On November 17, 1935, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached at the gymnasium-turned-chapel of the Finkenwalde Preachers’ Seminary. His text was Matthew 18:21-35. In this “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant,” Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive the person who sins against him. I imagine Peter is already mustering all he can, and maybe even now proud of himself, when he asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Seven times to forgive the same person! Peter thinks that’s a lot and we probably do, too. (Haven’t they figured out by now how to stop hurting me?) But if God has forgiven us our “debts,” as Jesus’ parable shows, we are to forgive others their debts. Though this is 12 chapters removed from the Lord’s Prayer of Matthew 6, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t some sort of extended riffing on “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
Both this parable and the Lord’s Prayer conclude with fairly stern words. Here’s Matthew 18:
34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
Here’s the conclusion Matthew has Jesus making from the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
I don’t know whether Bonhoeffer did this deliberately or not, but I’m struck that in his sermon on Matthew 18, he adopts a similarly direct tone. He begins invitingly enough:
Right here at the beginning of this sermon, let us quietly and honestly ask whether we know anyone from our own circle of friends and family whom we have not forgiven for some wrong that person might have done us; a person from whom we once separated ourselves in anger—perhaps not even in open anger, but in quiet bitterness, thinking: I cannot stand it any longer; I can no longer have anything to do with this person.
I wish I could have been there. Because I really want to know how long he paused before he preached next:
Or are we really so inattentive that we say we do not know anyone like this? Are we so indifferent to other people that we do not even know whether we are living in peace or at odds with them? Whether one after another may not someday stand up and accuse us, saying: You separated yourself from me in discord—you could not tolerate me—you broke off fellowship with me—you found me unsympathetic and turned away from me—I once did you wrong, and you left me alone—I once wounded your honor, and you broke with me—and I could not find you again—I often looked for you, but you avoided me—and we never spoke frankly with each other again, but I wanted nothing more from you than your forgiveness, and yet you were never able to forgive me. Here I am now, and I am accusing you—do you still even know me?—Whether or not in that particular hour names will come back to us that we hardly recognize anymore— many, many wounded, rejected, poor souls whose sin we did not forgive. And among these people perhaps even a good friend, a brother or a sister, one of our parents?
Ahem. It’s getting awfully dusty in here! you can hear Bonhoeffer’s seminarians say.
From here Bonhoeffer unpacks the rest of the passage. We are to identify with the “roguish slave” of Jesus’ parable, he says. We can see other people’s sins, but we are blind to our own.
What hope do we have, then?
Here is a single sentence (at least in its English translation) in the sermon’s final paragraph. Its length would probably lead my erstwhile preaching professor to several uses of the proverbial red pen, but do read it slowly:
My dear friends, those who have experienced what it means for God to lift us up out of a great sin and to forgive us, those to whom God has in such an hour sent another brother or sister to whom we might then confess our sin, whoever knows how a sinner resists such help because the sinner simply does not want to be helped, and whoever nonetheless has experienced how a brother or sister genuinely can release us from our sin in God’s name and in prayer—that person will surely lose all inclination to judge or to hold grudges and will instead want but one thing: to help bear the distress of others, to serve, to help, to forgive—without measure, without qualification, without end—such a one can no longer hate sinful brothers and sisters, but will instead want only to love him all the more and to forgive them for everything, everything.