When the King Settles Accounts

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“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants” (Matthew 18:23).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Having just heard Jesus’ words about winning back an erring brother, Peter asks, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive Him? As many as seven times?” Peter thinks he is being very generous. After all, the old Jewish teaching was that three times was enough, and even then you only forgave someone if he or she first apologized. And generally, it was expected that the sinner had to make it up to you somehow.
But Jesus raises the bar considerably higher: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Some translations render this 77 times. Others make this 70 x 7 times, or 490 times. Either way, it’s a lot of times. But neither number is to be taken literally. Both of them tell us to just keep on forgiving indefinitely. Don’t keep score and finally decide that enough is enough. Forgive completely and unconditionally without limits and without keeping record. That’s the kind of love God gives. You see, if God kept such a record of our sins and required us to first make amends, He would have written us off long ago. We need God’s forgiveness over and over every day as long as we live. In the same way, we must forgive.
To help us understand this matter of forgiving and being forgiven, Jesus uses a parable. A king decides to settle accounts with his servants. The first man called in owes the king a huge debt, ten thousand talents—millions of dollars. This debt is so tremendous that the man could not possibly ever repay it. So the king orders that everything the man has, including his wife and children, should be sold in order to pay at least a portion of that huge debt.
When the servant begs for mercy and promises to repay everything, the king has pity on him, cancels the entire debt, and lets the man go. How grateful that man should be! But he isn’t. On his way out, he meet a fellow servant who happens to owe him a relatively small debt. A hundred denarii is about three months wages for a laborer—nothing at all compared to the millions of dollars of debt he had just had forgiven. We might think, it would only be natural that he would cheerfully forgive that relatively small debt, but instead he becomes violent, grabs the man by the throat and demands immediate payment in full. He turns a deaf ear to the man’s pleas for mercy and his promises to pay the debt as soon as possible. He has him thrown into debtor’s prison in order to settle accounts.
When other servants report this to their master, the king immediately calls that ungrateful servant back, angrily scolds him, and has him thrown into debtor’s prison. We may assume that he spends the rest of his life in jail because there is no way he could pay back his huge debt.
Serves him right! He got what he had coming to him! The man is a jerk! How dare he be so unforgiving after the great mercy that that had just been shown to him! I hope he rots in the hellish darkness of that prison for the rest of his life! That’s what we think, isn’t it? But then Jesus hits us right between the eyes. “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from the heart.”
You and I are the ungrateful servant. We are the ones who have been forgiven a great debt. The few sins our brother has committed against us are puny compared to the countless times we have sinned against God. We’re the ones holding our fellow servant by the neck, insisting that he settle accounts that he make up for each and every wrong he’s ever done to us. All the while, we’ve had countless thousands, perhaps millions, of sins forgiven.
Jesus’ parable hits everyone’s sinful flesh hard. It is a scary thing to hear Jesus say, “So also My heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Who has not been unforgiving at some point in his life? How often do you avoid coming to a church function because you’re upset with somebody? Or refuse to talk to somebody because of something they did to you? How often in the heat of an argument will you dredge up some prior offense that should have been buried long ago? If God treated you like you treat others, what would become of you? Your debt of sin is so heavy that you would sink into the dark depths of hell, just like the man in the parable.
As you look at the servant with the impossible debt through the lens of the Law, you see yourself, so great is your debt of sin. You could never settle your account. Any efforts or promise you may make about paying that debt are meaningless. Your debt only gets larger, for you could not possibly earn forgiveness as fast as you commit more sins. As a matter of fact, you cannot earn any forgiveness at all. Your only hope is in the mercy of our gracious God. And He has told you that He freely forgives you all your sins for Jesus’ sake. Your account is settled. No sin stands between you and your heavenly Father.
And the same goes for the sins of your brother. You see, Jesus did not just cancel your debt; He paid it, in full. With His perfect, obedient life and His innocent suffering and death, Jesus paid for the sins of the world. With His holy precious blood, Jesus paid for every single sin that’s ever been committed!  Through faith, you receive that gift of forgiveness solely by grace. Who are you to demand that your brother make amends to you?
If you now refuse to forgive someone, you are acting like that unmerciful servant. You are showing by your actions that you do not really believe in mercy, that you think people should be held accountable for all their sins. And God then says to you: “If that is what you believe, then that is the way I will deal with you.”
We recognize the fairness of it all every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer and ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We ask God to forgive us in the same way as we forgive others. That means: If we refuse to forgive someone, don’t forgive us either. Treat us as we believe people should be treated.
Does that mean that God forgives you when you repent but cancels that forgiveness when you refuse to forgive someone else? That is a rather pointless question, really; it’s a futile attempt to accuse God of being unfair or going back on His Word. It makes no difference whether He cancels that previous forgiveness or not. Once you set different standards for yourself, that first new sin you commit is enough to condemn you for all eternity—and you have already sinned by refusing to forgive your brother!
Satan wants you to believe that you have a right to refuse to forgive someone who deliberately harms you, especially if that harm is repeated and the offender shows no repentance and doesn’t even care about being forgiven by you. The devil wants you to imagine that you can derive a certain satisfaction from holding a grudge or even trying to get revenge. But such an unforgiving spirit is spiritual poison, which harms you most of all and threatens to destroy you utterly and eternally. When you forgive others as God forgives you, you are the one blessed by that. When you refuse to forgive others, you endanger your own faith and salvation.
Really, forgiveness is not yours to give or withhold. Forgiveness is a gift of God’s mercy and grace. It all belongs to Him! God loved the world so much that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life. Christ paid the debt for all sins. The Holy Spirit distributes that forgiveness through the means of grace. You are not the forgiver—you are just the conduit through which God forgives your brother.
Think of it this way. Let’s say you are riding along in a truck, through a country of many starving people. The truck is filled with food donated by a very wealthy man. You have neither provided nor procured any of the food. You have, however, been given this food and asked to hand it out to those who are starving. In other words, you have been asked to give out these gifts but not to decide whether someone should receive these gifts or how much they should receive. You have been asked to give these life-saving gifts even to those too weak and too starved to request the food. And you are to give them as much as they need.
Regarding giving forgiveness, you may ask, “Well, don’t others have to apologize, or at least first ask for forgiveness?” No! Why not? Because those who are too spiritually weak and starving often first need to receive God’s powerful and living Word from Him, through you, so that they can be brought back to life, spiritually. They don’t even have the strength to ask for what they need the most: the powerful, life-giving Word of Jesus’ forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not yours to withhold. Forgiveness does not belong to you, but has been given to you. Forgiveness is a gift of God, which He is asking you to give to others. Even if the faith of others is so weak they are starving spiritually—yes, even if they do not say they are sorry—God lovingly has forgiven you, and He wants His endless gift of forgiveness to flow through you to others. Settle accounts! Forgive as you have been forgiven!
But forgiveness in theory is often much easier than in practice, isn’t it? Discussing forgiveness is easier than forgiving, especially when a sinful grudge is involved. As you consider how God desires you to forgive, you may often feel frustrated. You know you should forgive your brother or sister, but you just can’t find it in you to do it. You know you should settle accounts, but you just can’t. What do you do then? You go to the cross and the abundant forgiveness that Jesus has won there. You draw from the inexhaustible storehouse of His forgiveness.
Yes, it’s often difficult to forgive, yet the remarkable thing about Jesus is that He forgives you even for the times you don’t perfectly forgive others. God gives you the strength and ability to forgive. While you cannot generate forgiveness toward those you who have wronged you, God, in Christ, enables you to do this miraculous act. Like a powerful, cleansing, and healing agent, God’s Word of forgiveness goes to work in your heart. God’s Word will prompt and enable you to do what you cannot (or do not want to) do in your own flesh.
Regularly study this parable. Ask God to make His Word and Spirit work in you. God’s forgiveness will not only come to you, it will flow out of you, forgiving others. When God’s living Word in Christ comes to you through preaching, teaching, and receiving the Sacraments, the Word will enable you to do what you cannot do on your own: forgive others who have wronged you, taking away the desire to choke them as the wicked servant did.
How often should you settle accounts? Forgive others as often as necessary, as often as the sins continue or recur, since there is no limit to how often God forgives you. Remember, when you forgive others, you are distributing God’s forgiveness and not your own. Forgiveness is found in Christ’s name and not in yours. Only He, the King, can settle accounts. Only He has paid the debt in full.
Once again, this really is nothing new. You have been aware of this for as long as you have been privileged to be in the presence of the Lord and follow the liturgy of His Church. Perhaps for as many Sundays as seventy times seven, even seventy-seven years, you have confessed your sins and heard these Gospel words announced by your pastor as the Lord settled your accounts and marked your debt of sin paid in full: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen

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