when He hung Jesus on a cross to pay the price for their sinfulness. Those who refuse to be reconciled with others also refuse to be reconciled to God. We cannot be on our knees and at each other's throats at the same time.
Please note here that to forgive “from the heart,” as Jesus says, does not mean that forgiveness is a feeling but that it is an act of the will. You don’t have to be in a forgiving mood to forgive. And the other person doesn’t even have to be sorry, for that matter. They might reject your mercy. Forgiveness simply means we do not return evil for evil, anger for anger, sin for sin. We don’t let what they did to us enslave us, filling us with poisonous bitterness, making us want get back at them and make them suffer. We dismiss their sin and let it go. For remember, Jesus not only took your sins on Himself, but also all the sins that have been done to you. He bore your abuse and your humiliation, too. All of that He took away from you; all of that He put to death on the cross. Your enemy’s sins have been answered for, too. If there is to be vengeance for them, that belongs to the Lord, not to us. Since God deals with you in love because of what Jesus has done, you now have the ability and the freedom to forgive others in the seventy times seven way of the Gospel–not by your own power but by the power and mercy of Christ.
You may not be able to forget what’s been done to you. But that’s OK; Forgiveness is not amnesia. God does not forget the sins He forgives. Instead He refuses to act on them because he remembers that He has already done them to death at the cross. That’s what the Bible means when it says that “God remembers our sins no more.” God doesn’t dwell upon them or think about them; He puts them out of His mind. Instead, He dwells upon what His Son has done for us. God doesn't get even with us because Jesus evened us up with God (and then some) by offering His perfect life in our place. In the same way, we don’t necessarily forget what we forgive. How can you forget adultery or murder or abuse or betrayal? It means we don’t act on it; we don’t try to get even. We are the conduits and pipelines of God’s forgiveness to others. And that forgiveness is mathematically limitless, as limitless as the merits and love of Jesus. We lose nothing when we forgive. For we draw it all from Christ.
The body and blood of Christ are here for you today with that immeasurable forgiveness of sins. Math doesn’t apply here, only infinite and incalculable divine love. Revel in receiving the mercy of God here at this altar. Revel in being an instrument of the mercy of God to others out in the world.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
(With thanks to the Rev. William Cwirla for a couple of the thoughts in the final paragraphs)