Trinity 22 Sermon, 2016
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
Do you take the Bible literally?
It says that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish, do you believe that? You should. It’s true.
The Bible says that God created the earth in six twenty-four hour days, do you believe that? You should. It’s true.
It says that Mary was a virgin who conceived and bore a son, that Jesus is our Lord and God, that He rose from the dead on the third day. Do you believe all that? You should. It’s all true.
But are you supposed to believe all of the Bible literally? The answer’s no. You should not.
I don’t remember ever being taught this, but it makes sense: you read the Bible, literally, according to the genre of writing that you read, always with the context of whatever you’re reading in mind, taking into consideration things like idiom, metaphor, and circumlocution.
That may not make any sense, so let me say it this way: what if I’m reading the newspaper, and you ask me what I’ve just read, and I tell you that I just read the words, “My prediction: rain.” What does that literally mean? What can you expect because of those words?
Without knowing the genre, without knowing the context, you can’t know anything from those words.
It could be a weather prediction from a meteorologist.
It could be a cute joke in the funny pages.
It could be an opinion piece on boxing movies and they misquoted Clubber Lang in Rocky III who actually said, “My prediction? Pain.”
Looking backwards, you know that you read a weather forecast differently than you read an ad or an editorial or a cartoon.
If you like to read, here’s a wonderful example. What’s a mystery? A mystery isn’t something you don’t know. A mystery is something you know but can’t explain. So, every mystery novel seeks to explain the mystery.
The genre tells you a lot. The context tells you a lot. Without those, you can’t know anything.
And, of course, the Bible is this way. For example:
Did you know, have you heard, that God has a long nose?
That’s literally what the Bible says, but that’s not at all what it means. For the Hebrews, different emotions were associated with different body parts.
We do this. If you have butterflies in your stomach, that flutter is due to anxiety. If you follow your heart or go with your gut, those aren’t literal sayings. We understand them to mean that a person is doing what they are convinced is right.
For the Hebrews, anger was seated in the nose.
If you were described as “short of nose,” you had a short fuse, an anger problem. Long of nose, then, translates to “slow to anger.”
Did you know, have you heard, that God is slow to anger?
The only reason you know that is because some of the Bible is not meant to be translated literally.
So, when you’re asked if you take the Bible literally, be careful. There are lots of places where what you mean is, “I take the Bible literally as it’s meant according to genre, context, idiom, and all those other ways of talking about literature.
It’s good to remember: the Bible is never less than great literature. And, of course, it’s always more than great literature.
Now, keep all that in mind, because in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says that you are to forgive you brother not seven times “but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22).
Is that what He means?
Yes! That’s what He means, but He doesn’t mean it literally as though it’s some sort of divine, seventy-seven-strikes-and-you’re-out kind of rule. Jesus means you forgive the brother who has sinned against you, thinking of your sins, not his.
As Lutherans, as Christians, when we’re confronted with our sins, we’ve been taught well to flee for refuge to God’s infinite mercy. “Forgive my faults, my most grievous faults, O Lord.” And we trust and know that, in Christ, He has. He does.
But when your brother sins against you, maybe not every time, but at least occasionally, you think to yourself, “Not that one. I can’t forgive that one. I won’t forgive you until you repent. This time, I’m gonna to wait and see. Fool me once, shame on you. I won’t get fooled again.” We think that stuff.
To us, then, Jesus tells this parable:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So, the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So, his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:23-36).
Parables aren’t to be taken literally. They’re to be understood in terms of the kingdom of heaven. The comparison here is between debts and masters. One debt is impossible. One is simple. One master is forgiving. One is damned.
Ten-thousand talents is an impossible debt; it’s two-hundred thousand years’ worth of labor. You might make three talents in a lifetime, but you’d never see it all at once, you’d never be able to spend that much in one place. There’s not enough stuff to buy with that much money. It’s an impossible debt.
But it’s not just the forgiveness of the king that we should pay attention to. He’s also patient.
At some point early on in the debt, the king must have known that there was no way this guy was going to pay him back. If you have bad enough credit today, you pay cash for everything because you have to. But this king allowed the debt to continue.
The debt, of course, is sin. And this man is no different than any other. He owes an impossible sum. But our King and God is patient. He didn’t zap us, He didn’t extinguish His wrath in our shed blood. God is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). He forgave the debt.
Our King and God and Father extinguished His wrath over sin in the shed blood of Jesus.
The crucifixion of Jesus means that all sin is forgiven. Your account is settled. God has bought you with His own blood (cf. Acts 20:28).
That’s what the kingdom of heaven looks like, and if you’re a Christian, that’s what’s true for your life today and every day.
Return to this place, return to these pages of Scripture, as often as you need to be reminded of the fact that the debt is forgiven. The whole debt. Not if. Not hopefully. Not future tense. Not subjunctive mood. In the here and now of your daily life, you are reconciled to God because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But if you think that means that Christians can hold grudges, that you can withhold forgiveness from those who sin against you, if you think that your sins are forgiven in a way different from everyone else, or that the really terrible sinners, those who sin against you specifically, that their sins aren’t forgiven, if you’re unwilling to forgive anyone ever, you need to be reminded of the rest of the parable and what that means.
One-hundred denarii is a simple debt. It’s substantial, but it’s doable. It’s a summer job, an engagement ring; it’s seasonal work. It’s the kind of debt mom’s rack up at Christmas time. One hundred denarii is five-hundred-thousand times less than ten-thousand talents (if you work five days a week and get two weeks off every year). In that comparison, the debt nothing.
If you consider the debt you owed to our King and God and Father, the debt that He paid in the blood of Christ His Son, every debt that’s owed to you is nothing. Forgiven an impossible ten-thousand talents, you can never hold any actual debt of sin against anyone.
When you refuse to forgive someone, you’re refusing to believe that God has forgiven them. By your actions, you’re saying that you have a reason for God not to forgive them.
Do you see how serious holding a grudge is?
When you hold a grudge, when you hold someone’s sins against them, you’re saying that God shouldn’t forgive them.
God has forgiven all sin in Christ. But when you refuse to forgive someone, you’re denying them what God has done for them.
So, either God forgives everyone, you and those who sin against you included, or, God has forgiven no one and you can hold every grudge you want to on your way to hell.
That’s a shocking thing to hear, but that’s exactly what Jesus says in the parable: “When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you’? And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:31-35).
When I hear that, sometimes I think about the people who’ve sinned against me, the slights that I’ve suffered, and I’m not a little put off at the idea of forgetting those things. I want revenge. It’s fun to plan revenge, to daydream about what you should’ve said in that argument.
We don’t want to let anyone get away with anything.
Instead, rejoice that if their sins are forgiven. Yours are, too.
The more you forgive, the more you are reminded of (and the more you believe that) your sins are forgiven!
If you emphasize the debt that’s owed and your own retribution, you forget Jesus, His sacrifice and love and compassion.
If you emphasize the debt that’s been forgiven, and the faith, given by God, that comprehends the sacrifice, if you forgive others as you have been forgiven, you remember Jesus, His sacrifice and love and compassion.
And that’s exactly what Jesus has in mind when He teaches the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses [our debts], as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12).
This is the literal meaning of Jesus’ response to Peter. “How often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21).
Not seven times. Not seventy-seven times.
Rather, you will forgive your brother always, because…
In Christ, by faith, you believe and know that you are always forgiven.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!