The Freedom of Forgiveness

Unforgiveness is cancer of the soul. It’s a spiritual prison, holding in solitary confinement the one who refuses to let go, to leave things be, to forgive. If hell is the no-place where sins are bound for eternity, then unforgiveness is hell on earth, a foretaste of the fast to come. From this hellish prison, Jesus would rescue us in this morning’s Gospel.

Sin is inevitable. We are sinners. And when two or three sinners dance, toes will be stepped on. Inevitably, someone will say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, look at you the wrong way. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. In thought, word, and deed. What we do; what we don’t do. Some people are just prone to giving offense; they can’t help themselves. No matter how they say or do things. Others are all too eager to take offense. It’s a hobby with them. One thing is certain, we will sin against each other, and the closer we live and work together, the more likely that will be.

If you want to avoid sinning against your neighbor, don’t have neighbors. Live by yourself. Then you’ll just have the 1st table of the Law to worry about. Three commandments instead of ten. But you’ll still be a sinner in need of forgiveness. Just a lonely one.

Last week, we heard Jesus say, “If your brother sins against you, go to him. Take one or two others. Tell it to the church.” Go to every length possible to reconcile and forgive. Don’t set limits.

Peter was looking for limits, loopholes, some way of quantifying forgiveness. “How many times, Lord? How many times must I forgive the same sin? How about seven times?” When is enough enough? The rabbis said three. Seven is the next biblical “lucky” number. What could be more godly than seven?

Imagine how long I’d be married if my wife agreed to forgive me up to seven times but no more. Imagine how long I’d be pastor of this congregation if your forgiveness quota was seven. We wouldn’t be together here for 13 years. Imagine how long you’d be in this congregation if my quota was seven. If forgiveness had a limit, this place might be pretty empty.

Forgiveness that has limits is not actually forgiveness at all. Forgiveness has no limits, no bounds, no mathematics, no sharp-penciled balancing of the books. Forgiveness is lavish, outrageous, crazy. “I tell you, not seven, but seventy times seven.” Jesus sees Peter’s seven and raise him seventy times. And just about the time you begin to lose count, you’re on your way to learning what it means to live under the Gospel instead of the Law.

To forgive means to leave things be as they are. To let go of the offending thing. To drop dead to what someone has done to you. Like the farmer with the weedy wheat field who said, “Leave it all be. Forgive it.” Forgiveness is not a bargaining chip: “I’ll forgive you if you promise not to do it again.” Forgiveness has no ifs, ands, or buts. To forgive is to drop dead to the whole thing. To go on as though the thing hadn’t happened. It has no effect on you, no power over you. To forgive is to step into freedom, the freedom that is yours as a blood-bought, baptized child of God.

Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant. The parable is Jesus’ commentary on the fifth petition of His prayer: Forgive us our debts, in the same way that we forgive our debtors. A servant owed the king a lot of money – ten thousand talents. House mortgaged three times over; Visa cards maxed; dealing with the neighborhood loan shark. A chapter 13 nightmare. He begs for mercy, and tries to cut a deal. “Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything.” There was no way in the world he could do this. He was beyond bargaining, but he tries. We always do. Bargaining is one of the steps of dying, by the way.

There’s no use in bargaining with the Law. When it comes to the Law, we’re into debt up to our eyeballs. Beyond bankruptcy. We’re dead ducks. Unfortunately, religion teaches us to fast talk our way out of it. “Be patient, I’ll be good, I’ll do better, I’ll improve, the check’s in the mail….” Promises never paid the bills.

The king could have tossed the deadbeat in debtors’ prison for multiple life sentences. He could have sold everything the man had – his house, his car, his boat, the clothes off his back. But he didn’t. The king did the outrageous, crazy, reckless, insanely Gospel thing. He forgave the entire debt. Let it go. Dropped dead to the books and the bookkeepers. And the servant walked away free and clear.

Talk about a load lifted from your shoulders! Ever experience that yourself? One minute you’re waiting in dread for the repo man and some guy with a baseball bat. And the next minute, you’re debt free. It’s like dying and rising. Like being born again. The whole world looks different. Birds sing louder; colors are brighter; music is sweeter.

Even your fellow human beings, that pesky neighbor, your deadbeat uncle who never returns power tools, the people of your congregation and community, all look different. So they owe you a few bucks, so what? You’ve just gotten the biggest free ride of your life gratis, by grace. What’s a couple of bucks when you’ve got your whole life back?

Well, the forgiven servant went out in his freedom and found a fellow servant who owed him a few bucks, pocket change compared to what he owed the king. And instead of forgiving him, he wrapped his fingers around the man’s neck and began to choke him, demanding payment on the spot. And the man pleaded with the same words the servant used with the king: “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.” Forgiveness looks a little different from the forgiver’s side, doesn’t it? That’s the God side.

Instead of forgiving him, he had the man thrown into prison. When the king heard about it, he threw a fit, and called the servant in and reminded him of what he had been forgiven. “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger, the king had the man handed over to the jailers to be tortured – not just imprisoned but tortured – until he paid his entire debt. An eternity of torture. Literally hell to pay, and it’s all his own fault. He was a free man until he started choking his debtors.

When we refuse to forgive as we have been forgiven, we put ourselves in prison; and the King isn’t happy. Nothing angers Him so much as refusal to forgive. We abrogate our freedom in Jesus; we place ourselves into solitary confinement – isolated, alone, cut off. When we refuse to forgive as we have been forgiven, we are not acting like the free children of God that we are in Christ, but like children of Adam. Vindicating ourselves, getting even, doing to others as they’ve done to us. Cain killing his brother Abel.

That’s not the way of Christ. That’s not the life Jesus hung on a cross to win for you. He’s the Lamb who took away the sin of the whole world. Every sin is atoned for in His death; every sinner is reconciled to God by His Blood. When you look at a person who “owes you one,” see that person as one for whom Jesus died. That’s someone who is reconciled to God in the death of Jesus. Does he know that? Will he know that from you – by your words and your forgiveness?

How can you not forgive when you’ve had your sins died for by Jesus? When you’ve been reborn and renewed in Baptism? When you’ve eaten the Body of Jesus given into death for you? When you have drunk the Blood of Jesus shed for you? When you have heard Jesus say in your hearing, “I forgive you all your sins.” Can the forgiven refuse to forgive?

You leave here this morning debt free. Your sins are as far from you as the east is from the west. The books are closed. The debt is paid. The slate is wiped clean. All thanks to Jesus who paid the bills, “not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.” You are forgiven; you are free.

To live as a disciple of Jesus is to be disciplined in being forgiven. Learning to live as free children. It means confessing your sins, taking responsibility for your words and actions, hearing that God does not count your sins against you for Jesus’ sake. And in turn, forgiving others in the same reckless and outrageous way. Not in order to be forgiven, but because we already are forgiven.

To forgive someone who has sinned against you, is to be an icon of Christ, a visible picture of Jesus, for your neighbor, just as Joseph was a Christ-figure for his brothers. They wanted to kill him but instead sold him to slave traders who dumped him off in Egypt. Joseph would have been justified to put the screws to his brothers. But instead, he says through tears of reconciliation, “You meant it for evil, but God intended it for good.”

There’s something we don’t always think of. Even the sins others do against you, intending harm, intended to inflict pain and suffering, God has already worked for good in the all-reconciling death of Jesus on the cross. What’s the point in getting even when God has reconciled the books? You’re already way ahead of the game. God has worked everything for good. Why not do what Jesus did – drop dead, let go, forgive?

Luther says in the Large Catechism when you forgive another, that’s an audible sign to you from God of your forgiveness. The forgiveness you speak is not your own; it belongs to Jesus. You are the conduit; He is the Source – His cross and open tomb, His wounded hands and side, the water and the blood that flows to font and chalice, hands on head, words spoken into ears, “I forgive you all of your sins” – all from Jesus to you. And through you in seventy-times-seven abundance to those who sin against you. That’s the freedom of forgiveness.

In the name of Jesus, Amen.

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