“You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23). These words from the appointed Gospel reading a few weeks ago have been ringing in my ears. Peter was the original target. He had no ears to hear that the Messiah would suffer and die, so Jesus had to put him in his place. But Peter was by no means the only disciple whose thinking was confused. Throughout their three years of following Jesus, the disciples continually struggled to accept the mind and message of Jesus, and the problem has persisted. Followers of Jesus in every age and place have had to fight their inborn tendency to think like fallen human beings. Confused by the culture around them and the sin within them, Christians need continual return to the words of Jesus for correction and reorientation (for an extended and explicit reflection on the need for Americans to be shaped by the mind of Jesus, see the book edited by Robert Kolb: The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ).
If you have been tracking with me for the last few weeks, you took the month of September to consider how each appointed Gospel reading exposes a distinct way in which we struggle to set our minds on the things of God. Two weeks ago, the topic was suffering. Last week it was greatness. This week the text invites us to focus on how we think about forgiveness.
The reading begins with a question from Peter. Matthew 18:21 says, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” It was a reasonable question. In the verses before the appointed text, Jesus had instructed the disciples about handling sins. Rather than brushing them aside, or ignoring them, or letting them fester, He told them to address sins directly through brotherly conversation. Call one another to repentance, He told them; first individually, and then, if necessary, corporately. Then forgive one another. It is a simple approach. Peter was tracking with him. But that raised a question in his human mind. How long should this go on? How many times should we forgive? How much mercy should we have with one another? Rabbinic tradition said three times. So, Peter was being generous with seven. Jesus, however, thought differently. Seven was not even in the ballpark.
After reducing Peter’s suggestion to a fraction, Jesus told them a parable to reorient their thinking. The parable focused on a servant of a king. This servant was in debt... bigtime. Commentaries offer different figures of exactly how much ten thousand talents would be today, but they agree on the enormity of what he owed. The point was he would never be able to pay. He and his family would be crushed under the burden. When it came time for the king to collect, the servant had only one option. “Have mercy on me (μακροθύμησον ἐπʼ ἐμοί),” he begged. His only sliver of hope was the grace and forgiveness of the king.
It turns out the king was, indeed, gracious. Shrugging off the servant’s pipe dream of a payment plan, the king wiped his slate completely clean. No more burden. No more debt. He received total forgiveness, free and full. This is how the king reigned in the story. He showed his might by having mercy on his servants.
This is how the king reigned in the story. He showed his might by having mercy on his servants.
But something happened on the way out. When the forgiven servant left the king’s presence, he also left the king’s gracious reign. Rather than living in and sharing in the forgiveness he had received from the king, he rejected the exact same request he himself had just made (notice the similar wording between verse 26 and 29). What was the result? The servant refused to forgive as he had been forgiven which showed how far from the reign of heaven (ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν, verse 21) he had wandered, and he received what those who live outside the reign are due.
There are a couple of things to be careful about in a sermon on this text. You should not suggest God is one who practices “take backs” when it comes to forgiveness. God does not recall our forgiveness because of our stinginess. That is not the point of Jesus’ story. Neither should you imply that your hearers who struggle to forgive others are not part of Jesus’ reign. Assuming they believe the promise of their baptism and this belief is what brought them to worship, they are living in His reign, and they desire to be faithful subjects.
But you can (and should) highlight that Jesus is setting up a contrast here. It is a contrast between the human mind and the mind of God when it comes to forgiveness. God’s mercy and forgiveness, which is our only hope, are unconditional and absolute. Not only does it restore our relationship with Him, but it overflows into our relationships with others, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. Notice, for example, that Peter’s question in verse 21 and Jesus’ words in 35 are both about forgiveness between “brothers.” To live under the reign of Jesus is to belong to a new family with a forgiving Father at the head. As brothers (and sisters) of this Father, we cannot help but share in the family business.
The problem, of course, is our minds are shaped more than we would like to admit by our judgmental and unforgiving cancel culture. So, we are quick to seek forgiveness but slow to share it. Sometimes our slowness is understandable. Forgiveness is hard, especially when we have been deeply hurt and badly wounded, but this should drive us back even more to our gracious and forgiving Father.
During the sermon this week, invite your hearers to consider their own struggle to forgive fellow believers in Jesus. Encourage them, they have come to the right place for help. Bring them back to their heavenly Father who promises to forgive them again. Give them another taste of the gracious reign of God in Christ. Call them to take comfort in this forgiveness, to rejoice for this forgiveness, and give thanks for this forgiveness. Warn them that the human mind always lurks in the shadows, so they (like you and I) should be on-guard against slipping back into unforgiving ways. Then, send them in the power of the Spirit to share the forgiveness they have received with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Matthew 18:21-35.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 18:21-35.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 18:21-35.
Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. John Nordling of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 18:21-35.