Sunday, September 11, 2011

Never Forget to Forgive

Texts:  Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 18:21-35

    "NEVER FORGET!"  WE began to say this to each other in the aftermath of that terrible day ten years ago.  Never forget what happened in New York, Washington, and Shanksville.  Never forget the terror, grief, and bravery of the innocent passengers and crew who died on the four hijacked airplanes. Never forget the workers in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon who were killed simply for showing up to put in a day's work.  Never forget the City and Port Authority policemen and the firemen who ran into the inferno and sacrificed their lives that others might live.  Never forget the wives, husbands, parents, children, whose loved ones will never come home and who will live with that pain to their dying day.  Never forget that it was the strength, freedom, and prosperity of America that turned the hijackers' evil against us,  never forget the evil that they did, and never such a thing happen again.

    Never forget!  That is our 9/11 cry. But in Matthew chapter 18, we read of a king who makes it his business to forget.

    Jesus has been teaching His disciples how to be reconciled when a brother-- that is, a fellow-member of the church-- has sinned against us.  This sets Peter to wondering.  Other rabbis put the forgiveness limit at three times, but probably Jesus would say to forgive more.  So, how many times should he forgive the brother or sister who sins against him?  Seven times?

    Jesus' answer is stunning.  He says, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times."  He backs it up with a parable of a king settling the accounts with his servants.  Now one of his ministers owes the king a sum that amounts to millions, even billions of dollars in today's money.  How could he run it up like this?  He's invested the king's money badly. Or failed to turn over tax revenue he's collected.  At any rate, it's an extraordinary, astronomical sum and his master has been severely damaged financially.  How can the king forget that?  He orders that the man, his wife, and his children be sold into slavery to pay the debt.  If the man and all his family slaved away for a thousand years and a day, they could never come up with what he owed.  But there would be justice in this condemnation, after the harm this worthless, incompetent servant has done.

     In desperation, the servant falls on his face before his master.  Give him more time, he pleads!  He'll get something going that'll earn both himself and the king thousands of talents!  Just give him another chance! 

    This is ridiculous, and the king knows it..  If this minister were a successful investor, he wouldn't be so far in the hole.  Sell him into slavery and be done with it!  But the king does an amazing, unthinkable thing.  He takes pity on his servant, cancels the debt, and lets him go free.  He chooses to forget.

    Now with the class envy being promoted these days, some people would say that the king could afford to do this.  That he probably got rich off the back of this same servant.  But Jesus doesn't give us any room to think this way.  His parable begins, "The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants."  Whenever we consider the a king in association with the kingdom of heaven, that king is Christ Himself, the Son of God. No one can claim he's made God rich, no one can charge God with obtaining His power and glory by taking advantage of any human creature, no one can pretend that anything he has on this earth is anything but a loan or a gift from Him.

    How could we every repay Him for the ordinary blessings God gives us?  But we get ourselves further in the hole by withholding what is God's by right: our thanksgiving, our worship of Him alone, our obedience to His laws, our love and care for our neighbor.  From the cradle we've failed to give Him what we owe.  Our offenses are an ocean of red ink on God's books, worse than the United States national debt.  Most sinful of all, we have no idea how massive and unpayable they are.  We imagine we could make it up to Him if we just tried a little harder; we say, "Don't worry, Jesus, I'll start being good tomorrow, then You'll see how perfect I can be." 

    Ridiculous!  We're in the same impossible situation as the servant in the parable.  We can never pay the penalty for our offense;, God the king has the right to bind us over into slavery to sin and death forever and ever.  But He didn't.  Out of His own free grace He chose not to remember our sins against us.  He refused to say, "Never forget!"; He cancelled the debt of sin that stood against us, and let us go free.

    It cost Him, oh, it cost Him.  Our forgiveness cost the life's blood of Jesus the Son of God, spilled in infinite agony on Calvary's cross.

    So now, in Christ, we are forgiven! God has forgotten our sins!  How could you or I or anyone ever forget such a blessing?  That'd be like a servant who'd been forgiven a debt running into the billions forgetting the loss his gracious master had willingly suffered for him!

    But that's the sad point of Jesus' parable. The forgiven servant does forget.  He forgets so thoroughly, that  directly he goes out and finds-- not encounters by accident, but seeks out, looks for, finds-- a fellow servant who owes him a measly hundred denarii.  That'd be about $650.  Immediately he begins choking him and demanding his money back right now.  He refuses to listen even when the other man begs for time to pay.  The other debtor's plea for time was reasonable.  But no, the forgiven debtor initiates legal proceedings and has his fellow servant thrown into debtors' prison.  He wants justice!  That other guy was withholding something that was rightfully his and he should pay up on demand?  "Never forget!" was the first servant's motto, and he'd remember that debt until his fellow-servant had paid the last penny.

    Justice?  Their fellow servants don't think so.  They tell their master the king, and he angrily has the first servant called in.  "You wicked servant!" he cries.  "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?"    And in righteous anger the king turns him over to those who can put the screws on him-- literally-- until he should pay back all he owes.  Which, considering the magnitude of his debt, will be never. 

    Are we listening?   Jesus drives the lesson home: "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."


    But it's worth asking, Who is my brother? The Scripture is clear: it is not Al Qaida hijackers and any other terrorist, Muslim and otherwise, who even now are seeking the destruction of America and Americans.  The brother-- or sister-- is always a fellow-member of Christ's church, born of the blood of Christ and adopted as God's child by the Holy Spirit.  The Bible knows nothing about a universal brotherhood of man.  But this makes the application harder, not easier.  It might be possible for us to extend forgiveness to some faceless Arab we've never seen and who hasn't harmed us personally.  It's a whale of a lot more difficult to forget the sins of the person sitting in the next pew.  I can name numerous wrongs that fellow church members have done to me, and I'm sure you could share the same stories in return.  We've been betrayed and deeply hurt.  How can we not remember?  How can we forgive?

    But that is what Jesus demands, that we forgive one another for the sake of the immeasurable forgiveness He has already extended to us.  We must forgive by a deliberate act of our hearts; that is, by an act of our wills, whether we feel like it or not.  And Jesus commands us to keep on forgiving, seventy-seven times, seventy times seven, until we've lost count and the offense is overwhelmed in love. 

    But how can we?  Again and again those old hurts bubble up and we feel the injustice that was committed against us.  Not one of us is able truly to forgive his brother from the heart.

    But we have a Brother who can forgive like that, Jesus Christ the righteous.  All forgiveness is ultimately from Him and through Him.   He has forgiven us from His heart, and in the daily work of forgiveness we draw on His grace, His strength, His mercy.  We choose to remember the truth we may not feel: that as heinous as any crime committed against us may be, the offenses we have committed against His majesty and love are infinitely greater.  And yet, we are forgiven!  Oh, that God would grant us the dark blessing of knowing the depth of our sins, for then we would see the depth of the grace that Jesus Christ has lavished on us!

    Forgiveness begins with our brothers and sisters in the faith, but it doesn't end there.  As Americans on this tenth anniversary of the 911 attack, it's good for us never to forget the sacrifice and the heroism of that day.  We must never forget to do what we must as citizens under God to defend our country and its liberties from attack.  But when you consider those who perpetrated this attack, and those who would if possible attack us again, remember that they, too, are men for whom Christ died.  The Muslim tragedy is that they cling to "Never forget, never forgive!" and their hatred lasts for centuries.  That is not our calling as Christians.   The blood of Jesus Christ covers their sins as well as ours, and it should grieve us that these desperate men should die without repenting and turning to the Lord of all forgiveness. 

    We are all debtors in the sight of God, but for us, the debt has been cancelled by the atoning death of Jesus our Savior.  Trusting in His grace, walking in His footsteps, let's commit ourselves daily to show everyone the same grace that we have received.  Never forget how much Jesus Christ has forgiven you.  In light of His mercy, let us show mercy to our brothers and sisters, and mercy to those we hope will be our brothers and sisters someday.  And never, ever, forget to forgive.

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