"Forgiveness: Just a Drop in the Bucket," Sermon for the 15th Sunday After Pentecost, Year A

"Forgiveness: Just a Drop in the Bucket,"  Sermon for the 15th Sunday After Pentecost, Year A

Sep 17, 2017

Passage:Matthew 18:21-35

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Jill Walters

Series: Pentecost

Category: Forgiveness

Keywords: debt, forgiveness, mercy


Jesus identifies forgiveness as one of the most important features of the Kingdom of God. Jesus responds to Peter and tells a story to underline the importance of forgiveness. "Every time you forgive someone pass on a drop of water out of the bucketful [of forgiveness] that God has already given you" (N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2, p. 39.


May the Words of my mouth and the meditations of each heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

     Forgiveness....  We hear about forgiveness so much in the church.  We say it in the Lord’s Prayer.  We ask for forgiveness in confession.  We receive forgiveness in the assurance after confession.  The Eucharistic prayers speak of forgiveness.  The Gospel of Matthew is filled with Jesus’ words about forgiveness.  We hear it so much that our understanding of forgiveness can be watered down...weakened.

      Think about it for just a minute.  Forgiveness....  What does Jesus really mean by forgiveness and how important is it?  Jesus considers forgiveness to be one of the most powerful and important features of the Kingdom of God. 

        In today’s Gospel lesson, we see Peter come to Jesus to ask a question about forgiveness.  “If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”  His question has multiple layers.  His question addresses forgiveness of another follower of Jesus.  He seeks to understand his responsibility in forgiveness.  His questions continue by asking “as many as seven times?”


       From Peter’s perspective seven times seems very generous.  Seven is a number of perfection, wholeness, completeness.  Peter’s response is actually a good one.  Forgiving someone seven times for the same offense?!  This question isn’t foolish.  It actually demonstrates great love and mercy.

       Jesus’ response to Peter isn’t one of astonishment at Peter’s ignorance.  It’s an affirmation of Peter’s willingness to forgive.  But Jesus goes even further than that!  He gives a radical response: there’s no limit to how many times we should forgive in God’s kingdom.  Jesus isn’t telling us to count offenses until we get to 77.  Jesus is saying:  “Peter, you’re on the right track!  But let’s go even further...let’s make it a number so high we’ll lose count!” 

       Jesus is using this kind of exaggeration to describe the abundance of God’s kingdom.  Forgiveness is unlimited! 

       But Jesus doesn’t stop there!  He makes sure that the disciples fully understand the importance of individuals and as his followers.

       So, Jesus does what he does so well.  He tells a parable, a story to illustrate what the Kingdom of God is like. 

       This parable starts with a king who sets out to settle all the debts his slaves owe him.  As the first one is brought to him, Jesus notes that the slave owes the king 10,000 talents!  Now, this is an absurd amount of money.  A slave would never have that kind of money and could never pay it back over the course of an entire lifetime.  So, the king orders the slave, his wife, his children, and all of his possessions to be sold in order to fulfill this debt. 

      Once again, this is an outrageous demand.  In the first place, Jewish law forbade selling someone into slavery in order to receive payment for outstanding debts.  And even though the Greeks and Romans allowed it, it was hardly ever practiced. 

       So, the slave falls on his knees and begs for mercy.  The king feels compassion for this slave and forgives his debt.  This is a quick turnaround for a king who only moments before seemed cruel and heartless.

       And how does this slave respond after great mercy has been extended to him?  This slave then attacks a fellow slave who owes him a much smaller sum of money and has him imprisoned. 

      Once the other slaves tell the king of the first slave’s behavior, the king summons the slave again. He scolds him: “You wicked slave?  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me?  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”  Then in his fury, the king orders the slave to be “tortured until he could pay his entire debt.” 

       Once again, the king is given to extremes of mercy, then torture.  How could a slave who is being tortured be expected to pay his entire debt?  And remember, this is an astronomical sum that the slave would never be able to pay in the first place. 

        Throughout today’s lesson, we see Jesus using exaggeration, hyperbole to get his point across.  THIS is how important forgiveness is!  Jesus wants to make sure people are listening.  Forgiveness is necessary to the Kingdom of God.  Forgiveness is one of the key ways that God’s love is lived out in God’s Kingdom.  Without forgiveness, what’s the point?  Where’s the hope?

        And if forgiveness is this important, we need to take it seriously.  Forgiveness is tough business.  True forgiveness isn’t usually easy.  True forgiveness requires a change in us.  And honestly, sometimes it’s easier not to change.  Sometimes, it’s easier to go about our lives without pursuing forgiveness. 

       We often hear the cliché, “forgive and forget.”  So much so that we tend to make forgetting a measure of whether we have truly forgiven someone who has hurt us.  Let me be clear...I don’t think that forgetting is a requirement of forgiveness.  I believe that it can be dangerous, not only to individuals, but to the Kingdom of God, for us to “forget” some sins.  Should we forget the Holocaust?  Should we forget abuse?  Of course not!  That would be disastrous for individuals, the Body of Christ, and society.  So, let’s take this notion of “forgetting” someone’s sin as part of forgiveness out of the equation.

       But we can’t ignore the end of this parable either.  Jesus leaves us with a chilling summary:  “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”  Is Jesus really saying that God is going to torture us if we don’t forgive others?! 

       Jesus tells this story to illustrate how living with unforgiveness is like being “tortured.”  When we don’t forgive others, we’re imprisoned by their wrongdoing.  It eats us up from the inside and makes us angry and bitter and unforgiving.  Modern science tells us that holding onto unforgiveness literally makes us sick!  Our refusal to forgive others is like being tortured.

      But what is this forgiveness that Jesus is talking about?  Forgiveness is really about release and letting go.  It doesn’t mean that we can always let go of the pain that has been caused.  But it does mean letting go of the power and control that the other person has over our hearts, minds, and souls.  It means allowing peace into our lives so that we can move forward.  It’s a choice, not a feeling. 

       But what if the person doesn’t feel remorse, do we still forgive them?  Jesus says “yes.”  Forgiveness is unlimited.  My forgiveness of someone who has hurt me isn’t dependent upon their acknowledging or even feeling sorry for what they’ve done. 


     Of course, it helps when the other person feels remorse.  And that remorse combined with my forgiveness can bring about reconciliation.  But if they don’t, it doesn’t mean they get to have control over my life forever.  Sometimes, we’re not only forgiving what that person has done, but their lack of regret.

     Amidst all this hyperbole, Jesus describes this truth:  forgiveness is our response to God’s forgiveness of us.  N.T. Wright says that “every time you forgive someone pass on a drop of water out of the bucketful [of forgiveness] that God has already given you.” *    

      I love that image!  God has a bucketful of water for me.  And each drop represents God’s forgiveness of me.  So, when I forgive someone else, it’s a “drop in the bucket” compared to what God gives me.

       And here’s where the good news comes in!  Jesus came to show us that God’s forgiveness is unlimited.  Even when we can never repay what we owe, God will forgive.  And we are called to forgive others, to let go of the “torture” that we find ourselves in when we hold onto what others have done to us. 

      The forgiveness we receive from God as well as the forgiveness we give to others leads us to freedom!  The freedom to live our lives with the same abundant love and mercy that we have to generously been given.  Amen.


*N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2, p. 39.