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Imagine being hated so much by your own family that they beat you up, throw you in a pit, and then sell you to slave traders. Imagine that because of their actions you are taken to a foreign country with a language and customs that are very strange to you. Imagine that when things start looking up, your master’s wife tries to seduce you and then lies about it and tells her husband that you tried to rape her. Imagine that you are thrown in prison. After a while you do a favor for a fellow prisoner who is close to the king. He promises to remember you when he gets out, but he doesn’t. How would you feel?
I think we know the answer because, even though we have not experienced anything as bad as Joseph did, we have felt angry. We have had vengeful thoughts. We may even have become bitter and short-tempered with everyone around us. We may have even taken pleasure in dreaming up the most perfect way of getting revenge if the opportunity ever presented itself. But we don’t see that in Joseph. He was human just like us so I’m sure all these thoughts and more crossed his mind at one time or another. But he mastered those sinful, hateful, bitter and vengeful thoughts. He showed himself to be tenderhearted and forgiving toward his brothers who had intended to harm him and, at least for many years, ruined his life. How was he able to do this?
Peter was thinking the same thing after Jesus explained how he wanted Christians to treat those who sin against them. They are never to excuse sin. They are never to give the impression that sin is no big deal. They are to point out to the person who has sinned against them that they have not just sinned against them, but against God. But then Jesus said that if they listen to you, if they admit their sin, if they say “I’m sorry, please forgive me,” you have won your brother over. Peter understood what that meant. It meant that you forgive them; and not just by saying the words. You forgive them from the heart.
So, Peter asks Jesus, Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me? As many as seven times? I’m sure Peter thought seven times would be very gracious, that a lesser person might have offered three. We say, “three strikes and you are out.” Peter must have been very surprised when Jesus responded, not seven times, but I tell you as many as seventy-seven times. How could anyone, even the kindest, most tenderhearted person forgive the same person that many times!
What about you? Have you been a victim of a crime? My mother’s sister was murdered in her own house by a neighbor. My dad’s brother was shot and killed when he confronted someone stealing candy from his store. I can’t imagine the struggle my cousins have had thinking about God’s command that we forgive even our enemies.
Have you been a victim of abuse? A large percentage of people today have been abused by someone, often a close relative. Imagine those who are trafficked, sometimes by their own parents. How could you forgive that? What about being cheated on by that one you thought you loved the most in the world? What about being lied about, not just on social media, but in court and maybe losing your livelihood, or your freedom as a result. What about being imprisoned for a crime you didn’t commit? We often struggle to forgive an unkind word or a forgotten promise; how could we ever forgive some of things of much greater consequence?
Paul gives us the answer. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Jesus makes this verse come alive in his parable of the unmerciful servant. He reminds Peter, and us, that we are that servant who owes a debt that we can’t possibly pay. All the money in the world, combined with all the gold and sliver and diamonds, and anything else that is considered valuable—even if we had it all it wouldn’t be enough to pay the debt we have with God for just one sin. As Luther reminds us, “we daily sin much.” Multiply those daily sins of thoughts and words in addition to sinful actions by 70, or 80, or 90 years! No matter how much good we do, no matter how much money or power we accumulate in our life, it is never enough to tip the scales in our favor so that God says, “you have paid the debt you owe me.”
When the servant begged the master on his knees to be patient with him, to give him a chance, the master had pity on him. He knew that there was no way this servant could ever pay the debt he owed and so he forgave him the whole debt. He didn’t just reduce it to something he could pay over time. He completely wiped it out!
The point is clear. God saw that no one could ever pay the debt they owe him. Even without us begging him for mercy, even before we realized how deep in debt we were, he had pity on us.
But there was a problem. He couldn’t just write off the debt we owed. Nothing is really free. Whether it’s free medical care, or free tuition, someone has to pay for it. The same is true when it comes to forgiveness. Someone had to pay the debt we owed in order for God to be a just God and still forgive us.
Paul says, Christ loved us and gave himself for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. The only thing valuable enough to pay the debt we owed to God was the offering of a perfect life, a life without sin; and then a sacrifice, a volunteer who was willing to take on themselves the punishment we should have for our sins. Jesus volunteered to pay the debt. He volunteered to leave the perfection of heaven. He became one of us and lived in this sin filled, messed up world experiencing every temptation we do. He was betrayed by a friend, lied about in court, unjustly beaten and condemned. He didn’t just go to prison like Joseph. He went to the cross. He who had no sin became sin for us. He gave himself for us. He paid our debt in full so that God could declare us forgiven, free of all debt to him.
Peter was wondering how he could forgive someone more than seven times. We wonder how Joseph could forgive his brothers for what they did to him. We wonder how we can forgive those who do terrible things to us, and others. The answer is, God, in Christ, has forgiven you. The debt anyone has with you, even from the worst sin you can imagine, is nothing compared to the debt you had with God. Whatever the sin-debt anyone owes you they can never repay it. They can never turn back the clock and undo what they have done. They can never give you enough money, or love, or service, to erase what they did from your memory. The only way that you can forgive, truly forgive someone is the way that God has forgiven you. The only way that you can forgive someone is to look to Christ, to look at the cross and see that Jesus not only suffered to pay for your sins. He also suffered to pay for the debt of the person who has sinned against you. Jesus paid for their sin just as he has paid for yours.
Jesus gives us a strong warning in his parable of the unmerciful servant. He pictures this servant who has been forgiven a huge debt that he could never repay immediately going out and demanding payment from a fellow servant. Instead of seeing his forgiveness as a reason for gratitude and as motivation to live a life of love, he saw it as a license for sin. The strong warning comes as Jesus tells us that when the master heard about what he had done he revoked the cancellation of his debt and had him thrown in debtors prison until he could pay back everything, which he never could. It was an eternal sentence.
God expects that his gracious, full, and free forgiveness of all our sins will have an effect on our hearts. He expects that his wonderful grace will melt our hearts of stone and fill us with love for him and for our neighbor. If, after we receive his gracious forgiveness, we harden our hearts and view his forgiveness as a license for sin—he may revoke his gift of forgiveness and hand us over to the jailer until we can pay for every sin, which is never.
How do we keep that from happening? We remind ourselves daily of the debt that we owe God. We remind ourselves daily that if we were required to pay it ourselves, we never could even if we lived 100’s of years. Instead of paying it off we would just add to it. We remind ourselves daily of the mercy and love of Jesus. He loved us so much that he offered to pay our debt for us. And remember what that cost him. It cost him his life. How then can we refuse to forgive those who sin against us? It likely won’t cost us our life.
Knowing what God has done for us, that he has forgiven the debt we could never repay, melts our heart and fills us with love and compassion. It moves us to get rid of every kind of bitterness, rage, anger, quarreling, and slander, along with every kind of malice. It moves us to be kind and compassionate to one another, even our enemies, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ has forgiven us.