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Merciful Motivation

Matthew 18:21-35

Pastor Jason Zirbel

22nd Sunday after Trinity
Grace Lutheran Church  
Greenwood, AR

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Sun, Nov 12, 2017 

The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.

Today's Gospel lesson is one of those where we get it.  It's plain.  It's simple.  It's to the point.  The guy who had an impossible, exorbitant debt was forgiven everything, and then he turned around and turned the screws on a friend of his who owed him peanuts in comparison.  The unforgiving jerk, who was so grateful for the unmerited forgiveness first shown to him, could not, in turn, show even a fraction of a fraction of that same forgiveness to someone else.  When the master, who had so compassionately forgiven the first man's impossible debt, got wind of the jerk's behavior, he had the jerk hauled in and thrown in jail until he could repay every last penny of his debt— two hundred thousand years worth of wages (one talent being the equivalent of 20 years' worth of wages).  The moral of the story?  Forgive as we are forgiven, or we'll be on the hook for our exorbitant debt of sin.  Yes sir…it's all so simple.  We get it.  We may as well depart in peace. 

Well…not so fast.  Is that really what this lesson is all about?  Is that what the Christian faith is being reduced to—do this or else it's going to come back to bite you?  Forgive or else you won't be forgiven?  "But pastor, that is what we pray in the Lord's Prayer.  'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.'" You are correct…sort of.  These are the words to the Lord's Prayer, but if that is your aim and intention when you pray these words, then you don't get it.  You don't understand what you're praying.  Like the Holy Spirit, I groan with groanings too deep for words if your life of prayer and faith has been reduced to nothing more than a glorified game of "tit for tat" or Christianized karma.  You know what I mean; i.e., "I have to do good things so that good things will come back to me, because if I do bad things, then bad things will be returned to me.  Forgive or else I won't be forgiven."

Perhaps that's part of the problem right there—our understanding and usage of the word "forgiveness."  What does it mean to forgive?  Based on how we use this word in everyday, we can confidently state that to forgive means to release; to let go.  We forgive debts.  We forgive loved ones when they hurt us.  We let it go.  We release them.  We free them and ourselves from the bondage of guilt, shame, and despair.  And let me assure you: such an understanding is absolutely correct.  That's how God uses and understands this word too.  The big difference, though, comes to light in terms of motive.  "Motive"….that's sounds so criminal, doesn't it? 

Well…why does God forgive?  Why does He release you from all the deadly debt of your sin?  Is it because He wants something from you in return?  Is God so petty and insecure that He needs your worship and praise and good works in order to go about His day?  No.  What about you?  Why do you forgive?  More to the point, when you forgive someone, do you let it go for now or do you let it go for good?  Is your forgiveness tainted with the sinful motive of quid pro quo; that is, I'll scratch your back now, and you can scratch my back later?  It's an ugly fact: "forgive and forget" is often turned into "forgive and file away for later, just in case."  Held up the light of the Gospel, such conditional, false forgiveness, motivated by selfish control, is just plain criminal.

"But pastor, isn't that exactly what the master did in the parable?  He forgave, but when the forgiven jerk did what he did, the master pulled that old ledger right back out.  He didn't forget.  He filed it away for later."  Well…this is where we have to understand the motive behind the master's forgiveness, for it is the motive that makes all the difference.  What was the master's "motive" in forgiving the impossible debt?  In a word, "mercy."  In fact, the master himself uses the words "forgiveness" and "mercy" interchangeably in verses 32 & 33.  "I forgave you all…and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?"

What is "mercy"?  What does this word mean?  I can't tell you how often this word gets tossed around.  We often use it as a synonym for grace or peace or forgiveness or good works, but have you ever really given any thought to what the word actually means?  What if I told you that grace and mercy are not the same thing?  What if I told you that forgiveness and mercy aren't always the same thing?  You see, to be merciful in Scripture; that is, to show mercy (and not just talk about it or plug the word into a sentence because that's what Christianity is supposed to sound like) is to show forth a compassionate and complete forgiveness that expects NOTHING in return.  Let that sink in for a moment.  To show mercy is to forgive and expect NOTHING in return, not even a "thank you."  You show mercy because of who you are, not because of what you may get in return.  If we're honest, we must confess that we rarely, if ever, truly show mercy.  That's criminal.

And that's really what this lesson is all about—the mercy of God to you.  I know this will fly in the face of many popular renditions today; renditions that all wind up turning this lesson into what you need to do in order to earn your piece of the mercy pie, but it's the truth.  This lesson is NOT about what you need to do, but what your God and Lord has already done for you.  Almighty God has shown you mercy.  He has forgiven you everything—no strings attached, no quid pro quo, no probationary "I'll throw 'em a bone and see what they do for me in return."  NO!  God showed His divine mercy to you by forgiving you and releasing you from the bondage of all sin, death, and the devil, not because of who you are or because of what you might do for Him in return, but because of who He is.  God is love, and He desires the death of no man.  You can do absolutely nothing to repay your debt of sin, which is precisely why God is merciful and forgives your debt of sin—no strings attached, no down payment, no tit-for-tat.  God had zero expectations with you and your sin.  He knew the cold, hard, deadly truth.  That's why He showed you mercy.

And that's why I said earlier that mercy and forgiveness aren't always the same thing.  With God they are, but with us, there is usually a sinful disconnect.  We forgive, but we don't necessarily forget.  We forgive, and then we wait for the thankful response, and if we don't get it, there will be problems.  Case in point: How many of you have ever cackled and griped because so-and-so didn't send you a thank you note after you showed "mercy" to them?  Well…I've got news for you: If you're cackling and griping, then you didn't show mercy.  Your selfish sense of etiquette is trumping your Lord's own words that speak to not even letting your left hand know what your right is doing.  But I digress…this isn't about you.  It's about God and His mercy and grace for you.

And make no mistakes: I haven't misspoken here.  I did tell you that mercy and grace are not the same thing.  They're not.  Simply put, mercy is not getting what you deserve, whereas grace is getting something you don't deserve.  I deserve nothing but present and eternal punishment for my sin, and yet God shows me mercy.  For the sake of Christ Jesus, He doesn't give me what I deserve.  More than that, He freely gives me His amazing gift of grace, something I absolutely do not deserve.  Not only does God mercifully "zero out" my ledger book of sin, but He graciously gives to me Jesus' victorious perfection and righteousness.  And the greatest thing of all?  He still continues to work these gifts of mercy and grace on me and in my midst in spite of the fact that I routinely turn around and live like the jerk in the parable. 

And that's the reality for us as we prepare to wrap this up.  I can't make you be merciful to anyone.  But that's the whole point of this lesson: It's not about you being merciful so that God will, in turn, show you mercy.  No!  God has already shown you mercy and grace, and He continues to do so today in our very midst with His Word and Sacrament; means and gifts that He uses to bestow upon His merciful forgiveness and His amazing gifts of eternal life and blessed righteousness.  These are realities of God's mercy and grace that we take hold of in our lives and carry out into the world with us.  We forgive as we've been forgiven.  We show mercy because God's mercy has already been shown to us.  Our mercy is nothing more than a faithful response to God's mercy. 

My fellow redeemed: Here (the crucifix) is God's mercy and grace for you.  Here in these real and tangible elements of God's mercy and grace; here in the flesh, bone, and blood of God made flesh and hung on a cross to die for you and resurrected victoriously for us, is your peace and joy and comfort that surpasses all human understanding.  I said it before and I'll say it again: I can't make you be merciful…but God, by His grace, can.  Here is your grace, mercy, and peace, now and for all time.  May you, by God's free gift of grace, now go forth into this world, letting His mercy and grace be witnessed through you in all that you say and do.  May you faithfully expect nothing in return from your fellow man, trusting whole-heartedly that your Lord knows and sees, and that He is well-pleased.  Your heavenly reward is already waiting for you, not because of what you might do, but because of what Christ has already done for you out of His loving mercy for you.  May your mercy and grace be God's mercy and grace through you, and may all the glory be to God alone.

In His merciful, gracious, life-giving name…AMEN.



Feel free to use any or all of this sermon for the edification of God's people.



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