A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.

The Story of the Unforgiving Servant

Matthew 18:21-35

July 22, 2018

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

Peter is wondering what you and I have wondered many a time when we have been hurt… “How many times must I forgive?”

I do wonder what it was Peter was having to forgive…  Was it James and John his fellow disciples who had asked Jesus for first place seats next to him when he brings in the Kingdom. How would you feel if you heard the other disciples were trying to become the favorites of Jesus? You know, jealousy is a powerful force leading to anger and resentment.

Or was it the need to forgive other disciples who had ticked him off… no likely there were many disagreements among them; given the fact they were so different in personality, ground and temperament.

We don’t know who Peter was needing to forgive… but we know he was struggling with forgiveness as I have heard many of you struggle with forgiving a child, an ex-spouse, a friend (or former friend), a fellow church member, who has hurt you or betrayed you…

I don’t know how you decide how many times, but  Peter offers what I take to be a generous opening bid: Seven.    Seven is a lot in my experience when I have been hurt. I mean once or twice is more than most… when it comes to offering forgiveness to someone. So I take Peter’s offer as more than generous.

But Jesus doesn’t see it that way. He won’t accept our low bid… he ups the ante-  Not seven… but Seventy times Seven… which I think is his way of saying, there is no end to the times we are called to forgive those who have done us harm.

Forgiveness. Maybe one of the hardest things Jesus asks us to do. Worship, yes. Help the poor. I’m all in sign me up. But forgive… Whoa… wait a minute Jesus.


Still, if there is one thing Jesus takes seriously, it is the call to forgive.  The mission and Gospel of Jesus is nothing less than a summons to accept the reconciliation he brings  and in response, we are called to offer reconciliation and forgiveness to our neighbors and enemies. “Forgive us our debts AS we forgive our debtors”… we pray every week.

Think about that. He said that it is useless to ask God to forgive us if we are unwilling to forgive others.

Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had told his followers what they are to do when they are angry with someone else and heading to worship:

 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister[i] has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,[j] and then come and offer your gift”

You’ll never hear me preach on that text on Stewardship Sunday!

Forgiveness is serious business for Jesus. Heaven and hell kind of business according to Matthew. The story he tells about the unforgiving servant underscores the point. Here is a person who has been forgiven a great debt… but is now refusing to forgive the much smaller debt of a fellow servant.

If you wonder where we get “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”- perhaps this is the story.

Other traditions say “trespasses” or “sins”… but Presbyterian say debts. Of course I often tell another story about why we say “debts” as Presbyterians. Especially when I’m at weddings where so many Christian traditions are represented. I tell the?m, “ Do you know the joke about why we say “debts” and not “trespasses” or “sins”… It is because we care far more about your debts than your trespasses!

But the truth is this: maybe the root of why we say debts comes from this story Jesus told. It is a story about debts forgiven by the Lord and yet somehow not passed on by the one forgiven.

The message is actually fairly clear and simple though we tend to forget it.

Dr. David HC Read put it this way:  “What God is willing to forgive us is infinitely more than anything we are called on to forgive in our fellow men and women. We are to live a life of compassion, understanding and love because this is the way God has treated us. We are to practice forgiveness among ourselves because God in his mercy offers to forgive our sins.”


So the reason we are asked to keep on forgiving others is because our Lord God has forgiven each one of us of so much more.

Forgiveness was at the heart of the gospel Jesus preached.  It was clear in the way he carried out his ministry. Again Read pointed out:

“Jesus ignored completely the divisions and hatreds that (divided) the community in which he lived. Roman soldiers, Samaritans, tax collectors—all objects of the most intense hatred- he treated exactly the same as Jewish patriots and the devout of the synagogue. It was as if hatred itself had been killed within him. He loathed the cruelties and hypocrites he saw around him but seemed incapable of hating anyone at all…”[i]

Perhaps this was most dramatically and clearly heard from the cross after he had been treated so cruelly and unjustly… after every one of his friends had either denied him, betrayed him or left him all alone when he needed them the most.  Still,  in that moment when he was dying on the cross, when most of us would have told everyone to go to hell… he said, “Father, forgive them.”  Forgive. Jesus practiced what he preached till the very end.

It was central to his message.

That message has made it through over the years thanks to some faithful disciples who have shown us what it looks like in our time.

I’ve enjoyed reading the sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King. Someone living in a time, among a people who were filled with such hate toward him and his cause. So much so, he was killed.

But King never gave in to the temptation to hate those who hated him. He didn’t carry signs of hatred when marching,  he demonstrated the reconciling love of Jesus. He likely gave more thought to loving enemies than any of us here.

He asked his congregation who were being treated unjustly, “How do we love our enemies?”  First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without… forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us. It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the one who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression. The wrongdoer may request forgiveness. He may come to himself, and like the prodigal son, move up some dusty road, his heart palpitating with the desire for forgiveness. But only the injured neighbor, the loving father back home, can really pour out the warm waters of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that an evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship…”

King preached and practiced what Jesus was teaching Peter that day.

So did Fred Rogers. I’ve been enjoying remembering him through the documentary that celebrates the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers neighborhood. [ii]

As I read this story from Jesus, I remembered a great Mr. Rogers story. Remember, he was a Presbyterian Minister who had a great theology professor, Dr. Orr… Years later, Fred and his wife Joanne used to visit him every Sunday in the nursing home.

One Sunday they had just sung  ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’ at the service, and Fred said, “ I just wanted so much to ask him this question. “I said,  ‘Dr. Orr, you know in that verse, it says something about—how does it go?—“The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him,” and then it goes on, and then at the very end of that verse it says, “One little word shall fell him.”’

“I said, ‘Dr. Orr, what is that one little word that would wipe out the prince of darkness, fell him?’ He thought for a moment, and said, ‘Forgiveness. Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’  He said, ‘You know, Fred, there is one thing that evil cannot stand, and that’s forgiveness.’ That’s meant the world to me.” “And you’ve been able to pass that on to others,” I offered.

He sighed deeply.

“It’s one of the toughest things in the world when somebody has hurt you, and you can find within yourself the strength to begin the whole process of forgiveness. And it turns out to be the gift to you, not so much the gift to  the person you’re forgiving.” “And that’s the mercy of God, too . . .” “Absolutely,” he agreed, and his eyes filled with tears. “

Mr Rogers later reflected: .” It is possible to see the best in our neighbor because of one thing: forgiveness. It’s possible to solve problems without machine guns because of one thing: forgiveness.. “

Fred had a good friend Johnny who was dying… Just before he passed away, he went for a visit.Fred talked to Johnny about the fact that we all need forgiveness, even if we are unaware of it. Then he took that opportunity to ask for Johnny’s forgiveness for anything he might have done unintentionally to hurt his dear friend.

Fred later wrote that the nursing room , “seemed filled with the grace of forgiving love. I think everyone who was there sensed that grace—as well as the absence of all evil.”

Because there is one thing that evil cannot stand, and that’s forgiveness.

Where did they learn those lessons about the healing power of forgiveness– these giants and models and mentors of our time?  From Jesus of course. They actually listened to the gospel of Jesus… they sought to practice what Jesus preached!

You know, the world, our relationships with God and one another would be so much better if we listened to Jesus. Don’t you think? Amen.


[i] Sermons at Madison Avenue, p 16-17

[ii] Hollingsworth, Amy. The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor (pp. 98-99). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.