Dear brothers and sisters, the text we heard today from the Gospel of Matthew invites us to reflect on fundamental Christian themes: sin, guilt and forgiveness.
We heard Peter's question about this: how often should I forgive my brother - today, of course, my brother and sister? Jesus answers: Not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Seventy-seven times, I think this figurative word can be translated today as "always." You should always forgive your brother or sister, no matter how many times they sin against you.
And also, we heard the parable of the debtor. Someone who experiences forgiveness himself, but fails to grant it to the one who owes him.
This brings up the issues of sin, guilt, and forgiveness. But before I get to these particular, heavyweight themes of our Christian faith, I would like to briefly point out a few specifics.
First, I would like to clarify for us the numbers that are addressed in the text. A denarius is the daily wage of a common laborer. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, each worker gets one denarius. One talent, that is about 6000 denarii. So with a little vacation or sick leave, a day laborer has to work about 17 years for one talent. When it is reported that someone is brought before the owner who owes him ten thousand talents, then this corresponds to seventeen thousand years of work as a day laborer - in other words, it is an inconceivably large sum. In contrast, 600 denarii, as we have already learned, is a not immaterial but still feasible sum that could still be repaid.
The second feature I would like to draw our attention to is this peculiar form of forgiveness. Which we should keep in mind as we think about forgiveness. First the servant is forgiven the ten thousand talents and then, after his misconduct, we are told: "And full of wrath the master handed him over to the torturers until he had paid him back everything he had owed." Now at least wife, children and possessions are out of the picture, but the question of course clearly remains: Can one rely on the master’s forgiveness? First he forgives and then he gets angry and the forgiveness is no longer valid?
Especially - and this is the last peculiar detail I add to the beginning of the sermon - especially when in the last sentence it states: "So also will my Father in heaven treat each one of you..." So I'm going to say something about that, too. (Have to say, I think).
- Sin as a power
- Sin as a means of missing your goal
- Sin as a lament rather than an accusation
- Sin as something to be freed from (from Jesus)
Let's start now with the first central topic, that is the concept of "sin". Sin, what is actually meant by that?
I think most of you here today will be thinking of sin in some way as wrongdoing. If I intentionally or unintentionally do something that is not pleasing to God, that is sin. If you tell a lie, that is sin. Whoever steals something has also committed a sin. And I would like to say clearly at this point today: this is not wrong.
It is not wrong but in reality sin is much more than that. Sin is described as power in the New Testament and here especially in Paul's letters. When Paul talks about being "sold under sin" (Rom 7:14) or "not doing the good he wants to do, but the evil he does not want to do" (Rom 7:19) then something of the despair becomes palpable, which is more than just a wrongdoing. Today, sin is therefore often translated or described as "missing your goal". Missing your goal means no more and no less than that one's own life could also fail. Therefore, sin is rather failure, failing or being lost than sin is rebellion, disobedience or a rejection of God.
Sin as guilt and doom, as a power to which man is at the mercy - this becomes clear when we think of sayings of Jesus where it says "It made him weep." This "wailing" makes it clear that sin is more about complaining, lamenting - not accusing.
So when we become aware of this much broader dimension of sin, it becomes clearer to us why we need to be saved from it. Why there needs to be an intervention by God. Why Jesus died for our sins.
Because sin is not harmless. It can become a power that can dominate our lives. Or, to put it another way, because sin represents man's perverse relation to God, with which comes a perverse relation to himself and the world. Sin is a disturbance of our relationship with God. Disruption in the sense that we do not recognize who God is to us. Our Creator, who called us into being, who loves us and whom we can trust.
- Guilt means responsibility
- Guilt is confessed and then forgiven
So now: how do sin and guilt relate to each other?
I would express it like this:
If sin is the great power that threatens a successful life, then guilt is the individual fact or deed that has become concrete.
Guilt is, on the one hand, falling short of God's demands. For example, to love one's neighbor or to do good. And on the other hand, guilt is responsibility in the sense of accountability.
So it was actually me who lied or me who was hard-hearted - and not someone else. We become guilty by what we do and by what we fail to do. That's how one of our Holy Communion liturgies describes it. And that is why we confess our guilt and ask for forgiveness.
- Forgiveness as salvation
- Forgiveness as goal
- Forgiveness with Gods help
So what is forgiveness now?
Forgiveness is the life-liberating, life-giving power that takes us out of the dominion of sin and guilt. Again, we find what I think is a very good description in another Holy Communion liturgy. There it says: "We now confess our guilt. God does not want to expose or humiliate us. He releases us from the burden of all guilt, open and hidden, so that we can breathe freely again and grateful rejoicing fills our hearts."
Or let us think of the song: "You have mercy and are crushing all my guilt. You help me up in your faithfulness and patience. You take away my burden, nothing is too heavy for you. You cast all my sin deep into the sea."
I think that describes forgiveness very aptly and very impressively.
And with the second part of this song let me now react to the specific features of the Gospel text that I mentioned at the beginning: "Who is a God like you, who forgives sin and forgives wrong? Who is a God like you? Not always does your wrath remain, for you love to be merciful."
Where does the author and composer of this song get this certainty, which I would also like to preach? A certainty that I myself believe with all my heart. And that does so much good!
Again and again, while reading the Gospel text, I was reminded of people who give money to a beggar on the street with the words, "But don't use it for alcohol!"
The gift of money is conditional. Money yes but only if you don't use it on alcohol. And in terms of the Gospel text, I find that difficult. The forgiveness is conditional. I forgive you. But only if you forgive others.
And if Jesus compares this behavior with his Father in heaven and says that each of us will be treated like this someday, who doesn't forgive his brother or sister from the heart then...
Then I don't believe it.
What do you mean you don’t believe it? It is written that way. In black and white. A word of Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew. How are you going to talk your way out of it?
I don't want to talk my way out of it - I still don't believe it. And I can also say why not. Because it doesn't fit with the overall impression of God that I have gained from reading the whole Bible - and not just a single passage. It may be that I am wrong, I do not want to deny that. Of course, it can be like this at the end of time. I cannot and do not want to determine God's actions. That would be presumptuous and ridiculous. But I cannot imagine it.
Also because forgiveness is sometimes only made possible by God. This is what my own experience tells me. Really bad suffering or great guilt sometimes cannot be forgiven so easily, if someone has really offended me or really hit me. Then forgiveness is desirable but not so easy. You don't just flip the switch and forgiveness is there. It doesn't work that way. I have experienced this myself. When my father left my mother and I experienced the misery that then fell upon us as a family - I could not forgive my father. It took years.
This is how I am inclined to translate the passage I heard today. Knowing that I have to justify it. But I would translate it just so that it should come out clearly that the hard-hearted servant should not get away with his brutal misconduct. He who has been gifted and pardoned beyond measure with his ten thousand talents. He, or in reality the hearers and listeners and all of us, are to be made to see clearly that the forgiveness of guilt, the redemption from the power of sin - that is something really great.
God's action towards us is so significant and so life-changing - that we too should act in the same way. So strongly "should" that the author of the text has been tempted to use "must". Our guilt is always forgiven by God. And because this is truly liberating, we should strive to forgive one another. Where someone has become guilty, or reprehensible to us, it is necessary to forgive.
God, please help us in succeeding with this.