An Easy, but Difficult, Truth

Sep 17, 2023

16th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     We who are Christians have being more like Jesus as a goal…although, there are times when we would be relieved to be let off the hook of doing so, and addressing the topic of forgiveness is one such time.
     Prior to today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus taught his disciples the importance of being reconciled to those who have wronged them. He offered three steps for resolving conflict between two believers. First, examine one’s own contribution to the problem and then discuss the situation with the other person. If that one does not listen, or will not be reconciled, bring in another believer to act as mediator. Then, if there is still no resolution, call on the resources of the whole church to assist.
     These three steps were common practice for first century Jews, but it was understood that forgiving three times was enough, and that’s what Peter wanted to clarify in verses 21-22. Evidently, he thought forgiving seven times was being generous, not only was it twice as much as what was required, but seven was considered a perfect number. But, Jesus responded that for his followers forgiving is not limited to seven times, but 77 times (or some translations say 70 x 7). In either case, the point is that believers must forgive a lot, or even an unlimited amount.
     Then Jesus told a parable to make his point. It’s not a difficult parable to understand, but its message certainly is difficult to do. There are a couple details, though, that enhance its meaning.
     First, the servant owed the king an excessive amount, so judgement against him was justified. This was an amount that would have been impossible to pay. A talent was equal to about 130 pounds of siler, or about 15 years of wages for a laborer. At 10,000 times that amount, it would take the servant 150,000 years of work to pay off the debt.
     The amount of forgiveness that the king imparted also was excessive; he not only withdrew the sentence of selling the servant, his family and all his possessions to recoup some of what was owed, but entirely forgave the debt. The king showed mercy.
     In contrast, that servant was owed the equivalent of 100 days of wages by a fellow servant; now, that’s a lot, but nothing compared to what the first servant owed the king. The irony is that the second servant humbled himself and used the very same words as the first one to beg for more time. (1) The response of the first servant to the second one seems astounding given what just happened to him; no mercy or even pity was shown.
     Evidently others noticed this too and made sure word of it reached the king, who in anger quickly rescinded his merciful response and imposed worse punishment.
     The problem was that the unforgiving servant was more than willing to receive forgiveness, but not willing to give it. He was not changed by the mercy he received. As commentator Chelsey Harmon notes, “those who have truly received and know what grace and forgiveness are, these are the ones who know the true nature and value of the blessing and have let it change them.” (2)
     That raises the question, if the one who receives grace is not willing to share it and extend it to others, then did that one grasp the significance of the gift in the first place? We all are in that servant’s place, having been forgiven the sin that separated humanity from God, as well as the many ways we daily fall short of God’s glory. How do we respond to such grace, that is, to forgiveness that surpasses our deserving or comprehension? In order to be more like Jesus, will we forgive as we have been forgiven, or at least strive to do so?
     If I ended my sermon with that question, it might be easier than acknowledging the question that is on many minds. What if the situation is so hurtful or harmful, even so reprehensible,  that forgiving seems not only impossible, but unfair and unjust?
     At the end of the Gospel lesson, the punishment imposed by the king is hyperbole, exaggeration that is intended to make a point about the importance of forgiving. But what about moving beyond the single focus of the parable to the “bigger picture” of our lives? It is one thing to not take revenge on someone who has hurt you, or others, but another thing to forgive.
     There are many issues that could be addressed, but I want to focus on three – justice, reconciliation and restoration. Most of us would agree that there should be accountability for harmful acts and abuses of power. Justice occurs when people experience consequences for their negative actions in this world.
     How that happens in the here and now is complex. One thing is sure, though. How God responds in such situations, especially in terms of eternity, is not our business, nor should it be a topic on which we give an opinion. What we know about God is this: through Jesus, unconditional grace is given. So, our only role is being thankful for God’s grace in our lives, indeed in all lives.
     And it is because of God’s grace that there are examples of mercy and justice working together in the world. For example, there was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa that was guided by Bishop Desmond Tutu. It’s a model that has been used in other places where significant harm was done by one group toward another.
     For it to work, the one who has harmed must be willing to name and accept responsibility for the harm done and listen to how the other was impacted. And, the ones who were harmed must be willing to share their pain, listen and to forgive. The result can be reconciliation between people and restoration within people and in the world, but only if both parties are willing to participate.
     However, even when such a process cannot occur – which is often – restoration still is needed. In this case, restoration is healing, a return of balance and peace. Just as forgiveness from God restores our relationship with God, the forgiveness we offer others and even ourselves restores balance in our lives and our world. In other words, letting the hurt go through forgiving restores the sense of balance, or peace, within ourselves. There may or may not be reconciliation with the other person or people; sometimes that is not possible or wise, but forgiveness heals all involved, and that is God’s will.
     If that seems impossible, and no doubt some of you have faced situations which cause you to feel that it is, the first step is opening our hearts and minds to the possibility and asking the Holy Spirit for help. God forgives us, offering grace that is all-encompassing,  undeserved and beyond our comprehension; out of gratitude for that, we forgive others. It is an easy, but difficult, truth. AMEN
  1. “Forgive Again – Sermon on Matthew 18:21-25”, September 13, 2020,
  2. “Sermon Commentary for Matthew 18:21-35” by Chelsey Harmon, September 17, 2023,