Fourth Blog Post …
Myself in the Story
I have a good friend of a few years whom I will readily admit had a part to play in my starting this blog. Since I told her I’d like to do it she kept prodding and asking about when I’m gonna get around to doing it this year. So in May I finally get the time to be serious about it and “Goodness it’s already been 3 months since we bought that annual WordPress package” and basically I’m about done with this procrastination: I put my first post down.
It’s good to have friends who push you the right way in life. Naturally, I sent her the link almost as a first concern. We got to talking about it later. She thought the teaching was really valuable, which was quite encouraging.
“Where’s the ‘you’ in this story??”
She sprang up with point after point about how helpful it is for me to be a ‘part of what I write.’
I went on to (somewhat dramatically) protest my idea for this blog to avoid me and focus on the word.
“I know. But it helps. It’s less distant… more relatable… authentic even.” She’s a gifted writer and a communications major. The lady must know what she’s talking about. But then, I had some need for obscurity about me. To remain unseen – like Zorro, maybe. With the black mask and hidden identity. Mounted on fine steed and bringing truth. Trained in arts of the sword – of the word. Stealthily disappearing into the night.
The things I get up to thinking sometimes.
So how did it all end? Well… it’s an ongoing debate. But I figure that if I’m going to put myself into a post on a bible teaching, it would definitely be this one: forgiveness.
Me, forgiveness and the Church
As much as I frequently make a stand for church unity, I have to admit I’ve played my own part in sustaining divisions. No, I’m not leading revolts or breaking up churches. But when I look back on my walk I can think of the people I fell out with and don’t talk with for one reason or another.
So maybe now we’re not on speaking terms. Or avoid one another at events. Or we just don’t check up on one another. Maybe our friends have to ‘choose sides now.’
The church is rife with divisions, both large and small. And how many of those divisions were down to offenses which festered through ‘unforgiveness’? The ex-couple who broke up the cell group because they couldn’t sit in the same room. The pastor who could not see eye to eye with his assistant. The pope who would not stand the actions of His patriarch (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East%E2%80%93West_Schism).
Here’s the question for us and our Christian church: are any of these offenses past forgiveness? Is any wrong from one person to me or to you, truly worth breaking God-given fellowship over? For this we seek out His word for an answer.
Passage: The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
Matthew 18:21 – 35 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. 23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Fun fact – the gospel of Matthew was probably not the first gospel to be written. This has become more common knowledge nowadays, but for the longest time it was thought that Matthew had dibbs on the Good News and this is why the early church placed it first in the New Testament. The gospel’s dating isn’t as easy to place as an issue of Time Magazine, but hey these things can happen with 2000 year old writings. Sigh
What is quite apparent though, is the audience of this gospel. It was intended for Jews who had converted to Christianity, living in those heady times of Early Christianity under the Roman Empire. This is a little significant for this passage, and we’ll see why in a bit.
We can think of Matthew 18 as dealing with relationships in the Kingdom of God. It starts with the disciples seeking to know who would be the “greatest in the Kingdom” – as you do with Jesus, naturally. This form of pride He promptly extinguished in a call for child-like lowliness (18:4).
A while later Jesus came to teach on sin and church discipline. He taught the proper response to a brother or sister who has sinned – to another or simply in general (verses 15-19). We tend to skip over this teaching in the church, by the way. I’m just saying. But, more on this another day.
When Jesus responded to Peter’s question, he probably didn’t give him the answer he might have expected (verse 21-22). Peter sought to know how many times he must forgive his brother before it is okay to… punish, cast out, or cut ties with that person, probably. Peter may have sought some precise number the Teacher would say is enough for forgiving a brother’s offense. He sought a law… a limit.
Instead, Jesus gave him a rule for grace: boundless grace. The number he gave (some translations give 70 times 7, or seventy-seven) is only significant for what it means, so let’s not worry about the figures. Both 490 and 77 are multiples of 7 – the number which the bible uses often to signify completion. Jesus’ reply was an emphasis on forgiving without limits. Jewish Christians would see the use of numbers and get this instantly. To say 7 times would be to say: forgive completely. To say 77 or 490… is really like saying, “Just stop counting.”
But just to make it really clear in the minds of His disciples what He meant, Jesus introduced a story.
A servant-dude basically owed His king soooo much money that it was unpayable over the course of His lifetime. A ‘talent’ was roughly equivalent to 20 years’ worth of wages for one servant. 20 years. Like half the time one might expect to have a career in this life. So how this servant went about owing the King TEN THOUSAND talents… Is reckless personal financing at best. Maybe he decided to rent Solomon’s old Palace. I don’t know. I don’t know what his wife felt about this either. But she was about to be sold off along with this guy and his bad life choices (verse 25).
When the servant-dude pleaded for mercy, he begged for more time to pay off a debt which would take roughly 200,000 years to pay off. “But dude, patience. I’ll sort you out.”
But this king was a merciful one. One who also happened to have a lot more than Ten thousand talents to his name, it seems. He forgave the debt of this misguided brother. Maybe he could have commanded a block on his credit card spending until he remembers he isn’t an oil baron and stops putting his family at serious risk. All the same, he completely let him go.
When someone lets you in their lane in traffic, you’d think it might compel you to return the favor for the driver next to you. Uhhh… we’ve all been on roads though. So when this guy met the servant who owed him 100 denarii (4 months wages), maybe that guy had heard what happened. Maybe he hoped the wind of mercy would blow his debt away too. Not today. The servant-dude actually choked him for four months wages after being forgiven a debt of 2500 lifetimes. Then he threw him in prison until he could pay up.
We can make a guess that all the King’s workers (including the unlucky jail-bird servant) knew what the King did for his debt-ridden servant. For when they saw what servant-dude did… they were literally unable to can. And they went straight up before the King and said it. Even by worldly standards of justice and fairness, we can guess the King’s reaction. He had this treacherous servant brought in before him and he gave him a walloping.
Notice what he said: ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’
And basically that servant-dude is still in jail today. But here’s the end to the story Jesus gave:
So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
Friends, do we not tremble when we hear these words of Jesus Christ?
Okay just to be certain, the servant-dude in Jesus’ story is not that guy who borrowed your cash 6 months ago and has since gone AWOL. It’s you. Us. All people. Jesus was intentional about the debt which the servant owed the King: The talent was the highest denomination of currency in Israel and all of the Roman Empire. The number 10,000 (murioi, or myriad) was the highest Roman numeral. Basically, Jesus picked the highest of debt to liken it to one thing: the sin of man.
And this is the crux of this entire teaching: the highest debt in all of existence is our debt to God – the debt of a sinful man to the God that made him, and made him holy. But we willfully sinned against Him, and were worthy to be thrown away until we could pay that debt… which is never.
But God – knowing we will never be able to repay Him – through great love, allowed Jesus to be the instrument and purveyor of forgiveness by dying for us on the cross. He gave up His glory and then His life, so that our unpayable debt could by this means get paid.
So here we are Christians… all with debts paid in full by blood. Then my brother goes behind my back and tells someone I’m actually so self-righteous that I could only walk on sparkling water. Or someone doesn’t invite me to their wedding. Or one of my parents constantly makes promises they never keep. Or my ex keeps spreading lies about me. And on some day… at some point… I feel justified in not forgiving them.
Here’s what this parable of the unmerciful servant teaches me: we are not justified in anything except what God has justified us. Let that truth sink in for a second. We followers of Jesus are ALL recipients of two things: grace and forgiveness. And so when we refuse each other only the smallest measure of that grace we have been given, God’s mercy in forgiveness reverts to justice. This doesn’t mean that God will reverse our salvation. But how much mercy can we then expect in avoiding consequences when we sin? What blessing shall we expect from God should He choose to be unmerciful to us?
Here’s the problem with Peter’s motivations – and ours. He sought out an exact figure which described how much wrong was too much. He sought the limit of grace from an infinitely gracious God. If you and I ask one another how many times we must forgive, sure everyone could come up with a number. Our finite grace breeds finite forgiveness. Good people will give second chances, but seldom third ones. Somewhere along the way, human grace is taken for foolishness.
I am very aware about the difficulty of forgiving the things some people have done to us. I mean, even my own government. How can I forgive my leaders after they steal and steal and steal?
But consider this one thing about salvation: if in Christ God has forgiven all your sins past-present-future, guess what? He’s forgiven all the sins of every believer you know. We’re refusing to forgive what he has already forgiven. We are making a mockery of His own grace to us. Our Lord is a just God. He will not abide unforgiveness where His forgiveness has been established.
I’d like to close this (very long) post with an observation I have come to know as being true. Forgiveness heals the forgiver more than the forgiven. When you forgive from your heart, as Jesus wants, your heart always gains in peace and joy. So which person in your life have you decided you can never forgive? Has not forgiving them made you feel good in your heart at all? In your spirit? Who has God placed in your heart to forgive after reading this?
I know there are things and people in my life I haven’t fully forgiven – even when I told myself I had, but only in my head. I pray that God would teach me the ways of forgiving freely and endlessly. I pray that I may remove myself from the bondage of an unforgiving heart. I pray the same for you, as you read this. That you may decide to start forgiving, and work against the desire to be unmerciful in doing so.
Take a moment to imagine what it would look like if forgiveness reigned among Christians. What would happen? Wouldn’t the church already be united in one spirit, one joy and peace? There’s a harmony of oneness which forgiveness just creates among God’s people. Let us live to forgive those who trespass against us, knowing that what God has forgiven us is greater than everything we will every have to forgive.