Sermon: Awe-full Mercy

September 17, 2023

Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness is easy. We do it all the time.

It happens in the grocery store. Somebody comes around the corner just a little too quickly – and let’s face it, coming around a corner from behind a shopping basket is pretty much designed to prevent a good view of what’s there – and their shopping cart hits your shopping cart.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” they say.

“That’s all right,” you say.

Forgiveness is easy.

Except when it’s not.

Simon Peter had some awareness of that issue when he asked, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” – the question that begins our passage today.

Predictably, Jesus raised the standard, and changed the question. Rather than discussing “How often,” Jesus turned to the question, “How much?” He told one of his most challenging stories, one that is so pointed that most of us set it to one side. We remember the sower, since after all we’re the seed that fell on fertile ground. We remember the lamp on the lampstand, because clearly we’re showing the light. We remember the Good Samaritan, because who else could we be but the person who showed mercy?

There aren’t any comfortable places to find ourselves in this story, are there?

Jesus probably didn’t intend for there to be any. Our translation doesn’t quite capture how over the top Jesus was. As D. Mark Davis observes at LeftBehindAndLovingIt, “To someone hearing this parable anew, particularly in Jesus’ day, this is ridiculous (just as forgiving someone seventy-seven times is ridiculous.) What kind of person has that much money to lend? Why would anyone allow someone such a blank check of endless credit? And what kind of person would borrow such an amount? And, seriously, how would any wealthy person be solvent if he has this much credit out and only now is beginning to settle his accounts? Nothing about this parable is ordinary. That’s worth noticing.”

A quick Google search produced estimates of $161 million to $226 million to $11.9 billion in today’s money for that colossal debt. There are people in the world to whom that $12 billion is just ten percent of their fortunes – five people, according to Forbes. And I’ve got to say that people with that kind of wealth didn’t make it by regularly forgiving debts of ten percent of their holdings.

Jesus’ story didn’t come back down to earth from there. The servant who had been forgiven such a massive debt proceeded to use strong-arm tactics – literally assaulting the behind-on-his-payments borrower – to collect on a much smaller debt – call it around $10,000. That’s less than a new car loan. He had the debtor imprisoned.

D. Mark Davis again: “In a parable full of ridiculous proportions, this is the most ridiculous movement yet. This would never happen. It would almost be like a bank that has been bailed out of billions of dollars worth of loans built on a failed scheme of sub-zero interest rates, turning around and foreclosing on a house that someone bought while taking advantage of those rates.

“It would be like Christians, presuming forgiveness for an imperial history that includes all manner of violence and heinous coercion, calling Muslims ‘violent’ because of the actions of a small portion of Islamic extremists.

“It would be like a church member, having been forgiven of all manner of sinfulness, turning toward a gay or lesbian person and saying, ‘You don’t belong here.’

“C’mon, Jesus. This kind of stuff never happens!”

Rev. Davis’ tongue is so firmly in his cheek I’m sure he bit it.

When God forgives us, we are full of awe. When God asks us to forgive, well, it’s frequently awful.

I guess the story isn’t quite so over the top after all.

Which makes it that much more of a challenge. We’ve been asked to forgive – actually, Jesus demanded that we forgive – despite both the frequency of the problem and its size. Who wants to do that? I really don’t want to encourage someone to take advantage of me, come back and say, “I’m sorry,” and then go off and do it again and again and again. I’m also not in favor of people causing me great harm and then wandering off into the world with an airy, “Oh, too bad about that.” Or in some cases, even less acknowledgement.

Let’s go back to the grocery store for a moment. Some important things happened there.

After the collision, the person coming around the corner said, “I’m sorry.” That’s two steps in one. First, an acknowledgement that they did something they shouldn’t have, and second that they apologize for it. It implies, though it does not say, that they intend to amend their behavior in the future such that they don’t hit grocery carts when coming around the corner. Those are three of the vital components of repentance:

  • Acknowledgement of the wrong,
  • Expression of regret, and
  • Promise to reform.

There’s a fourth element, too: the offer of restitution. In the grocery store, that probably doesn’t apply unless something got broken. In Jesus’ story, however, all four elements are present in the speeches of both servants.

They both acknowledged the problem and apologized. They both offered to repay the debt – with time. That’s reform and restitution.

So what, then, is forgiveness?

In these times, we tend to use the word forgiveness to describe an emotional process. If we forgive someone, we think, then we feel good about that person. It is true that there is great benefit to changing how we feel. Anger and resentment don’t feel good, and if we can work through those feelings and feel something else, that’s all to the good.

But it isn’t forgiveness. Forgiveness is to release someone from the consequences of their actions.

In 1947 Corrie ten Boom spoke at a church in Germany. Ten Boom and her sister had been imprisoned at the Ravensbruck concentration camp for hiding Jews in their apartment in Haarlem, the Netherlands. At the end of the talk, a man approached her who had been an SS guard at the concentration camp. He asked her forgiveness.

In a 1972 Guideposts article, Corrie ten Boom wrote, “And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”

She took his hand and told him she forgave him.

Once more I remind you that he had offered at least some assurance of repentance. Forgiveness without repentance isn’t forgiveness. At best it’s simple charity. At worst it’s license to go on harming. As Debie Thomas writes at, “Forgiveness isn’t pretending that an offense doesn’t matter, or that a wound doesn’t hurt, or that Christianity requires us to forget past harms and ‘let bygones be bygones.’ Forgiveness isn’t acting as if things don’t have to change, or assuming that because God is merciful, God isn’t grieved and angered by injustice.

“On the contrary, the starting line of forgiveness is the acknowledgement of wrongdoing.   Of harm.  Of real and profound violation.  Whenever we talk about the need for forgiveness, we must begin by recognizing and naming the extent of the brokenness.”

Forgiveness requires repentance.

That’s not the end of it. As Cheryl Lindsay writes at, “It [Forgiveness] is not the same as reconciliation, which includes restoring the relationship. In the most ideal scenarios, forgiveness and reconciliation companion on the journey to restoration. That is the way of the incarnation, the cross, and the empty tomb. That is the example and high bar that Jesus sets. At the same time, God meets us where we can be met. Forgiveness–as just letting go–is a good first step. We release and are released by it.”

There are people in my life that have harmed me and I have not forgiven them. A good number have never apologized or even admitted the harm. Others, I regret to say, have said they’re sorry and I, to my shame, either don’t believe them or didn’t accept it. I didn’t make that act of will.

There’s not much I can do about those who never apologized, never admitted the injury. I have to work through those feelings and find a way to live past them and feel better in the present.

For those others, though, I still have to make that act of will, make the first step toward a better relationship, and exercise that awe-full mercy exhibited by God in Christ Jesus.

Remember also that Jesus said repeatedly that God’s forgiveness is there for the asking – well, for the admitting and the apologizing and the amendment and the offer to make things better. Our sins and faults are not the end of our story or of our relationship with God. Our sins and faults are the steps away, while our confession and repentance are our steps toward, the full embrace of God.

Let us be awed by God’s mercy, and do the best we can to extend it to others.


by Eric Anderson

Watch the Recorded Sermon

Pastor Eric preaches from a prepared text, but things do change. Sometimes he changes them purposefully, and sometimes it’s an accident.

The image is The Unmerciful Servant by Rembrandt (ca. 1655) – : Home : Info : Pic, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on September 17, 2023

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