And [Jesus] said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ ” (Luke 17:1-10, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Well, it’s another text on forgiveness. Doesn’t Jesus ever get tired of talking about forgiveness? The think is whenever Jesus talks about forgiveness he always seems to be asking the impossible. Well, just listen to what he says,
…if [your brother] he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.
It just sounds to me like an invitation for someone to take advantage of me. It’s that seven times that gets me. How do I know someone is really sorry for a sin against me when they say, “I repent?” especially if they do the same thing seven more times? When I forgive, I want there to be a change of heart. I want the person who hurts me to really be sorry. I want them to come crawling to me begging for forgiveness. Then, I’ll know they really mean it. Then I can dangle my forgiveness over their heads for a bit to show how much they really hurt me. I need to put conditions on my forgiveness. I like to wait a while to make them think really hard about what they’ve done, let them stew in their guilt for awhile before I offer forgiveness. Then they’ll really appreciate it. Maybe I’ll even hold that forgiveness as a bargaining chip for later on when I’ll really need it. And when I do forgive I want everyone to know how good I am, how forgiving I am. I want people to say, “Wow! He really is a super Christian he can even forgive someone who has done that really, really bad thing to him.”
The problem is that all those attitudes are the sin that Jesus is telling us to avoid. Temptations to sin are sure to come. The sin he’s talking about here isn’t the sin other people do to us; it’s our sin in not forgiving those who sin against us. Jesus says temptations are sure to come. Our problem is that even though we believe God’s Word and want to follow it we have difficult time forgiving people as Jesus would have us do. And when we don’t forgive it is just like we don’t believe in God’s promises of forgiveness to us. It’s difficult for us because we are so easily hurt. And there is so much trouble in our lives. Every day we run into people that hurt us. Just like the text says, it is sure to come. The cashier cheats you at the checkout. The mechanic takes advantage of your ignorance. Your neighbor schemes to take away the land you’ve been working all your life. Your friend lets you secret slip. Members of the church ignore all the work you do to keep things going. That’s the way people are. That’s the way our relationships work. It’s difficult to forgive people when they are so often thinking about themselves first. And of course Satan has his part here too. He never lets you rest, telling that you have every right to settle the score, take revenge and withhold forgiveness when you are hurt.
Jesus says we are to be different. We are not to listen to Satan’s word. When Jesus says, if your brother sins… he uses the word brother to tell us that he is especially talking about how we live together as a church. How we live together as a Christian community. Our relationships with each other are to be very different. We are to be in the forgiving business. Jesus says forgive seven times a day but that doesn’t mean we should keep a tally:
“Well that’s six for Joe, you better watch it there Joe, you’ve only got one left. Sally you’ve only got two, you’re doing well. John, that’s eight for you. I’m sorry we can no longer forgive you.”
When Jesus talks about seven times he means “as often as it happens.” In the church, forgiveness always follows repentance. Forgiveness is freely given without condition. Forgiveness is never to be held over someone’s head to get them to change. Jesus makes this most clear when he uses that “m” word, must. You must forgive him. When a brother or sister comes to us for forgiveness we are required to forgive.
But we think that Jesus simply can’t mean that. What he really means that after someone changes he is to be forgiven. There have got to be conditions. We have to make sure the repentance is real. We have to make sure they are really sorry for their sin. Anything else just doesn’t make sense to us. Anything else is simply impossible. That’s because we want to be in control of weather we forgive or not.
ü I can’t forgive so-and-so for what they did to me. It just hurt me so much; I’ll never be able to forget it.
ü I just can’t forgive you now. Give me some time then maybe I’ll be able to forgive you.
ü Well, I forgave you, now it’s your turn to do something for me.
You know what? The disciples had the same problems. When Jesus said these words to them they looked at him and said, “Increase our faith!” We can’t do that; make us stronger so we can. Give us what we need to do the “must.”
Jesus strikes down their request. Not because he doesn’t want their faith to grow, but because they really don’t understand what faith is. They think faith is some quality in them that allows them to do what God wants them to do. The bigger it gets the more they can do God’s will. The bigger it gets the more they are able to forgive. Jesus says it’s not the size of faith that matters, the smallest faith does the impossible. What matters in faith is what the faith is in and where it comes from. It is what the faith is looking to that makes the difference. The faith that Jesus is speaking about here is utter dependence on God and his Word. It is complete reliance on Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection for us. Faith is looking to God to do it all. There is no part in faith for “God does his part now I can do my part.” When you try to forgive you are placing your faith in you. Jesus wants you to trust solely on him for your forgiveness. He wants you to give his forgiveness to others.
The longer I am a pastor the more I appreciate how simply Martin Luther expresses what the bible actually says in the Small Catechism. It’s no wonder that Christians have treasured this small book for all these years. We have it in printed for us in the hymnal. Open it up and turn to page 302. Look at what he says.
The Fifth Petition
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
What does this mean?
We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.
Notice how it doesn’t say that we forgive because we try so hard to do it. Notice it doesn’t say that we forgive because our faith is bigger than a mustard seed. Actually look at where it starts. We forgive because we have been forgiven. We only give what we have received. We don’t deserve forgiveness, so we know that other people who sin against us don’t deserve it either. In fact, they don’t have to deserve forgiveness. If they did, we would have to deserve forgiveness too! No, God gives forgiveness to people who don’t deserve it. He gives it to people who can’t forgive each other. He gives it to people who hold a grudge. He gives it to people who take advantage of each other. He gives it to people who are very slow to forgive. He gives it to people who want to use forgiveness as a way to control each other. He gives forgiveness to you, sinner that you are, unloving as you are, undeserving as you are. So you give that very same forgiveness to those who sin against you. It isn’t yours to give. It is God’s gift to you and through you.
You see, it is all about Jesus. He does what you are unable to do. He forgives because you can’t and often don’t want to. When he was hanging on the cross, in extreme pain, he forgave those who hung him there. Just think of it. From the cross, Jesus looked out over those men who drove nails through his flesh and forgave them. He said “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34, ESV) From the cross, Jesus looked out over the Jewish leaders who manipulated the government to kill him to keep control of their own power and forgave them. From the cross, Jesus looked out over the disciples who forsook him and left him alone and forgave them. From the cross, Jesus looks out over you who are slow to forgive, who are unable to forgive, and forgave you. From the cross he looked out over the whole world and said, “It is finished.” Right there he made it possible for you to forgive, through his forgiveness. Jesus forgives because he can forgive. He earned forgiveness. The blood that dripped from his hands and feet and head and side onto the ground were the payment he paid. The pain he suffered was punishment for sins he didn’t do. It was punishment for sins you do. It was the punishment for those who sin against you. And so when Jesus tells you that you are forgiven, you can believe that it is true. His resurrection from the dead is proof that he did what he says he did. If he has forgiven you, who don’t deserve it, he also has forgiven those who sin against you, even though they don’t deserve it either. Because of Jesus you forgive just as you have been forgiven.
We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.
That’s how the reading ends. It’s saying the same thing that we pray in the Lord’s Prayer:
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
The forgiveness we offer isn’t ours to give. It is the forgiveness Jesus offers through faith in him, through trusting that his life, death and resurrection are sufficient to forgive even the sins that hurt us deeply. Our faith in Jesus means that we give the forgiveness that he has given us. If you’re looking for that kind of forgiveness outside the church, outside of Jesus gift of faith you’re not going to find it. Here, in the church, is where God gives his forgiveness through Jesus Christ, his Word and Sacraments. Here is where he gives faith. We know what it is suppose to look like. We pray about it every time we take the Holy Supper.
We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercy You would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
“Faith toward you and fervent love toward one another.” Those are wonderful words. Through God’s gift of faith in the forgiveness of sins we are able to live them, even though we struggle to do them perfectly. But that’s why we are here, to receive forgiveness and pass it on to others; the forgiveness that Jesus gives freely, without condition. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.