How Often Should I Forgive?


Sermon preached by Dn. Jeff Smith on Sunday, August 28, 2022

Good morning! Today’s gospel follows directly as an answer to Peter’s question, “How often should I forgive? Seven times? Well, we all know the answer to his question. Today, I would like to focus on the element of forgiveness in this gospel, how we pray the Lord’s prayer together every week.

Our Father, who art in Heaven, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lift from us our heavy burdens as we lift the burdens that we have placed on those around us. Forgive us our debts as, of course, we forgive our debtors. Every week, we reaffirm the Lord’s mercy on us by reciting the Lord’s Prayer together. And today’s parable illuminates this critical phrase on forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer, which we are all about to pray together soon. If we cannot forgive others from the depth of our soul, then will God deliver us from evil? We pray to have our debts forgiven, but how many debts have we incurred? What example have we set? What lies have we told ourselves and others? The debts that others owe us is just a tiny fraction of what we owe. And yet, we are not even aware of our own failures. If we cannot forgive, are we prepared to live in fear and anxiety? Is someone hurting you? If someone is divisive in your life, pray for them. Pray for their salvation, that they themselves will beseech the Lord for their own salvation.

Today’s parable culminates everything that came before in Matthew. Just before today’s gospel, Peter asks Jesus, how often do I need to forgive? Seven times? That’s Peter’s question. And Jesus replies, no, try seventy times seven. Today’s gospel follows Jesus’ reply to Peter to forgive, not seven times, but close to 500 times. Just keep forgiving. Jesus has just advised his disciples to humble themselves like children, and only then will they be “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” He advised them to not despise the little ones. He told them to leave the hundred sheep to save the one lost lamb. All of these parables lead up to today’s gospel of forgiveness. Obviously, the king who wished to settle his accounts is Christ himself, who forgives everything.

I tried to adjust the talents and denarii into today’s money. I’m told that ten thousand talents comes to at least 200,000 years of labor, perhaps close to three and half billion dollars. How anyone could have borrowed so much is beyond me. But our debts have likewise come to unpayable amounts, and yet Christ still forgives us. Today’s indebted man cried, “have patience on me and I will pay you everything.” He must have known that he could never repay his debt. His master forgave everything when he had only asked for a little time to pay him back. Instead, the Lord was moved with compassion, and he forgave all his debt. Experiencing this massive relief should have encouraged the debtor to become more gentle with others, right? Maybe he couldn’t really comprehend what had just happened, because in exchange, he ran out to collect the debts owed him, grabbing another servant by the throat (in a vivid and brutal image), demanding a payment of a few denarii or about $20, then throwing him in jail when he couldn't pay, which was nothing compared to what he had just been forgiven.

John Chrysostom brilliantly wrote that “the debtor failed to recognize the harbor by means of which he had just escaped the shipwreck of his life. And so, he thrust a sword into his own body.” In response, God was helpless in His love. He could not then forgive the unforgiving man because he had closed his life against the Lord with his own unforgiveness. So, in anger, the King delivered him to the jailers, but in reality, the debtor jailed himself.

This parable remains an unsurpassed demand for compassion. God is always ready to forgive, but he cannot enter an unforgiving heart if we bar the door to his mercy. Since we too are destined for death, there is no way we can repay what we owe, but God offers complete and utter forgiveness, resurrection of the body and eternal life with Him. This is a great and unfathomable glory. He nailed our bonds to the cross. Our debts have been annulled through water, the death and resurrection granted in baptism, and through our sharing of Christ’s body and blood in the Church. But this release can only happen when we release those around us from the few minor faults that they might have committed against us. When we exchange the plank in our own eye for the splinter in someone else’s, we are called to become aware, and to forgive as God forgives. We are forgiven so we can forgive, and this starts the righteous circle of open-hearted innocence without blame.

This is the Way. God forgives all of the outcasts, and we can have no more important privilege than to mediate the forgiveness which we ourselves experience. We can and we must forgive in God’s name. This is a great and mighty power. Thanks be to God.