As We Forgive Our Debtors

Matthew 18:28-35 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his follow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailors to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

I can imagine a scene like this in a crime drama. A petty criminal, maybe a drug dealer or a loan shark, gets shaken down by his crime boss. So he goes out and shakes down one of his customers because he is behind on his payments. Otherwise Mr. Big is going to stick it to him if he doesn’t come up with the cash.

But that’s not what happened here, is it–nothing like it at all. The servant had just walked away free of all debts for the first time. What does he need money for? In a sense, he has just been given an enormous fortune. The debt he is owed isn’t tiny–about three or four months of paydays. But you might expect him to be in a generous mood.

We all know that people are going to hurt us. They are going to take advantage of us, be rude or inconsiderate, trample on our rights. But add it all together, and it will never add up to a tiny fraction of the ways we have offended our God. One of those ways is our failure to let his forgiveness transform us into forgiving people as well.

The interaction between the two servants looks familiar at first. One is pleading with the other using almost the exact same words between the first servant and his master. He isn’t defending or denying his debt. He wants to make it right. But this ends horribly different. The first servant throws the man into prison until the debt is paid.

Think about that for a moment. What is the first servant going to get from his fellow servant while he languishes in prison? How much is his friend going to be making in jail? Nothing. What do we get for holding grudges and withholding forgiveness? What does it pay other than high blood pressure and ruined relationships? Our refusing to forgive gets us nothing good and invites God’s attention, this time with judgment rather than forgiveness.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailors to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” God’s grace and forgiveness is a little like my car. It has no cost, but it does have consequences. The car I drive cost me nothing. It was a gift from a friend. It was free. But it needed some maintenance when I got it. There was something I needed to do once I had it if I wanted to keep it, a consequence of ownership, if you will.

The consequences of free grace are never negative, but they do impact our lives. God has empowered his gift of forgiveness to change our hearts. In general, those changes make us more like him.

One of those changes is to make us more forgiving. It’s not so much a rule to follow, an expectation we feel obliged to fulfill: “Okay, I get it. God has forgiven me a lot so I ought to forgive others a lot, too.”

When grace has had its way with us, we are more compassionate people, we pity those who sin against us, and we want to forgive them like God has forgiven us. When we are unforgiving, something has gone horribly wrong. We are guilty of a sin as serious as any other moral lapse or scandal.

Refusing to forgive is a slap at the God who has forgiven us so much. Thank God his forgiveness is still available to us when we repent of our unforgiving hearts as well.

Completely Free

Matthew 18:23-27 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything. The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt, and let him go.”

Let’s talk about the man’s debt. Sometimes it is hard to come up with modern dollar equivalents for biblical currency. Let’s look at it this way. This parable measures money with two terms: the talent and the denarius. A denarius was the amount of money you would pay an unskilled worker for a day’s work. One talent was worth 6000 denarii. That’s the equivalent of a little over 19 years of work. The servant in Jesus’ story was in debt to the tune of 10,000 talents, or the sum total of all his wages for the next 190,000 years. This is what you call a bad case of overextended credit.

The king in the parable was no fool. He realized a servant wasn’t going to be able pay off that kind of debt. He decided to cut his losses. “Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.” We deal with bankruptcy differently today, but you get the picture. The debt was immeasurably bigger than anyone could possibly pay.

So what is Jesus teaching us about our sin with the servant’s debt? Just about everyone agrees with the phrase, “Nobody’s perfect.” I have had a few brave (or arrogant) souls tell me that they had stopped sinning, but even they admitted that they had sinned in the past. Convincing people that they are sinners is no big deal.

The size of our problem is the thing no one understands until God reveals it to us. Every inclination of our hearts is evil from childhood, the Lord said at the time of Noah. “Dead in your trespasses and sins” is the way Paul describes our situation to the Ephesians. That’s not “mostly dead,” like Wesley, the hero of the movie The Princess Bride, waiting for Miracle Max to wake him up again. We are dead-dead. A Christian website once noted that non-religious people criticize faith in Jesus as a crutch for weak people. But the criticism understates the situation. Jesus is more like a defibrillator for dead people. There is nothing we can do. Our debt never stops growing as long as we live.

Even after God reveals this, it is hard for most people to accept. The servant in the story is holding on to some shreds of hope he will repay the debt himself. “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.” Right…with whose diamond mine? Our sin, my sin, leaves me no choice but to plead for God’s forgiving mercy.

And that’s exactly what God does. He forgives us in his mercy, over and over, until there is no sin left. “The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt, and let him go.” There are all kinds of feelings the master could have had about his servant at this moment. He could have been hot with anger at the huge loss. He could have been cold and uninterested, like a driver at a stoplight trying not to make eye-contact with the panhandler holding the “will work for food” sign.

The king is moved to pity. When God looks at us in our sin, he sees how it has broken us, the misery we bring on ourselves. He doesn’t want to crush us. He wants to rescue us. Remember how Matthew once described Jesus? “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

He “canceled the debt.” He didn’t negotiate a lower figure and work out a payment plan with his servant. He simply canceled the entire debt at his own expense. That is how the God of the Bible forgives sin. He simply cancels the entire debt, one hundred percent at his own expense.

Then the master “let him go.” He let him walk away, as though he had never borrowed a single dime. There was no fine print. There was no stern warning. He was free. I don’t care what you have done. I’m sure it was terrible. Mine was. I don’t care how many times you have failed. I’m sure you have lost count long ago. I know that I have. The King has let you go. You are completely free. And we all agree–that’s a good thing, right? Because you know, you can never have too much forgiveness, especially when you need it yourself.

Just Keep Forgiving

Matthew 18:21-22 “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’”

“Too much of a good thing.” The application of those words is almost limitless. Food, money, technology, information, exercise, work, free time, vitamins, medicine, tender loving care, even oxygen–they are all good things, every one of them. But there comes a point where enough is enough. Too much starts to cause problems. Sometimes people suffer from too much of a good thing.

In these words, Jesus impresses on us a major exception. He had been teaching his disciples the principles for addressing a Christian brother or sister about his or her sin. We sometimes refer to them as “the steps of Christian discipline.” The goal is always to offer forgiveness and reconcile relationships. In some sad cases it ends with excommunication instead. It is an inescapable part of church life, life together in the family of God, if we faithfully love and care for each other and follow our Lord.

That naturally led Peter to wonder: “Forgiveness is good, yes. But there must be some kind of limit. How often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Is six times enough? Seven? If I keep forgiving, might I be encouraging them to hurt me? Might I be giving away too much of a good thing?”

Jesus answers Peter’s question with a number that puts to bed any thoughts of limits on forgiveness: “Seventy-seven times.” It may also be translated “Seventy times seven times.” Either way, Jesus is telling him, “Don’t worry about stopping, Peter. You just go on forgiving. You can never have too much forgiveness.”

We live in a world that is less and less enthusiastic about forgiveness. People say something unacceptable on social media, and a mob descends on them to shame them for their mistake and ban them from the platform for life. Maybe they go so far as to get the offenders fired from their jobs and driven from their homes. No apology, no act of penance, no attempt to make amends is enough. Such people must not be allowed to participate in public life ever again.

That would never be Jesus’ approach. None of us has ever offended each other a tiny fraction of the times, or with nearly the seriousness of the ways, we have offended him. That hasn’t stopped him from forgiving us for a lifetime of sins. More than personally pardoning us, he paid the price for our offenses with his blood. So the forgiveness from him to us keeps flowing in a never ending stream regardless of the size or number of our crimes.

By faith we follow Jesus. The grace of forgiveness has moved us to do so. Following him implies that we will forgive as he forgives as well. Don’t put a number on grace to your neighbor. Just keep forgiving.

To God Be the Glory

Romans 8:36 “For from him, and through him, and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”

Everything is from God. When my children were little, there were sometimes gifts under the Christmas tree from them for me or my wife. How did that happen? The money with which they paid for the gift–that came out of our pockets. We took them shopping and guided them in the selection. They were only giving us back what we had provided to them, and they needed a good deal of our help to make it happen. An old commercial features a little boy dumping out some change and a few dollars on the jewelry store counter to get his mom a gift. Behind him stands his father, making sure the sales lady sees the credit card he is holding in his hand. You know who is really paying for this.

It’s the same for us with our Lord. Everything we have, everything we are, everything we give comes from him. Nothing about my life or existence isn’t a gift. He is the source of all things. Such generosity, far beyond me and my humble ability to give, deserves my adoration.

Even more, “through him… are all things.” Our Lord makes everything happen. I may think that my careful diet, supplements, and exercise program are keeping me healthy. The Lord may genuinely use those things in the process. But unless he touches it all with his blessing and power, it’s useless.

For most of human history, people have been bent on climbing into heaven on their own power. They believe they can qualify on their own good record. It’s not possible. Only through God’s work can any of us be reconciled with God. Only his life pays for sin. Only his blood washes it away. Only his Spirit can change doubters and deniers into believers in our Lord Jesus Christ. All of this lies far beyond me and my meager efforts. Through him are all things, especially salvation, and that makes him worthy of praise.

Finally, “to him are all things.” Everything that is, everything that happens, is for God and his own purpose. He intends all of it to lead us home to him. That is the goal of all history.

It is easy for us to lose sight of this. We may think the world is all about our present happiness. We are here to make the world a better place or enjoy ourselves for a while. But that’s not right. We are here so that he can gather us and others to faith in him now, then come home to him when our short life is done. The purpose of this world, this life, extends far beyond me. But it sure serves and blesses me, and that makes God and his ways worthy of my thanks and praise.

We don’t always need to understand something to benefit from it. I don’t understand how long strings of zeroes and ones in computer code become the beautiful music that comes out of my iPhone or music system. But it wouldn’t sound any better if I did. I don’t understand exactly how water, dirt, and sunlight become the food that nourishes my body. But it wouldn’t taste or feed me any better if I did. I don’t understand all the why’s and how’s of God’s love that rescued and redeemed me. But I would be no more loved as his child, no more bound for heaven if I did. Sometimes, many times, his ways are beyond me. That’s just reason to praise him all the more.

Above Questioning

Romans 11:34-35 “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God that God should repay him?”

We know very little compared to the Lord who assembled this whole universe out of nothing and devised a way to redeem his fallen creatures from their rebellion against him. Let’s talk about ways we have been blessed by this difference.

Maybe you are the kind of person who had a severe crush on someone when you were in school, only to have that person turn around and crush your heart later on. “Why do I have to go on living?” you think to yourself. “How can I ever be happy without him, or without her?” “Why did God let this happen to me?” Years later you meet the real love of your life, the mother or father of your children. You realize that the happiness of that relationship would not be possible if you had gotten what you thought you wanted.

We don’t know what the Lord has planned for our future, how everything fits together in the end, so we aren’t qualified to question his ways or give him advice. Those issues are above our pay grade as his creatures. He is above our interrogation.

Let’s raise the stakes. A three-year-old girl cuts her finger, and the cut is so bad that she needs stitches. Instead of an emergency room, her parents take her to one of these “doc-in-a-box” places, an “urgent care” center, one of those emergency rooms without a hospital attached. It so happens that they have run out of Novocain on this day. So as the doctor begins to stitch, the little girl begins to sing “Jesus loves me this I know.” The tears roll down her cheeks, but she bravely holds still while the doctor finishes up his work. The attending nurse is so impressed by the little girl’s faith and courage that she just has to visit the church and find out about the Jesus the little girl was singing about. This actually happened according to an article in Forward In Christ magazine several years ago.

Now if you were running the universe, would you have been able to figure that out–how a severe cut and a shortage of Novocain could make it possible for a little girl to introduce her nurse to Jesus? The Lord has millions and billions of these interactions worked out across millennia of history. And I think that I am going to give him my wise counsel? Who do I think I am? Time after time the Lord proves that he is above questioning by someone like me.

Nor does he owe us any explanations. “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” These words seem to be a reference to words the Lord spoke to Job near the end of his story. Yes, God had made Job’s life miserable for a while. He let the devil take away just about everything–his wealth, his health, his family. But once Job started to suggest that maybe he would like his day in court with God, maybe he would like to put God up on the witness stand and cross examine him about the way he treated Job, the Lord shuts that kind of suggestion right down.

The Lord wasn’t in any debt to Job. He isn’t in debt to us either. He owes us nothing. We owe him everything–our existence, our salvation, our eternity. It has all been his gift. Trust him. Let him do his work. But don’t think we are in any place to question his decisions.

Beyond Me

Romans 11:33 “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!”

The human race thinks it’s smart. You know what name the scientists have given to us? Homo sapiens, Latin for “man, the wise.” Give us enough time, and we will figure out the cure for every disease. We won’t just predict the weather. Someday we will control it! There is no secret of the universe we won’t expose, from the farthest star to the inner workings of the tiniest particles. Do you know that right now there are people who seriously believe that in our life times we will be able to transfer our personality and consciousness, what you and I might think of as our soul, from our bodies to machines? One of Google’s leading minds has been desperately pumping his body full of supplements, because he is getting older and he wants to live to see the day when he can experience this kind of “eternal life.”

Are we really so smart? The universe God created is so complicated, so challenging, that the bests minds in the world devote their lives to studying just one minuscule feature of it and never get to the bottom of it. Science is constantly changing. The ancient Greeks said the atom was the smallest solid particle. We thought we were smart when we could split the atom into protons, electrons, and neutrons. Then someone discovered that you could break protons down into quarks. Now some question exists whether there is anything solid about the atom at all–possibly just a bundle of energy! Did you know that ten or more new laws are developed to explain the boundary layer of our atmosphere every year? One theory breaks down, and another is already waiting to take its place.

That’s just the physical world, the “easy” part of God and his ways. We haven’t even touched on the really hard questions–If God is all powerful, and all-loving, why does our world have evil, or pain? Why does one person suffer much, and another person hardly at all? Why do some people believe the gospel and others reject it? Why do wicked people prosper?

Or better yet, try some of these: How can God be three persons and one God at the same time? How can a holy God love sinful people? Just what is a “spirit,” and where is heaven located? Do you know the answers? Or are we forced to agree with Paul? “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!”

What God knows is certainly bigger than my little brain. Sometimes we don’t know the answers because he has kept the information to himself. Where is it written that he is obligated to tell us everything? Sometimes we seem to be staring all the information in the face, but we just can’t manage to put it together. We are like the scout tracking some animal or person in an old movie. All of a sudden the footprints come to a stream or solid rock and there is nothing to follow anymore. God’s ways are beyond me because so much of who he is and what he does are beyond my investigation.

How, then, are we going to react to the God who knows so much and can be so hard to follow? We are tempted to respond with frustration and anger. We don’t like being on the outside of his insider information. Sometimes our world just turns its back on God in denial. “Keep your secrets from us will you? Well, we’ll show you. We will figure it all out without you. We will even deny that you exist at all!”

Such foolishness on our part! Paul’s words don’t criticize God for ways that are beyond our investigation. They praise him for it! They call for us to repent of our tantrums and denials. Why not rather find comfort in a God who is so much bigger than we are, and knows so much more. Do we really want a little God who knows less than we do? Is that who you want to go to for help?

Who of us would have thought of asking God to sacrifice the only Son he had to pay for our sins and save us from them? Who of us would have come up with that plan? Who of us would have thought of making forgiveness and eternal life a free gift? Who of us would have asked God to just give it away? But that’s what God did. That’s the Lord’s way, not the way that I would have thought to do it. Thank God, then, that his ways are beyond me!

Access

Isaiah 56:6-7 “And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant–these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

Do you hear the sense of special privilege in these words? If someone of a different race visited our services, we would simply welcome them. We would work to lead them toward membership. During my seminary years, I visited an inner city church of another denomination once. I was treated like a celebrity. It wasn’t that way in ancient Israel.

If a non-Jew visited the Lord’s house of prayer on his holy mountain, the temple in Jerusalem, they were permitted to enter one little area called the Court of the Gentiles. This is the area Jesus had to cleanse of the animal salesmen and money lenders during his earthly ministry. The Jews had so little respect for the Gentiles. If the noises and smells of business interfered with their worship, what did they care? They were just Gentiles. They probably weren’t going to be saved anyway. That’s how the majority of the Jews felt about it.

If a Gentile tried to enter the other areas of the temple, especially the central court where the sacrifices took place, he was taking his life into his own hands. The Apostle Paul almost lost his life once because they suspected him of bringing Gentiles into this area.

The Lord had a different idea about all of this. It’s true that he segregated Jew and Gentile until Jesus came. But he had always intended to usher in a day when all people would have full access to his worship. That is the promise he is making through Isaiah here.

Since Jesus came, God’s temple isn’t a building. It is any place you have believers gathered. The room in which we gather for worship may not look so special. But the privilege to gather is so valuable you can’t put a price on it.

When I lived in Dallas, there were country clubs with initiation fees of $100,000. Annual dues exceeded $25,000. That just bought your membership. You still had to pay for all the services a la carte. But you had access to the most exclusive gatherings. You could hang out with the richest of the rich.

Gathered around God’s word, we receive something far more valuable. Jesus himself promises to be where two or three are gathered in his name. He completely forgets that we are sinners. He himself washed every sin away in his own blood.

As a result, we have access. He listens when we pray–genuinely listens with attention and concern. He is present in his word. In his Supper, he–the only God of the universe and Savior of your souls– comes to you personally, intimately, under the roof of your own mouth. All is forgiven and every barrier between you and God has been removed.

You can’t buy access like that. But it has been freely given to you. Don’t miss the privilege and blessing waiting in God’s house today.

Serve and Worship

Isaiah 56:6 “And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant…”

People who are bound to the Lord serve him. Serving the Lord is more than cleaning up your bad habits. It includes purity and self-control, but it isn’t all about me. It’s a life that loves and serves.

It is the difference between two people I used to serve, Jerry and James. Jerry grew up in a Lutheran church, but he always seemed a little bored and restless. His whole life was a quest to find fulfillment. He was always looking for things and activities that served himself. For a while he collected movies, then video games, then computers and cars. Sadly he ended up seeking women other than his wife.

Even if he had settled on something wholesome, his whole life still revolved around the things that tickled his fancy. Some have suggested that American Christians are particularly susceptible to his disease. We may turn even wholesome family activities into an attempt to have our little slice of heavenly bliss on earth. Obtaining our piece of the American dream and living for self is never the same as binding ourselves to the Lord to serve him.

James didn’t grow up in a Lutheran home. He didn’t even grow up in a Christian home. But the Lord gathered him in with the gospel. He went on to live a simple life of faithful service. When I met him he was fighting cancer and taking chemotherapy. Many men would have excused themselves from regular service to the church at that point. Not James. He continued to lead as a church officer. He rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty with church cleaning and maintenance. Some of his family members made messes of their lives with bad choices, but James didn’t write them off. He didn’t compromise his beliefs for them, either. He patiently but firmly confronted their foolishness. Great things happened when God gathered him to himself by faith. His life was dramatically changed from what it would have looked like without his Lord.

Isaiah mentions another service that may be the most distinguishing difference in the people who belong to the Lord: “…all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant…” Keeping the Sabbath is a little different for us today than it was for the Jews. We have New Testament freedom about time and place.

But that doesn’t mean God is pleased if we neglect word and worship altogether. Even some Christians complain that worship is a “drag.” “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian,” they will say. That may be true so far as it goes. You don’t have to go to eat to be a human, either. But you won’t remain one very long without eating. Regular attendance at worship is a key change in the lives of the people God has gathered for himself.

Is there anything that so distinguishes a Christian as attending church to hear the gospel and receive the sacraments? Muslims feed and raise their children. Atheists have marriages that last as long as Christians’, on average. Mormons are honest and make good neighbors. People from all kinds of religions live sober lives and volunteer in their communities.

But only Christians go to church to worship Jesus and listen to his word on Sunday. Only Christians want to, because Jesus has changed their lives with his grace. Maybe we don’t always think about church this way. But it is one of the distinguishing features of those bound to God by faith.

Bound

Isaiah 56:6 “And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant…”

Not all good behavior is the same. Martin Luther once called the good works of unbelievers “the glittering vices of the pagans,” glittering because they did things that looked good and kind, but still vices because there was no true love for God or faith in God behind them.

That’s not the kind of changed life the prophet Isaiah describes here: good behavior without any real love or faith. These people who came from outside the people of God–foreigners, non-Jews–had now bound themselves to the Lord. Isaiah is describing the first response of faith.

One of the first things you do after you realize your own sin and weakness, and trust in God for grace and help, is hold on to the Lord for all you are worth. We stop pretending that we have it all together. We stop depending on our own know-how and hard work to get through life. We embrace God’s forgiveness. We lash ourselves to his love and strength like the little kid who has a choke hold on mom or dad’s leg. You can’t pull him off.

Can there be anything better on earth than to be bound to your Lord and Savior this way? Sometimes we describe marriage as the “marriage bond.” In marriage God binds a husband and wife together in a bond that is meant to last for life. I know that sometimes people aren’t so happy with their marriages. They joke about the “ball and chain.” Some may regret how permanent the arrangement is supposed to be.

But doesn’t just about every romantic ideal still celebrate the idea of being tied to that special someone for life? The God who gathers people to himself by faith doesn’t disappoint. His love is unwavering. His strength is beyond measure. He is completely committed to you, and you will never have a reason to regret binding yourself to the Lord.