Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
Lord, how often will my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Seven times?
Seems quite generous quite honestly. He seems to recognize that the Lord loves mercy. But how many of us would even dare to be sinned against seven times. Peter’s question and suggested response is a great amount. Jewish tradition said that one should forgive up to three times for the same sin – with conditions placed on the forgiveness – “They better grovel sufficiently” – “They better make it up to me.” Peter perhaps thought he was proposing a praiseworthy, sacrificial, level of pardoning – above and beyond the call of duty – seven times!
We tend to laugh at Peter’s question, in part because we’ve been taught and know the parable. But before we laugh at Peter and look down on Peter we ought to consider just how generous and forgiving he was trying to be. Imagine, or maybe you don’t have to imagine, that you have a relative who struggles with some form of addiction. They come and inform you that they’ve cleaned up, they are on the right direction, but they need assistance with a car or rent or some other necessity as they go along the way. You provide it and find out that week that once again they fell off the wagon. But now things will be better, he asks again, would you provide for them again? Most probably would not, certainly not seven times the way St. Peter was advocating for, and most certainly not 77 times or seventy times seven times the way Jesus puts it.
“No, dear Peter,” Jesus says, “while you are offering more than twice as much grace as those who follow the law would require it still doesn’t grasp and equate to what grace and forgiveness truly is.” You see, Peter is like us, he wants to know the limits. Just at what point can I get away with not doing the right thing? At what point do I no longer have to forgive, at what point do I not have to help them out? What is the most extreme scenario or just how close can I tow the line without being at fault? It’s the child who holds his finger ever so close to the other and says “but I’m not touching you,” or the one who wants to know what is limit. And that is our problem and sin. We spend so much time and thought on the limits.
Then comes the parable. We are mistaken all too often to place ourselves as the king. We are mistaken to think that we are the one’s from whom forgiveness comes and that we give out grace. That is where in our Old Testament reading Joseph gets it right. The brothers know their history, they recall how badly they treated their brother as a child, they know how they sold him to slavery, they know how he spared them in the midst of drought and yet it was out of love for the father, for Jacob’s sake, that they were spared. It was Israel’s love for his thought to be dead son that brought them to Egypt. But Jacob has passed and the brothers fear the saying to be true, “fool me once, shame on me; fool me twice, shame on you.”
What they fear is that Joseph is like them. And what is true is that they are like the unforgiving, unmerciful servant. They’ve been forgiven a great amount and would exact revenge or some sort of future payback when the time was opportune. Joseph gets it though, “Am in in the place of God?” God provided through their evil for their good, God has forgiven and shown mercy. If God has done so, how can Joseph exact revenge upon his brothers?
So to with the parable. It is difficult to place the amount of debt the servant owed in terms of real dollars today. A talent was a measure of weight, but not terribly consistent. One talent has been noted to be equal to amount of pay for 20 years of work and employment. In other places it is used as a weight for gold, up to about 75 pounds. Either way it works out that a single talent today would be close to about 1.25 million dollars. Plug that into your calculator and you realize it is a number that is expressed in exponential form. I’m sure you middle school or high school students can better explain that. That is to say this one man owed about the same as our astronomical and growing national debt. It is a debt that will never be able to be repaid in one’s lifetime.
So the servant does that which is all he has left to do, he’s on his knees and begging for mercy. And the master does the unthinkable, he doesn’t work out a plea bargain or payment arrangement, he forgives the whole thing.
Now this is not insignificant. The costs of this debt didn’t just go away. There is no such thing as a free lunch after all. Someone must pay or absorb the cost of the whole thing. If you were the King’s accountant this would be a hit to his receivables. The King in His mercy absorbs the debt. He doesn’t set a limit, nor does he tally up the cost in hopes to receive at least recover some of the costs. He forgives, that is he releases the whole thing.
Again, all too often we place ourselves in the position of the King. But alas, as Martin Luther had inscribed on a piece of paper upon his deathbed, “we are all beggars, this is true.” Joseph was able to forgive his brothers because he knew the Lord provided for the good of the family and the nation and forgave, he knew his own sin and just how great a debt he was forgiven by the Lord. St. Peter while striving to be gracious wasn’t quite up the merciful pardoning that the Lord provides for us.
And our Lord cautions us beggars who have been forgiven an insurmountable amount of debt of sin to not take our place as the King. The servant, who had just been forgiven this unreasonable amount of debt, now was going to throw his brother in prison for owing a hundred denarii, about $300-$350. This is what Joseph’s brother’s feared, that their brother would after their father’s death seek retribution. This is what we do in our selfish pride, we get in a huff and hold some sin against someone, sometimes a family member, a brother or sister in Christ, another church member, a coworker, or neighbor. And while we’ve been forgiven such a great amount for our sin we angrily hold on to the wrong doings of others. In doing so, as Joseph aptly puts it, we put ourselves in the position of God when we withhold forgiveness from others.
Consider the weight and debt of your sin. How many times a day do you sin? And before your under estimate it, consider every thought, word, and deed, things that you’ve done but also things we’ve neglected in loving God and neighbor.
We are all beggars. But even in our neglect to forgive our brother, we come and plead before the King of Kings, and he forgives you, not seven times, not seventy seven times, not seventy times seven times. Remember numbers matter, just not always in mathematical ways. Our Lord use of seven proclaims how He forgives you perfectly, completely. He, the King of Kings has absorbed the debt of sin, taken the wages of death upon Himself and forgives you, releases you from sin, death, and hell. So when you see your brother, your spouse, your child, your coworker, your friend, your neighbor, that person who bothered and offended you, the one who you harbor a grudge and remember past offenses, remember also that is one for whom Christ died, that God in Christ has forgiven you an insurmountable debt and forgives them too. You’ve been forgiven much and in Christ can speak as Joseph did to his brothers, comfort them and speak kindly to them.
God holds no condition on His absolution of you! He freely forgives you! God keeps no record of the times He has forgiven you. He forgets what He forgives! If He kept a record of sin – who could stand? (Ps. 130:3)
The story is told of the many enemies who opposed the succession of Louis the XII to the throne of King of France. After he was crowned he asked that a list of his persecutors be made. He marked a large black cross behind each name. Learning of the list, his enemies fled for their lives. But the king called them back assuring them of his pardon. He explained that the cross behind each name was to remind him of the cross of Christ and to forgive them as the master forgave them and him.
So Jesus gives to you His grace and mercy and forgiveness in abundance, so that we learn forgiveness well. God help us to go through the files of our heart and see what marks are held against another. He would have us replace whatever mark is there with the cross of Christ instead. Thanks be to God that even our unforgiving hearts are forgiven by the blood of the Lamb, who takes away the sin of the world. He has forgotten you debt, your obligations, your sins and your trespasses. Rejoice in Christ, your Savior, your Brother and your God! You are free. Amen.