That's a Law Question – Pentecost 13 (Proper 19A) Sermon

Joseph recognized by his brothers

Text: Matthew 18:21-35 (Genesis 50:15-21)
Preached on September 11, 2011 at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Dallas, TX

September 11th, 2001 – ten years ago today. “Never forget.” How can you? In the last few weeks leading up to this anniversary, there’ve been articles, documentaries, photo essays, replays of that horrifying footage playing out before a confused, shocked, and helpless nation. I’ve been brought to tears several times over the past few days as I’ve read an article or two, and looked at some photographs of that infamous day and its aftermath.

In all this, we Christians live out an interesting balance. As citizens of the U.S., as those called to serve our neighbor in the left hand kingdom of the state in various ways, the slogan of “never forget” remains necessary. But as those baptized into the forgiveness of our sins in Christ, we’re also called to “forgive those who trespass against us.” It’s the right-hand kingdom forgiveness and the grace of God that each of us needs eternally; that all people need. On the one hand, we as citizens expect justice to be carried out, terrorists and evildoers brought to justice. We just heard about this last week in Romans 13 – the ruler “does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” But on the other hand, we are to forgive those same terrorists and evildoers. This is a very difficult balance to live out. “Never forget” so that we can honor the memory of those who died in the attacks and those who died fulfilling their vocations in rescue and service. But only that far – then it’s time to forgive.

Our Lord’s lesson for us today is about forgiveness. It’s about sinning, and begin sinned against. It’s about owing a debt which cannot be payed back, and being owed at the same time. It’s about regarding our Lord Jesus and His gifts in the right way, about asking Him the right question, about receiving from Him in terms of the Gospel and not the Law.

First, forgiveness in our Old Testament reading: Joseph’s brothers had hurt him and sinned against him. They sold him as a slave to a foreign land, cut off from his family and everything he knew. But Joseph became second in power only to Pharaoh. Through him God provided for the whole region as it underwent tremendous famine. And his brothers came begging for food to him, years later. And eventually Joseph’s entire family was there, with him, in Egypt.

And Joseph, a powerful man, didn’t seek revenge against his brothers. When their father had died, they feared the gloves would come off. “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” In great fear, they sent word to Joseph: “Your father gave this command before he died, ‘Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.”

Instead of revenge, reconciliation and forgiveness: “‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’”

In our Gospel reading from Matthew today, we hear about a servant unwilling to forgive, even after he himself is forgiven. That unmerciful servant is in stark contrast to Joseph, who shows great mercy to his brothers. If the unmerciful servant in Jesus’ parable is the example to avoid, Joseph is the example of forgiveness to follow.

Yet forgiveness is nowhere near that easy for us – it gets messy so easily. We face the temptation daily to hold onto grudges, to be miserly with mercy. We’re so often the unmerciful servant who seeks to exact the price from his debtor, rather than a merciful Joseph. Or maybe even worse: “I’ll forgive but I won’t forget.” How horrifying to qualify forgiveness. How Unchristian. Do we wish that Christ might qualify His forgiveness in the same way?

And what of Jesus? An example like Joseph or the servant, or more? Without Jesus, we have no forgiveness. With him, we have perfect forgiveness. Without him all we have is our outrageous debt of sin. With him we have all the riches of God’s grace. His cross and tomb and resurrection do not show us the way to act, they are the actions that win God’s favor for us.

We’re each that debtor servant. We’re all the band of brothers who have offended the other. We deserve the Lord’s retribution and the punishment. Yet what He puts in our hands is nothing except exorbitant mercy and kindness. He pays the our debts. Not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood! And when we humiliate ourselves before Him, pleading for forgiveness, He gladly shows it to us.

This forgiveness is powerful stuff. It changes you. His gift of the Spirit is such that we now say “Thy will be done” instead of wanting our own. Where the sinful nature wants to avenge itself, the redeemed first seeks forgiveness. Where the Old Adam wants his own warped justice, the New Adam knows grace and acts in mercy. Yet it’s a daily war within us, isn’t it? And so we need forgiveness every day, as we ourselves struggle to trust in the promises of the Gospel, and live according to it. We need it and receive it. And we also are given to give it out.

When it comes to God’s judgment: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” We’re not the ones to hand out the punishments for sin, acting on our own accord to determine its consequences. The ruler in God’s stead metes out temporal punishment to fit the crime, but even he has no say in regards to eternal consequences.

So when it comes to sharing and declaring the forgiveness of Christ, we all have a certain charge from Jesus. This is what was meant earlier in Matthew 18 when Jesus announced that “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” This is why the pastor forgives “in the stead and by the command of” Christ. This is why the Christian consoles his brother with the promises of Christ, and forgives trespasses when others trespass against us.

This parable comes about because of a question Peter asks: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” This is a Law question. This isn’t a question born out of a desire to be overflowing with mercy. Rather, this is much like the question “how far is too far?” You wouldn’t be asking if you didn’t want to know what you could get away with. To be fair, I’m sure Peter feels that he’s being very generous. Think about when someone wrongs you – maybe said something hurtful, did something mean, failed to love you as themselves. You forgive them, right? And then they do it again. Forgive again? They do it again. And again. Again. Again. That’s only six. How many times do we even make it that far?

If we ask a Law question, which we’re so fond to do, we’ll get a Law answer. If we ask a Law question, we’re confessing with our lips that the abundant merciful Gospel goodness of the Lord’s forgiveness for us isn’t really as important to us as making sure we do only as much as the Lord expects. So when Jesus tells Peter (and let’s face it, us too) that “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” he’s tightened that noose of the Law quite tight around our necks. If just seven times is tough, what about 490? Don’t ask how much you’re supposed to forgive. Do you want to put a limit on God’s forgiveness for you? May it not be so!

Therefore, this is how we act with all those who would seek to hurt us, who have hurt us, who likely will hurt us again sometime in the future. We pray for our nation and leaders that they would execute justice, as God has called them to do. And we pray for those who persecute us, that they would repent. And we forgive them, and leave eternal justice to our Lord. We should do the very same for our neighbor who has sinned against us. God has so much forgiveness for us in our weakness and sin that we cannot help but forgive those who sin against us.

Jesus is owed everything and owes nothing, yet He makes no demand and gives us everything in abundance. He makes our cups overflow with His grace, mercy, and peace. You aren’t forgiven because you forgive. You’re forgiven because Jesus forgives you. Let us not fail to be forgivers of those who trespass against us. And when we fall, let us not fail to speak words of forgiveness to each other. This is the joyful life of living in the Gospel, and not under the Law. So no more Law questions; only Gospel statements.

Let me go first. Here’s the Gospel for you: You’re forgiven in the blessed Name of Jesus. Amen.