Sep 17 • 12M

10,000 Lifetimes

Until our wickedness runs out

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Jake Dell
The Puritans called their preaching "experimental" not because they were trying new things in the pulpit, but because they wanted to be tested and proven by the Word of God.
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The only way to set a limit on wickedness is not to set a limit on forgiveness.

Proper 19
Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 18:21-35

The Unmerciful Servant


Last week, I preached on the need for members of the local church to be willing to serve on ad-hoc, one- and two-person juries to try cases against fellow church members.

That is a provocative concept, and I encourage you to go back and read or listen to it. It’s based on the teachings of St. Paul and of Jesus Christ Himself.

But there is a limit to church discipline.

Paul gives an example in 1 Cor. 5:3-5 of particularly grievous sexual sin, a type of “fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles.”

In such a case there was a limit as to how far church justice could go. Paul’s advice in this case is to “deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh.”

What this means is that some offenses cannot be remedied by church justice alone and require handing the offender over to the civil authority for punishment.

Satan means accuser or adversary so in effect Paul is saying “hand him over to the district attorney for prosecution.” This is on top of the penalty of excommunication.


This is a good frame for interpreting today’s readings from Genesis and Matthew.

The question in Peter’s mind (as well as in the minds of Joseph’s brothers) is, “Am I being too lenient?” “Is this a case where I really need to be stricter?” “Do I call the police?”

In Joseph’s case, as the second in command after Pharaoh, there was no remaining threat from his brothers, even if they were not sincere in their apologies.

However, for Peter, as captain of Jesus’ still-small band of disciples, with one at the ready to betray Jesus — perhaps Peter already had his doubts about Judas — the question was more urgent.

Peter asks Jesus:

“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”

Jesus responds with a multiple of 11.

“I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Seven times for each of the 12 apostles, minus the one who would betray Jesus. Seven times eleven equals seventy-seven.

Seven is a biblical number signifying completeness and perfection. What Jesus is saying is, “Forgive those who are worthy of forgiveness until they are perfect but deal severely with the one who is not worthy of forgiveness.”

In the parable, the master revokes his forgiveness of the unworthy servant and:

“in anger… delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.”


How do we know who is not worthy of forgiveness?

Jesus answers with the parable of the unforgiving servant. This servant, having begged on his knees, had his debts forgiven, but he did not forgive those who likewise owed him.

Mercy was offered to him, but he did not offer mercy in kind to others.

For Peter, this is very practical advice. As overseer of the apostles, he is to pay close to attention to how the brothers treat each other.

When they assemble in ad-hoc, one- and two-person juries to confront a fellow believer when he is doing something wrong, do they burden him with more guilt, or do they help to relieve him of his sin by encouraging him to do better and assuring him that he is still loved by God?

Joseph very well could have been this unforgiving servant.

Confronted once again by his brothers, who are still burdened with the guilt of having conspired to murder him, Joseph could have punished them, especially now that their father, Jacob, was dead.

Joseph would neither need to answer to Pharaoh nor to his father if he put his brothers to death.

Instead, Joseph preached the gospel to his brothers.

You may think the gospel is simply a New Testament, Christian word, but the whole Bible is gospel. The whole Bible is the story of God’s good news, which Joseph sums up beautifully when he says to his forgiven brothers:

“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.”

The whole Bible is also law, which is used against us to convict us.

But God uses this conviction for good, because as soon as we acknowledge our wrongdoing in the face of God’s law, we see that He has forgiven us through His Son.


For our parts, we need to understand how deeply wrong our wrongdoing is — that is how we apply this text to our lives.

The unforgiving servant failed to understand how deep in debt he was (debt being a metaphor for wickedness). He failed to understand how wicked he was.

Jesus tell us that the servant owed his master 10,000 talents. One talent was worth 20 years’ wages for a day laborer. So, this man was forgiven the debt of 10,000 lifetimes, assuming 20 productive years in those days of shorter lifespans and harder labor.

You would think that would be enough for him to realize just how much he had been forgiven.

But he didn’t.

Psychologists call this rationalization. St. Paul calls it suppressing the truth.

Proclaiming the truth is a primary task of the church.

If you go into an old colonial-era church, behind the Communion table you will often see a reproduction of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments.

That was one way the church kept the truth in full view.

Another way is through the weekly ritual of confession. Each Sunday we begin our worship confessing things “done and left undone.”

The priest then absolves us of our sins and in so doing he is proclaiming the truth that there will be no limit to forgiveness, provided we have a sense of how deep that forgiveness reaches into us.

Forgiveness will reach its limit only when our wickedness runs out. In fact, that’s the only way to defeat evil, by exhausting it.

That seems to be what Jesus means when He says:

“I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

The only way to set a limit on wickedness is not to set a limit on forgiveness.


The key to understanding the lesson here is the word brothers.

It is Joseph’s brothers who beg forgiveness.

It is the brother who sins that Jesus tells Peter he must forgive seventy-seven times.

The first example is of a blood relationship, Joseph’s father’s sons. The second example is also of a blood relationship, a relationship to God the Father made possible by Christ’s sacrificial blood shed for each of us on the cross.

This type of deep forgiveness is only extended to those who are made worthy of it.

That worthiness is imputed to us the moment we ask Jesus Christ for forgiveness and put our trust in Him. The sins of 10,000 lifetimes are forgiven.

This is not a blanket forgiveness for the whole world — though it is offered to the whole world.

It is forgiveness only for those who call Christ brother.

When Israel left Egypt, they did not forgive the Egyptians 400 years’ worth of stolen labor. They plundered Egypt and exacted payment.

That is what Egypt deserved. (Although next week’s lessons will turn this idea of merit on its head.)

The point of this week’s lesson (and last’s) is that the church judges (and is judged) by a different standard.

We are judged by how we treat a brother or sister in Christ and whether or not we forgive him or her as our Father has forgiven us. Amen.

Preached on September 17, 2023 at St. Peter’s Lithgow, Millbrook, New York.


Questions for reflection and discussion:

1.       There is a ____________ as to how far church justice can go.

2.       Satan also means ____________ or ____________.

3.       Explain what Paul means by “deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh.”

4.       Peter is worried that he might be too ____________ in administering church discipline.

5.       ____________ is a biblical number signifying completeness and perfection.

6.       How do we know who is not worthy of forgiveness?

7.       Joseph shows forgiveness to his brothers by saying, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for ____________.”

8.       One talent was worth ____________ years’ wages for a day laborer.

9.       Describe two ways the church has kept the truth of how much we’ve been forgiven in full view.

10.    The only way to defeat evil is by ____________ it.

11.    The key to understanding the lesson here is the word ____________.

12.    The point of this week’s lesson is that the church judges (and is judged) by a different ____________ from the world.

Parents and Grandparents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents or the minister after church. Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Count how many times “forgive(n)(ness)” is mentioned. 2) Discuss with your parents how much it costs to run your home.

(1) limit; (2) accuser or adversary; (3) it’s time for the civil authority to take the case; (4) lenient; (5) Seven; (6) such a person does not offer forgiveness to other Christians; (7) good; (8) 20; (9) hanging plaques of the Ten Commandments, weekly confession of sins; (10) exhausting; (11) brothers; (12) standard


Matt. 18:22. Some translations read “seventy times seven.”