“So, you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” This is an unusual exhortation from our Lord, it seems to serve as a charge to do what you have been called to do. Or perhaps we could say, to be what you are, or to live out the reality of who you are. Jesus calls you to do that which is your duty to do. And what builds to this exhortation is quite a stern warning about leading others to sin. He says, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” Now, this is not usually a promise of our Lord we want to highlight or dwell upon. But He promises temptations will come. They will. There is no getting around it. The issues at hand, though, is you do not want to be the one through whom the temptations come. You do not want to be the vehicle of temptation which causes others to sin. He says, “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” He is not pulling any punches here. The better option for one who causes another to sin would be to have a monstrous stone with a hole in it tied around his neck and be cast into the sea.
Now, certainly no one wants to do that. No one wants to go down that road. So, what should we do to make sure we do not commit this act? What are you called to do, or in the context of this text, what is your duty as a servant of the Lord? Well, this is where it gets interesting. He says, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” He is saying you are called to forgive. This is your duty. In this setting to not forgive when one repents is to tempt others to sin. And when we think about it, there are many temptations to do just that. We might even say that much of our society is built off the temptation to not forgive. But you do not want to be the one through whom such a temptation comes; not you, not the children of God.
Consequently, the call is to be people who forgive. And the disciples of our Lord, not unlike us here today, take a good look at themselves. They take an honest assessment of the world in which they live and the sort of people and institutions they interact with. No doubt they think of their relationships and their position among friends and neighbors, not to mention their own families, and they come to a conclusion which makes as much sense in their day as it does in ours. They say, “Increase our faith!” To be agents of forgiveness in this way will take more faith than they have, or at least more than they think they have. They assess themselves and figure they are not going to do very well with this duty they have been given.
Let us be honest, to forgive is risky. The act of forgiving will be faced with massive opposition in our day. Forgiveness is a destroyer of much that we love in our life. It attacks our sense of glory or pride. It undermines our understanding of justice and the rules by which society works. Forgiveness weakens the institutions we trust and rely on. Each one of you, no matter how old or young, how big or small, has always had a secrete quest for glory. What I mean is, you want some recognition, some appreciation, some reward for the things you do. Whether it is the sacrifices you make or the gift you give or the wisdom you hand over, all of us build up this image of our worth. It may be accurate or not, but that is not the point. The point is you will go to great lengths to get what you believe you deserve. And forgiveness, your forgiveness of others, does not fit well in the scheme. That is why it is difficult to do. You lose something you are entitled to in this exchange.
But forgiveness attacks more than just our sense of glory or self-worth. Forgiveness impacts the world around us. It goes after the entire system of justice by which our world is built, which is why temptations to sin by not forgiving will certainly come to us all. In Victor Hugo’s famous Le Misérables, the police inspector Javert has built an entire life on a strict and clear application of the law. The law was how one raises themselves up. The law was the measure of all truth and the only guide for living one’s life. When he is unexpectedly met with mercy, with grace, with forgiveness by his nemesis of all people, his world is torn apart. Forgiveness destroys his whole life. He does not know how to live in such a world and chooses to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Seine River. Our world operates on the law, on the application of justice. It is what we want. It makes for a reliable and safe society. Unchecked forgiveness jeopardizes everything.
It is interesting, I once read how the history of Lutheranism is the history of moving away from Martin Luther. At first, I was not sure what the author meant by that, but I think it has something to do with the destroying nature of forgiveness. This is Luther’s insistence: We are saved by faith though Christ alone. And this is the teaching by which the Church stands or falls, which was easier to champion when you were the rebellious upstart challenging the corrupt status quo. But once a new institution grew up around such a teaching, the teaching which put forgiveness in Christ as the center of everything had to give a little. For how do you build and protect and operate any institution on forgiveness? There must be accountability, punishment, law, demands, condemnations, and more.
If you think about it, forgiveness attacks so much we hold dear. It is categorically different than our sense of worth. It does not account for our sacrifice and work or desires. It does not bend to the justice of our age, or the strict application of rewards and punishment society is built upon. Forgiveness is a failed business model. It will not sustain our economy or political structures. In fact, perhaps that is the point which is being driven home by our Lord in this text. Forgiveness strips away from you all the other things you might lean upon for trust and support, for identity and security. Forgiveness calls you to trust in God, to rely on Him alone for all things.
So, like the disciples of old, like disciples of all time and all places, we pray for faith. It is faith to trust in this way, faith to cling the promises of God above all the other institutions and relationships and reputations, faith to continue to forgive. And Jesus says you do not need some triumphant and powerful faith like that of Abraham or Noah. You do not need to be Peter walking on the water or Daniel in the lion’s den. No, your faith, your small faith the size of a mustard seed is enough. It is enough to forgive. And it is forgiving which you are called to do. Perhaps we might say this is the purpose of your faith. Your faith saves you. Your faith binds you to the promises of Christ. But its use, its function here and now as we await the return of our Lord, is to be people of forgiveness.
This is our duty. This ought to define our life together. Lives are changed not by the demands of the Law, and not by punishment and fear. No, lives are changed when you, over and again, do your duty. When you turn to your brothers and sisters in Christ, turn to those who have been broken by the Law, crushed by their sin and failure, and speak to them the freeing word of forgiveness. After all, this is who you are. You have been forgiven by your Lord. You are cleansed by His sacrifice. You are healed by His wounds. So, you can now forgive others. You can be reckless and free with it. And in the end, you can say to your Savior, “We too are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”