On the subject of grace

Sermon: Sunday, 9th June, 2024
Visiting Speaker: David Ferguson
Scripture: Matthew 18:21-35

‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ (Matthew 18:21)

Jesus used parables in order to teach important points and to answer questions. What was the point today’s parable? What was Jesus teaching? If we look at the context of the passage, Jesus had been doing a lot of teaching about humility, the counter cultural nature of the kingdom of heaven.

So, what’s with that? Well, it would look like traditional Rabbinical sources suggested that you were obliged to forgive someone who sinned against you three times. In that context, Peter’s suggestion of seven times actually sounds quite magnanimous, doesn’t it? ‘The rabbis say three, but I’ll go as far as seven.’ And seven was, in Judaism, the perfect number, the number of completeness.

Peter is basically showing off his humility. And the fact that he says ‘up to seven times?’ might even suggest that he was kind of hoping Jesus might think he was going above and beyond.

But how does Jesus respond? ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’ (Matthew 18:22)

I think this is a call back to Genesis 4, where one of the descendants of Cain, Lamech, murders someone and then says: ‘If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy seven.’ (Genesis 4:24)

Just as Lamech upped the ante in a negative way in terms of his vengeance, so Jesus takes forgiveness to a new order of magnitude. Now, Peter was probably taken aback by this, wouldn’t you have been, and I bet he had questions. But Jesus had answers, and before Peter asks, Jesus tells this parable, that’s how he answers.

I want to look at the parable in the context of grace.

1. Grace is free

Jesus begins by telling us that this parable shows us what the kingdom of heaven is like. This is what life in the community of followers of Jesus is like. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, it isn’t some picture of the afterlife. The kingdom began breaking into the world in Jesus’ incarnation. It started then and it continues now. Everyone who follows Jesus is a citizen of that kingdom now.

The king was settling up his accounts with his servants – he had authority over these people – and some of them owed him. One in particular is brought in who we are told owed him ten thousand talents.

That’s a huge debt, equivalent to about 164,383 years of wages for a labourer. To put that in context, Josephus the historian tells us that in 4BC the total tax intake for all of Judea and Samaria together was 600 talents.

Jesus doesn’t explain how a servant was able to run up a debt like that, and it doesn’t matter, this was a story he told to make a point. The talent was the largest unit of currency in the roman empire, and ten thousand was the largest number the Greek language had a word for. In fact, the word was sometimes used just to describe an unimaginably large number, in the same way a child might talk about a gazillion pounds. The point Jesus was making was an inconceivable debt.

Of course, we are told that he couldn’t pay it back (verse 25) so the master orders that he, his family, and everything he owns be sold off. The servant begs for time and promises to pay it all back, which he would never be able to do.

Amazingly, the king looks at him, and wipes out the debt. He lets the servant go. He doesn’t work out a repayment plan. He doesn’t cut a deal for a percentage of the debt, he clears it completely and without condition. That’s incredible, isn’t it? imagine being in that position. Your life forfeit for a debt you’ve worked up that you can never pay off. And the king says, Never mind, I’ll write it off.’

Well, that’s a picture of what happens when you put your trust in Jesus. We are that servant. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus had given his disciples the prayer we know as the Lord’s prayer, he used this same word for debts and debtors to talk about sins. Our sin places a burden of debt upon us, between us and God. We have defaulted, we are so deep in the red that there is no way we can ever clear it. And as a result, our lives are forfeit.

And our first instinct is often the same as this servant, we say we’ll make it right, we’ll pay it back. With our hard work and our good deeds we’ll get things back where they should be. But just like him, we can’t. Our best is not going to be good enough to even dent that debt. But it is incredible because when we trust in Jesus, just like that king, God clears the debt.

That’s grace. And we haven’t earned it. We don’t deserve it, and we do nothing to contribute to it. Just like the servant in the story. Because grace is free

Grace is costly

But, that is not all, because whilst grace might be free, it’s not cheap. To the recipient it’s free, but it’s also true that grace is costly. How so?

Well, portraying it as a debt helps to illustrate this. If I lend you a fiver, and then you can’t pay it back and I say, ‘Forget about it’, then I’m not breaking even. I’m down five pounds. Right?

Consider the king in the story. He lets the servant off, but that doesn’t mean the debt just magically goes away. The king absorbs the loss. He gets nothing back. He loses that huge, staggering amount of money. By rights it was his, but he gives it up.

That’s true whenever forgiveness takes place. The one who forgives incurs a loss; the forgiven gains at the forgiver’s expense. It may be free to the recipient, but to the giver, grace costs.

How much more is that true when we think about our debt to God? The outstanding balance on our debt isn’t measured in money; our sin doesn’t come with a financial penalty. Romans 6 tells us the wages of sin is death. We owe a life. And when God forgave the debt, that’s what it cost him. The wages of sin is death, and that still had to be paid off.

Jesus did that. On the cross. When he died under the burden of our sins. When Jesus said there ‘It is done, it is complete…’ he was saying the bill was paid in full.

‘For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 6:23)

God’s grace is free to those who receive it, the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. And that’s amazing when you consider just how deep in the red we all would be without it. It’s free to you if you take it, but it’s not cheap. It costs, and Jesus paid that cost on the cross. And, in case there was any doubt that it was paid in full, he rose again from the dead to show that death has no hold on those who are part of his kingdom.

So grace is costly, but Jesus took on our debt, He paid the price, so that we can have it for free. You can have it for free. That’s the promise of the gospel; that’s what it means to follow Jesus. If you trust him, he pays the price for your debt, your sin, and restores your relationship with God.

Grace changes everything

What about Peter’s question? What about the second act of the parable? Jesus wants to show that Grace changes everything.

But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ (Matthew 18:28-29)

The man who’d just had a huge debt cancelled, went out and found someone who owes him. It’s interesting that the words of the second servant are exactly the same as those the first servant used in this predicament, with one exception, the first servant had rashly promised to pay back everything.

So how does the first servant respond in the face of this? Does he pay it forward? He does not. ‘But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.’ (Matthew 18:30)

That’s shocking. The fellow servants in the story were shocked and Jesus’ original hearers would be shocked too. The amount of money in the second case was not insignificant, 100 days wages, a bit over £8,000 at minimum wage today. And the first servant was legally entitled to do what he did. Letting the second servant off would have cost him. BUT in the light of what he had just experienced, surely that should change something. 100 Denari wasn’t nothing, but it was trivial compared to 10,000 talents. He was under no legal obligation to forgive, but what about morally and ethically?

Peter wants to know how many times he needs to forgive his brother. As much as seven? When Jesus says seventy-seven, he’s not suggesting Peter should keep a tally and when it gets to seventy-eight that’s it, his obligation is over. Seventy seven in this case represents going way beyond expectations and then some.

Jesus is saying to Peter how much has God forgiven you Peter? Three times? Seven? Seventy seven? An uncountable amount? So, now how much do you think you need to forgive your brother?

Recognising just how much God has forgiven us, just what a cost he has taken on to release us from an unpayable debt, that should be transformative, it should change everything, especially our perspective on those we feel ‘owe’ us.

Yes, forgiving others costs us, it costs us the opportunity to carry a grudge, the opportunity to extract our due, the opportunity for vengeance. That’s why I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus echoes Lamech here and flips the perspective. Where Cain was promised seven times vengeance, Lamech wanted seventy-seven times. Peter suggests seven times forgiveness, Jesus says no. Seventy-seven times forgiveness

The world tells us, ‘Don’t get mad, get even. Call in your debts. Take what you are owed.’ But Jesus teaches something different. His kingdom is to be different.

Jesus holds out the promise of forgiveness, on an inconceivable scale. But while it is free, it should change you. If you really understand what God has done for you, it will make you recognise the need to forgive others. And if it doesn’t, well, that’s a problem. You can’t properly grasp God’s forgiveness while you are clinging on to your grudges.

And you know what, it isn’t always easy. Forgiving people can be hard, because it comes at a cost. But the ongoing work of the Holy spirit in the hearts of believers is transformational.‌ Forgiving others isn’t a condition of God’s grace, but it should be a result of it working in your heart. And while forgiveness is hard, it’s also a huge relief. Just letting go, handing it all over to God. Recognising that God’s grace is sufficient, and I don’t need to hold on to what this person or that person said or did.

I’m not looking to minimise the hurts some people have gone through. But part of the freedom that comes from being in Christ is being freed from our own sins and the burden of what others have done to us.

If you’re struggling with that then I would urge you not to let the hardness of forgiveness rob you of your joy. Take it to God in prayer. Be honest with him. It’s not going to be an overnight fix but Jesus says that as we have been shown mercy, so we should show it.

A kingdom of the forgiven, is a kingdom of the forgiving. What a witness to the world that will be for what Jesus has done in our lives.