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November 8, 2015 - Matthew 18.15-35

“The Last Best Word”

Matthew 18.15-35

November 8, 2015

 

15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

 

In 1994, Alvin Straight of Laurens, Iowa, found out that his brother Lyle had suffered a stroke and did not have long to live.  Lyle lived in Mt. Zion, Wisconsin.  Alvin’s problem was that he was 73, legally blind and not allowed to drive.  He was too ornery to suffer through another person’s driving.  He could walk only with the aid of 2 canes.  But not only did several hundred miles separate him from his brother, a decade of anger and silence separated them as well.  Alvin knew that it was time to forgive his brother and to ask forgiveness from his brother.  So, Alvin hitched a small covered trailer to the back of his John Deere riding Lawn Mower and drove all the way to Wisconsin to see his brother.

It is a true story that was retold in the 1999 movie, The Straight Story with Richard Farnsworth.  In the movie’s final scene, Alvin pulls his lawn mower and trailer into his brother’s place.  He calls out for his brother Lyle.  Lyle comes out his front door, with a face covered by a mask of hate, ready to rip into his brother.  But when he sees the lawn mower, he knows.  He knows that his brother drove hundreds of miles across the entire state of Iowa, on a lawn mower, to come see him.  He knows that no person could have done that if he had come to argue.  He knows that no person could have done that if he wasn’t ready to be forgiven and to forgive.  The mask of hate melted away, and was replaced by a man that had just been forgiven.

That is the power of grace. 

Grace is the “last, best word,” as Philip Yancy says in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace?  It is the only word that can end the vicious cycle of ungrace, of vengeance, of hatred.

In our text today, Jesus tells us that we must go to great lengths, like Alvin Straight did, to give grace and forgiveness to others.  Notice that Jesus did not say to get forgiveness; he said to give it.  The lengthy rules for the church and the person who is sinned against are prompting us to not only go to the other person face to face, but to go to great lengths to give grace to that person.  Peter makes the generous suggestion that we should go so far as to forgive our neighbor as many as seven times.  Jesus far outdoes him.  The difference between Peter’s proposal and Jesus’ pronouncement is not a matter of mathematics or linguistics, but the nature of forgiveness.  Whoever counts has not forgiven at all, but it only biding his or her time.  The kind of forgiveness called for is beyond calculation.

 

Jesus mentioned a pivotal fact about grace in his prayer in Matthew 6.12 - The Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  If we are willing to forgive, God’s mercy is available to us.  But if we withhold forgiveness, then we can’t participate in God’s forgiveness.  12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.[1]  We block God’s forgiveness for us if we will not forgive others.  We can’t experience our forgiveness if we won’t let our grudges go.

 

Notice that the offended person or the community is to take the initiative.  In some cases, the offender may be unaware of the offense.  When we are sinned against, we are to go to the other person.  We are to be honest and vulnerable. 

 

So how are we supposed to do that?  How are we supposed to find in us the courage, the inner fortitude to go to another and say, “You hurt me.  I need to forgive you.”  Jesus answers that in a parable.

The figure of the debt owed to the King is not realistic. 

One talent = 15 year’s wages for a laborer.  20.4 kg of silver, equal to 6,000 drachmas. 

“Ten Thousand” was the largest number possible (myrias = myriad) 

The annual tax income for all of King Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents a year.

10,000 talents would exceed the taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria.

10,000 talents would equal 150,000 years of labor for a single worker.

10,000 would be equal to (if the avg. worker earns $25 k a year) $3,750,000,000.00

2,143 lifetimes to pay.

 

It seems that our feeble attempts at restoration with other people and other Christians is severely lacking when it comes to what Jesus taught us.  Go to them personally.  Face to face.  The culture in which we live makes Jesus’ words sound impractical and too idealistic.  But we cannot ignore them because we are “the servant” that was forgiven the enormous debt.  So we must forgive others as Jesus forgives us.

 

Grace brings restoration.  Restoration is never out of reach as long as the two sides are willing to give it.  Restoration becomes hard for us because we don’t take the words of Jesus seriously enough.  We prefer our own will to the will of God.  These are commands, not suggestions. It is the word of God and nothing less.  When we do not let God’s will shape what we do, we don’t fool anyone. 

How can we say to a world that is lost, “Jesus stands ready to forgive you of your sins,” when we will not even forgive each other in the church?  How can the world believe in Grace, if we refuse to offer it to each other?  How can they understand grace if all they see in the church is ungrace?  Our little squabbles that we have, over this and that, most of them are petty and but we allow them to continue and fester within us precisely because we don’t see them for what they are.  They are serious.  They are a form of spiritual cancer.  If that doesn’t get us to think of them seriously, consider this:  these petty squabbles are the exact reason many people never step foot into a church, that many are convinced that the church is a fraud, and the reason many might never know Jesus.  We can’t believe in forgiveness if we can’t live forgiveness, and neither can anyone else.

 

We simply must forgive each other.  This is true for the whole church of Christ, but it is also true for us in THIS church.  We simply must forgive each other.  For what?  For everything.  For whatever.  Any grudge or conflict or problem that exists must be dealt with in a healthy manner or it will resolve itself in an unhealthy manner.  Forgiveness – Grace – is the only way to coexist. 

But grace is not cheap.  It was not cheap.  It has requirements – Grace required Jesus to die for us.  We must confess our sin.  We must repent of our sins.  Then we can be forgiven.  But please notice that I must confess MY sins, and you must confess YOURS.  I must repent from MY sins and you must repent from YOURS.

 

Don’t be like the unforgiving servant, who was forgiven a debt to great to ever repay, and yet refused to forgive a small debt of another.  It is utterly beyond your ability to repay your debt of sin to God.  Yet he has forgiven you.  If we have received God’s forgiveness for our sins, if we have accepted the totality of what we owed God has been forgiven, then we cannot hold back forgiveness of others.  If you are a Christian, and yet you do not forgive others, then perhaps you have never really received God’s forgiveness in the first place.  I hope that is not the case.  Don’t be like the unforgiving servant; God has given us grace and mercy in abundance.

 

Sam Moffat was a missionary in China and later a professor at Princeton Seminary.  His tale of his flight from the Communists in China is a gripping one.  They seized his house, all of his possessions, burned the missionary compound, and killed some of his closest friends.  He and his family barely escaped with their lives.  When he left China, he took with him a deep resentment for the Communists of Chairman Mao.  It metastasized in him, he said, becoming a spiritual cancer, and eating him alive.  Finally he told his students that he faced as singular crisis of faith.  “I realized,” he said “that if I have no forgiveness for the Communists, then I have no message at all.”

If we cannot have grace to give to others, and especially each other, then we have no message at all.

The gospel of grace begins and ends with forgiveness.  People write songs like “Amazing Grace” for one reason and one reason only: grace is the only force in the universe powerful enough to break the chains that enslave us.  Grace alone is the last, best word. 

 

I invite you to give grace to someone this morning.  Perhaps it is someone in this church family.  Respond to God’s grace.  If you wish to make a decision public, I will be at the front, but you may want this morning to just come to the altar and pray.  I invite you to do so.  Do not let the sun go down without giving the last, best word on the matter.

 

 

[1]The New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.