Sunday, April 19, 2015

Clash of Kingdoms: Forgiveness in the Kingdom

During a children’s sermon one Sunday morning, the preacher held up an ugly-looking summer shirt that he'd worn occasionally around the house. He explained to the children that someone said the shirt was ugly and should be thrown away. “This really hurt me,” he explained. “I'm having trouble forgiving the person who said those mean things. Do you think I should forgive that person?" he asked the children. Be careful what you ask children, especially when a live microphone is involved! Immediately, his six-year-old daughter raised her hand. “Yes, you should,” she said without hesitation. “But why? The person hurt my feelings,” he responded. To which his daughter wisely answered, “Because you're married to her.” Yes, be careful what you ask children! Sometimes they will embarrass you and sometimes they will give you more truth than you are ready to hear!

Oh, here it is church: the sermon on forgiveness! As James Stanley would say: “Tape up your ankles!” This one might hurt a little bit. Who enjoys sermons about forgiveness? Sometimes sermons on forgiveness, sometimes those passages in the Bible about forgiveness, they give us more truth than we are ready to hear! But here is why these sermons and these texts are so important, difficult as they may be to hear: You cannot live out the gospel and at the same time refuse to forgive. Forgiveness is at the center of the gospel. In fact, the gospel really is a story about forgiveness.

And one time, Jesus told a story to help us understand that…
At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?”
Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.
“The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.
“The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.
“The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’
“The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.
“The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.” (Matthew 18:21-35)
Like most parables that Jesus told, this one is allegorical. That means that each element in this fictitious story stands for something else, something real. Obviously, the king in this story is God (Jesus tells us that). We are the servants. In hyperbolic fashion, Jesus describes the debt we owed to God. Literally, the text says, the debt was 10,000 talents. Which means absolutely nothing to us! Anyone know the exchange rate for a talent these days? The Message tries to provide a better analogy: $100,000! Actually, that is not a big enough number. 10,000 talents would be the equivalent of millions and millions of dollars! A talent was a monetary unit roughly equivalent to what a day laborer would make in 6000 days! So, 10,000 talents is what a day laborer would make in about 165,000 years! The point is: This man owed more than he could EVER pay back! And, in spite of this huge, insurmountable debt, the king showed his servant mercy and forgave him. So, in spite of the huge, insurmountable debt that we owe because of our sin, God shows us mercy and forgives us.

Now, in this story, we are the servant who is forgiven, but we are also the servant who refuses to forgive! The servant’s impossible-to-pay-back debt was forgiven. But that same servant refused to show mercy to someone else who owed him only 100 denaria. Again, what is 100 denaria? This amount is equal to what a day laborer would make in 100 days. The servant refuses to forgive even this small debt and because of his inability to forgive, this servant is hauled back before the king and placed in prison, and he’ll be there until he is able to pay back his entire debt. In other words, he’s never getting out! And just so He is sure His disciples understand that this fictitious story stands for something real, Jesus concludes by saying…
And that is exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.
The full-extent of this allegory is pretty clear: God forgave our debt, which was so large, we would never ever have been able to take care of it, and because we’ve received so much forgiveness, we should, in our gratitude, forgive others.

As I said, forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel. The gospel is really a story about forgiveness. But there is something special about the kind of forgiveness that Jesus describes that I think we have to notice. When many of us think of forgiveness, we think in terms of justice. I will forgive when someone does something to pay for their mistakes. If a criminal serves time in prison, we will forgive them. If a person pays back their debt, we will forgive them. If a person apologizes and makes every effort to set things right, we will forgive them… over time. But the kind of forgiveness that Jesus describes here is what The Message renders “unconditional forgiveness.” No strings attached, no time in prison, no repayment of the debt, no apologies. That is why throughout this passage, Jesus uses the terms “forgiveness” and “mercy” interchangeably. Did you notice that?
His master called the first servant and said, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you? (Matthew 18:32)
Jesus describes the kind of forgiveness offered by the master as “mercy.” The servant didn’t do one thing to deserve it. But the master forgave him anyway. There is a story told about a mother who came to Napoleon on behalf of her son. Her son was about to be executed. The mother asked the ruler to issue a pardon. But Napoleon pointed out that it was the man's second offense and justice demanded death. “I don't ask for justice,” the woman replied. “I plead for mercy.” The emperor objected, “But your son doesn't deserve mercy.” “Sir,” the mother replied, “it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask.” Napoleon granted that pardon. That is mercy, and church, that is the gospel. Eugene Peterson once said:
Muckraking is not gospel work. Witch-hunting is not gospel work. Shaming the outcast is not gospel work. Forgiving sin is gospel work.
If we cannot forgive, we cannot live out the gospel. Unconditional forgiveness is a sign of spiritual maturity and our inability to unconditionally forgive is a sign that we need to grow deeper in our faith.

Sometimes these texts give us more truth than we want to hear…

If you remember, the title of this series is “Clash of Kingdoms.” Boy is that evident in this passage. In the “kingdom” that we live in, forgiveness is a virtue, but only when it follows payment or satisfaction. Only when the offender has paid for his offense, only when it is crystal clear that they are sorry and promise never to do it again. But the kingdom described by Jesus is different. The King of that kingdom forgave when it was not deserved and subjects in the kingdom described by Jesus are called to do the same thing!

We often are inspired by stories of radical, unconditional, undeserved forgiveness that we occasionally hear about in the news. The story from a few years ago about an Amish community forgiving the shooter that took the lives of several of their children; stories of mothers and fathers forgiving drunk drivers who kill their children. Those stories are inspiring. But sometimes they are too difficult for most of us to relate to. I pray none of us ever has a child killed like that. Those are radical, admirable stories of mercy. But what does mercy or unconditional forgiveness look like in our world? It could look as simple as looking into the eyes of your spouse and saying, “I forgive you.” They may have done nothing to deserve your forgiveness. They may be extremely and unquestionably guilty, and you may want to stay angry and resentful and bitter and cold, but maybe the gospel calls you to say, “I forgive you.” It could be that you need to do such a small thing like telling your child, “I forgive you.” You may feel like they have used all of their chances. They might not even deserve your forgiveness. But could it be that the gospel is calling you to forgive them anyway? Sometimes a small thing like forgiving a spouse or a child or a friend or a brother or a sister has enormous consequences. Unmerited forgiveness and undeserved mercy always has enormous consequences. It takes the tension out of your living room, it removes the anger you have inside, and it has the potential to shape those around you.

Moms and dads, what effect would it have on your children if they saw you forgive someone, even if they did not deserve it? Husbands and wives, what example would it send for you to show mercy and forgiveness even if they do not deserve it? I’ll tell you what it will do… It will give your children, it will give your spouse, it will give everyone who has eyes to see you, it will give all of them a beautiful picture of the gospel lived out. I pray for the sake of all of us, that God would allow us to see many beautiful pictures of the gospel lived out!

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