The Power to Forgive
Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 18:21–35
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 17, 2023
“The Power to Forgive”
When my mother died a few years ago, her funeral took place on a frigid and icy winter morning in my little hometown. We all thought that because of the weather, there would just be a small gathering of people, but the church was nearly full. My own daughters had never experienced an Iowa winter before, and could not believe how cold it was. And it got a whole lot worse after we left when a polar vortex descended from the north! When it was all over, they told me: “Dad, we love you, but we never want to come back here in the winter.” Because of the weather, there was no visitation the evening before; it was only on the morning of the funeral. There at the church, my wife and daughters, siblings and extended family greeted people who came to pay their respects. Among them was one individual with whom I had gone to school many years before. As we stood just a few feet away from my mother’s open casket, this individual proceeded to tear me up one side and down the other, telling me in no uncertain terms what a terrible person I was in high school. I had no recollection that I had done this person wrong, but clearly in their eyes I had. I had not seen this individual in forty years. I was so dumbfounded not only by what was said, but by the setting and context in which all of this took place, that I was speechless. Having read me the riot act, this person left and somehow I had to pull things together to serve as the preacher for my mother’s funeral service that was to begin shortly. I don’t when or if I will ever see this individual again, but if I do, I pray that a spirit of understanding, reconciliation and forgiveness will prevail. Forty years is a long time to stew over old grudges and grievances. The power to forgive – to let go – lifts these burdens and sets us free. Based on Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant in today’s Gospel lesson, the sermon is entitled “The Power to Forgive.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
If anyone were entitled to bear a grudge, it would be Joseph, whom we hear about in today’s Old Testament lesson (Genesis 50:15-21). Sold into slavery by his older brothers and taken away to Egypt, those brothers covered their tracks by telling dear old dad, Jacob, that a wild animal had killed Joseph. They took Joseph’s clothes, dipped them in goat’s blood, and made it look like that’s what really happened. Jacob was inconsolable with grief and sorrow over the loss of his son, not knowing that his son was actually alive. Joseph’s story in Genesis (chapters 37-50) tells of all that he endured, including slavery and imprisonment, because of what his brothers did to him. It would have been very easy for him to nurse a deep and lasting grudge against his brothers; plotting how he would get even with them one day. But the hand of the Lord was with Joseph, and after he had been elevated to the second highest office in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself, Joseph was unexpectedly reunited with his brothers when they came to Egypt, looking to buy food in the midst of a great famine. They did not recognize him, but he recognized them. To be sure, Joseph did mess with them some – really to test them – but he did not exact the vengeance that he easily could have done. Instead of destroying them in a fit of righteous anger, what did Joseph do? He forgave them. And now, in today’s Old Testament lesson, their father, Jacob, has died, and the brothers are afraid that Joseph is going to settle the score now. Amazingly, Joseph does no such thing. Instead, he tells his brothers this: “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear, I will provide for you and your little ones” (Genesis 50:19-21a). Joseph’s action set the course for the future. The power to forgive came from outside Joseph; it came from God himself.
In our own lives, the power to forgive also comes from outside us. For us, as with Joseph, the power to forgive comes from God. When we are wronged, insulted, and mistreated, our human nature often wants that pound of flesh. We want to settle the score and get even. To forgive and let go is counter-intuitive to our human nature. But without this, where do we end up in life? The cycle of revenge can go on for a very long time. A devotion from Lutheran Hour Ministries this past week said this: “A major change like a death in a family causes everyone to re-evaluate their relationships. Old sins and guilts may come back to the surface and destroy the peace of everyone involved. What can we do about these things? The same thing we do when sin and guilt are fresh: run to Jesus. Seek His help to deal with the matter. Ask for His wisdom, His courage, and His mercy. Then, if possible, talk with other people involved. In many cases, it is wise to involve a pastor or counselor, especially if the sin is major, or if you fear that the people involved might react in painful or harmful ways. The Lord doesn’t expect you to put yourself in danger by confronting an abuser. What if it’s impossible to talk with the others involved—because they’re dead, absent, or suffer from dementia? Take it up with Jesus, who can and will help you heal in these situations as well. He who lay down His life for you is able to bring you out of the shadows of old grief and sin, into His own everlasting light and life” (“Long Shadows,” e-devotion for 9/12/23 by Dr. Kari Vo).
Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant in today’s Gospel lesson shows what holding onto old grudges and grievances looks like. Peter was looking for some kind of cut-off point, some kind of limitation, when it comes to forgiveness, and we do as well. Whether we translate Jesus’ words as “seventy times” or “seventy times seven,” the point is, we are to forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven. As our King has graciously forgiven us the enormous debt of our sins, day in and day out, time and again, over and over, we are called to do the same with one another. Is that easy? No, it can be the hardest thing in the world to do. But our model for forgiveness comes from outside us. It comes from the Lord Jesus, who when he was being crucified, prayed for those who were nailing him to the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In the death of Jesus on the cross, the crushing burden of our debt of sin has been fully paid. Through that sacrifice, God is now reconciled to us (2 Corinthians 5:18), and we have been set free. That’s what forgiveness does: it sets us free. And now, the question becomes: what will we do with that freedom? Will we, like the servant in Jesus’ parable who had been forgiven so much, now go out and chase down others, screaming: “Pay what you owe!” (Matthew 18:28b)? Or, will we do something different; something that looks more like what Jesus would do? The blood of Jesus, God’s Son, that cleanses us from all our sin (1 John 1:7b), does indeed set us free – a freedom from as well as a freedom for. We have been set free from fear, guilt, shame; set free from the condemnation of the Law that says we haven’t done enough or been good enough for God to love us. Jesus has taken care of it all for us, a gift that we now receive through faith in him. And now this freedom from leads to freedom for; freedom for extending this gift of forgiveness and new life to others. As we have been forgiven by God, so we are led by the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive others.
May the Lord who has begun this good work among us bring it to completion in the day of Christ Jesus. Amen.