Your Many Sins Are Forgiven
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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Luke 7:36-50.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell me, therefore, which of them will love him more?
The answer is obvious, at least to Simon the Pharisee: “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” But though he gives the right answer, Simon completely misses the point. As we often do! For this certain creditor does not keep his books according to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). And we are so oblivious to the extent of the great debt that we have piled up over the years that we can take this forgiveness for granted.
So maybe we should modify the parable a little bit.
There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Actually, both owed thousands of denarii, but one assumed that he had made up for most of it with his good looks and charm, though he’d never run this by the creditor. When they had nothing with which to repay, the creditor freely forgave them both. Tell me, which of them will love him more?
Answer: The one who realizes just how great a debt was forgiven. Figuring that he’s made up for most of it himself, the other will easily take the forgiveness for granted. Now, let’s apply this to our Gospel lesson for the day.
There was a certain Savior who encounters two sinners. More, actually, but for now, we’ll focus on the two. There is, on the one hand, Simon the Pharisee. He’s not quite perfect, of course. He realizes that. But Simon also believes that he makes up for his sin by the good and pious life that he leads. In other words, like the rest of the Pharisees, Simon figures that he’s made up for his debt of sin.
On the other hand, there’s the sinful woman. Not just a run-of-the-mill sinner. She’s a notorious sinner. Not only does God know she’s broken His commandments, everyone else in town does, too. Shunned by all, she lives a life of shame. But perhaps the woman’s public shame is actually a blessing in disguise. After all, she is daily and relentlessly reminded that she is sinful, that her debt before God is huge and unpayable. There’s no chance that she’s ever going to believe she’s okay before God on her own. She comes like all repentant sinners must—as a beggar before God.
So there you have it. Simon, believing he has made up for his debt, has little use for a Savior. The woman, understanding the enormity of her debt, falls at His feet in worship. To Simon, Jesus has words of admonition. If he wants to get what he deserves, he will. To the woman, the Savior speaks sweet words of grace and mercy. Her debt is paid. The sinful woman is sinful no more, because Jesus announces that He pays her debt in full: “Your sins are forgiven.” What joy!
There is no joy for Simon and the other Pharisees, though. “Who is this who even forgives sins?” they say to each other. Because they don’t realize the enormity of their own debt, Jesus’ forgiveness is easy to dismiss. We have little desire for those things of which we see no need.
I, for one, have trouble getting personally excited about insulin. I know it’s an important medicine and literally a God-send for those who are afflicted with diabetes—but at this time I am not one of them. Therefore I don’t appreciate insulin as much as someone who depends on it every day.
Perhaps a better illustration is chemotherapy. The thought of taking something into my body designed to kill part of me that’s killing me is not something that I’m ready to agree to. There’s a simple reason: At present, I do not suffer from cancer. Should I some day be diagnosed with that disease then I’m sure that I would come to appreciate its treatments far, far more.
The less we see the need for something, the less we care about it. The more we see the need for something, the more we care about it. If you need medicine, then you’re going to make sure you get it. If you’re convinced you need some time away, you’re going to take off for the weekend. If you’re hungry, you’re going to exert every effort and spare no expense to obtain food. That’s how human beings work. We perceive a need—real or not—and go after it.
Dear people of God, this reading reminds us why it is necessary to preach both Law and Gospel. The Law is this: We all have an insurmountable debt of sin, whether we realize it or not. Blinded by sin, man does not by nature realize the great load of debt he has. Therefore, God gives us His Law. God gives His Law, first and foremost, to show us how extensive our sin really is.
This is not pleasant, but it is necessary, for if we do not realize the extent of our sin and the seriousness of our sinful condition, we will not take forgiveness seriously. A doctor does not say, “You have a deadly illness, there’s medicine if you want it.” No, he makes clear the dangers of the illness so that the patient understands the need for the treatment. Likewise, God declares His holy Law in all severity lest we discount the debt and fail to see our need for forgiveness.
This, then, is the purpose of God’s Law: to show to us the debt and the enormity of our sin. If, by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Law of God, we realize the debt of sin that we have, then there is nothing that we earnestly desire more than the forgiveness of sins. When we truly understand the impossibility of paying our debt, then we want nothing more than to have that debt forgiven, to hear the Good News of free salvation in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
This recognition of sin and desire for forgiveness continues throughout the Christian’s life. Luther once noted that the mature Christian doesn’t necessarily see himself as one who has grown closer to God; rather, the mature Christian sees how far away from God he really is, and therefore desires forgiveness all the more.
When we realize our debt of sin, the sweetest words we can hear are “Your sins are forgiven.” It is then that the Invocation comes alive as it reminds us of our Baptism, where the Lord cleansed us by water and the Word. It is when we see our debt that we rejoice to hear and sing and speak God’s Word of grace in His liturgy. It is when we see our debt that we eagerly desire the Lord’s Supper, because the Lord is present there with His very body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.
By nature, however, the Old Adam discounts the debt. The sinner naturally believes that sin isn’t all that bad, and that he has made up for his sin with his good works. Along with that, the world is quick to assure us that God really doesn’t hold sin against us—He isn’t concerned about that debt, so why should you worry? And the devil exploits it all. If we discount the debt, we fail to appreciate the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and we see little need for forgiveness. If we see little need for forgiveness, we’ll have little time for God’s means of grace.
This is a most dangerous sin because it masquerades as righteousness. When we sin and know that the sin is shameful, like the woman in our text, we are quick to run to the Lord and make confession. But when we believe that we are righteous because of who we are or what we do, when we discount the debt and dismiss the sin, then we see no need for forgiveness. Then we’re lost!
So, what are we to do when people don’t want to hear God’s Law and Gospel? Preach it all the more. This is not a smart-aleck attempt to annoy them. Nor is the purpose merely to reassure ourselves as we march onward and upward. No, we preach God’s Law and Gospel to these people because it is most necessary for their salvation. We proclaim God’s Law to them so that they might, by the work of the Holy Spirit, understand the great debt of sin that they have before God. Then we proclaim to them the Gospel, for there is forgiveness, life, and salvation.
So in case you still haven’t applied God’s Law and Gospel from this text to your own sin and salvation, I offer you this story that might hit closer to home.
There was a certain boy, who stood in the doorway of Miss Schmidt’s office, clinging tightly to his foster mother’s hand. Not able to maintain eye contact or stand still, he looked down at his feet and shuffled back and forth restlessly. A normally patient mother of ten children—three of them adopted and seven in foster care—this woman was at her wit’s end. Jon had been dismissed from one private school and the public school had made it very clear that they weren’t going to invest too much of their limited resources to help. So, led by dim memories of her own childhood experiences she brought him to this Lutheran Day School.
The details of Jon’s exasperating situation tumbled out of her mouth. Jon’s birth mother had lost custody of him shortly after giving birth. Unfortunately, Jon had already suffered. It wasn’t noticeable to the casual observer, but the signs of fetal alcohol syndrome were obvious to the trained eye. Jon was immature; his body was growing up but his mind would never keep pace. Short-term memory limitations kept him from even remembering why he had gotten in trouble a few hours earlier. Even when people repeated the same things over and over again Jon would still forget. It was almost impossible for him to distinguish between categories of “appropriate” and “inappropriate” behavior.
Jon’s foster mother could hardly believe it when Miss Schmidt said she would love to have Jon in her class. Even then she dreaded each ring of her cell phone, fearing it was the school calling to say she would have to take him home. But the days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, the months into years, and Jon remained in the school. That’s not to say there weren’t many challenges. The energy that was necessary to keep Jon on task took away from the attention Miss Schmidt might direct to the other students in the class. Jon’s antics were a big distraction. It often took a whole class period to teach something that might otherwise only take 10 minutes. It bothered her how often she had to exclude Jon from an activity because he was unable to properly focus his attention.
Perhaps the most hurtful thing was those voices who suggested “that little troublemaker shouldn’t be allowed in our school.” Some of the parents were understandably concerned about the vulgar words their children learned from Jon. Some of the members of the congregation wondered how a Lutheran school could accept such “unchristian behavior.” And there were legitimate complaints about damage Jon and some of the others caused to the church property. Miss Schmidt certainly didn’t enjoy the unpleasant sights and smells that came from cleaning up.
But much to her credit, Miss Schmidt didn’t give in to those frustrations. She remembered her calling. She knew the reason she was teaching at a Lutheran school. It certainly wasn’t for the pay. She could have made more in the local public school, let alone if she had used her talents and education in some field other than teaching. It wasn’t because the kids were better behaved. Kids are pretty much kids, whatever their setting.
So what kept Miss Schmidt going? Why did she keep working with Jon and others like him when so many factors indicated she should just give up? She realized that her most important work was really not her work at all. Over time Jon’s social and academic skills would improve, but even more important was the work the Holy Spirit was doing in Jon’s life each day. Just as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies every Christian through God’s Word and Sacrament, the Holy Spirit was miraculously at work in Jon’s life, too!
The same finger that occasionally is used to make obscene gestures more often now joins the index finger of his right hand as he traces the sign of the cross during the invocation. The same mouth that from time to time spouts profanities unabashedly proclaims every chapel service: “Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins!” Even more amazing: the same boy who stubbornly resists his teachers’ discipline will walk over to the person he has hurt or offended and apologize to them. And his face just beams when he hears that he is forgiven.
Miss Schmidt rejoices that she has the opportunity to share with Jon and all the other children what is most important to her: the wonderful story of a certain Savior and His love. It brings her great joy to watch that Word come to life in a child entrusted to her care. Especially in one who, despite all contrary expectations, readily soaks up that grace and lets it pour out of him with acts of love and kindness. She just wishes that everyone else could see the occasional blessings of this ministry, not just the inconvenience and expense.
Daily Jon reminds Miss Schmidt that each of us is broken by sin. None of us have it all together. Each of us suffers from the sins of our parents, especially our first parents and their fall into sin. All of us are beggars before God, having absolutely no righteousness of our own to offer. If it depended on the purity of our heart, mouth, life, or mind we couldn’t earn a space in a Lutheran Day School classroom, much less a room in heaven. We are citizens and heirs of Christ’s kingdom solely by the grace of God.
It is true: You and I are debtors, and it is a debt we cannot repay. From the time of Adam and Eve, we have been sold into sin and cannot redeem ourselves. But Christ the Savior has come to redeem us—to buy us back and set us free from sin and death. The wages of sin is death, so Christ pays the debt to His Father by dying on the cross in our place; and having debited our sins from us, He credits us with His righteousness.
This He does today and every day! Tempted by the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh, we keep heading back into sin and debt, slavery, and death. Therefore the Lord comes here to wash us clean in our Baptism, to feed us His body and blood for forgiveness, to declare to us: “I have redeemed you. Your debt is paid in full. Your many sins are forgiven. Indeed you are forgiven for all of your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.