Our Gospel lesson this week is actually quite a bit longer than the designated text for the day. The designated text put together by those who do the Revised Common Lectionary is actually Matthew 16: 15-20. Next week, we are supposed to get Matthew 16:20-35; however, as I looked over these lessons, I couldn’t help but realize, these texts really should not be separated. They demand to be put together because it is in holding them together that we truly get the Gospel revealed to us and lead us toward reconciliation and forgiveness.
The text begins with instructions on how to handle reconciliation. If someone in the church sins against you, you are to confront that person one on one. If the other does not listen, you are to take two or three witnesses. If the person does not listen, you are to bring them before the entire assembly, and if the person does not listen to the entire assembly, they are to be treated as a Gentile or tax collector. This is very straight forward and simple, is it not? I mean there isn’t much wiggle room in how we are supposed to handle a situation like this is there? No. There isn’t. Except...
Except no one follows this teaching. No one. Even those of us who are pastors and proclaim God’s Word Sunday after Sunday don’t follow this teaching of Jesus. I mean, let’s be honest with one another when it comes to talking about reality. Whenever we get upset with something someone has done to us or if they have done something in the church we don’t like, we don’t go directly to that person. We either stew about it and stop attending church because “I don’t want to see that person anymore because he or she hurt me”; or we start talking about what that person did with anyone else who will listen. “Did you see what color they painted the fellowship hall? Oh the horrors!! Why couldn’t they have just painted it white?” If I can get someone, anyone to agree with me, well, then I feel justified in my position. And, believe me, this is not something exclusive to congregation members. We clergy jump on this bandwagon all the time. We talk about our church leaders. We talk about other Christians–other pastors. Rarely, if ever do we go directly to someone and confront them with something they said or did–despite our knowing better. I mean, even those who don’t follow Jesus have their own way of putting this. You might have even said it yourself. “If you want to say something to me...say it to my face.” We know what we are supposed to do, but we just don’t do it.
Why? Well, of course, it’s easier not too. I don’t have to face them directly. But there are also the consequences that must be faced. For whenever we confront someone with wrongdoing or confront another with hurting us, we are usually met with a harsh response. “How dare you confront me? Do you think you are such a goody two shoes that you can tell me what I’ve done wrong?” That’s just one of the responses. I mean, oftentimes when we confront another, we come across as extremely self-righteous and arrogant. This does not lead to reconciliation. Furthermore, there are more than a few who have adopted the self-esteem gospel–that if we just let everyone know they are loved and perfect just the way they are they will work hard; do good things; and be productive. Except that doesn’t work. It actually leads to a sense of entitlement and narcissism. And if you confront such a person with hurting you, it will fall on deaf ears because they don’t believe they are capable of doing wrong. And even if you were to follow the teaching Jesus offers them, they would simply say, “I’ll just go find another church where I won’t have anyone mess with me.”
Do you see the difficulties involved with following Jesus teaching here? Do you see why many people refuse to operate in such a fashion? It’s too difficult to face another person, and the consequences are generally poor. It’s a teaching which is almost too difficult to bear.
Perhaps this is why Peter comes up to Jesus and says, “Lord, how many times do I really have to forgive someone? As many as seven times?”
Some of you might think seven times is too small a number, but let me ask you this: would you let someone steal from you up to seven times? Would you let someone slap you in the face seven times? Would you willingly let someone take advantage of you seven times in a row without some sort of recourse? No. No one here this morning would think of such a thing–generally. Seven times is a pretty generous number, but Jesus says, “No. You are thinking too small. As many as seventy-seven times.”
And here we get to the important crux of the matter. Here we get to why Jesus teaches what He teaches regarding reconciliation and forgiveness. Here we get to why Jesus begins this segment with what to do if a member of the church sins against you. Here we get a parable of God’s mercy and justice–a parable that leads us to the cross.
Jesus tells us of a servant who has wracked up an incredible debt. 10,000 talents is the figure given. Let’s translate this into dollar signs. Let’s say an average laborer earns $30,000 per year. A talent would have been 15 times that, so $450,000. Take $450,000 and multiply that by 10,000. That’s a lot of zeroes my friends. By my calculations it would be $4,500,000,000. This servant owed the modern day equivalent of 4.5 billion dollars!!!
Now, I want you to ask yourself: who in the world wracks up that kind of debt? Who in the work borrows that much money–I mean aside from certain governments... How in the world do you wrack up that much debt? Any clue? The best I can come up with is someone who is so totally irresponsible and so consumed with money that they get as much as they possibly can regardless of any sort of consequence or conscience. This is the kind of guy Jesus talks about.
Second question: what kind of lord loans that kind of money to this kind of servant? I mean really. Which one of you would have loaned that kind of figure to someone? The lord must be extremely wealthy and not care what happens to that kind of money, that’s for sure. Either that, or this lord must be somewhat crazy. No one would even think of doing such a thing. But apparently, this one did–at least in the parable.
The lord comes one day to settle accounts, and he is furious at what is owed him. He threatens to sell the man and his family as slaves to pay off the debt–this was considered quite acceptable in the world during that time. The servant doesn’t want this to happen–not in the least, so he begs and pleads with his lord. “Do not sell me. I will repay you!”
Interestingly enough, there are a couple of things to note here. Unless one is very wealthy, this kind of debt cannot be paid off in one’s lifetime. The guy is making a promise which cannot be fulfilled. Secondly, it’s an obvious comment to save his own skin–a skin which was in trouble because of his irresponsible behavior in the first place.
But the interesting stuff doesn’t stop there. The lord, moved by pity forgives the debt!!! He doesn’t work out a payment plan. He doesn’t reduce the debt and work things out; he says you are off the hook. You are free. You are clear. Go!
Now, what would you and I do at this point? What would you and I do if we were suddenly told that a huge amount of debt has been forgiven us? Would we go out and do the same thing again? Or would we be filled with joy at the fortune which had befallen us? Would we be consumed with anger and greed, or would we have hearts full of gratitude?
You would expect the latter, but this servant just doesn’t seem to get it. He comes across a guy who owes him a pittance compared to the debt just forgiven him. The actions of the lord had absolutely no effect on this guy. He is still completely self-centered and selfish. He is still as self-absorbed as before, and there are drastic consequences. The lord will not let such actions stand. Let’s try to understand why.
A few months ago, I listened to a Timothy Keller lecture on Youtube, and he shared the following illustration by Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones. Dr. Jones said that in order to understand the Gospel, one of the things I needed to understand was the size of the debt forgiven me. In a sermon, Dr. Jones said, “Let’s say I come home one day from vacation and my neighbor, who was checking my mail told me, ‘While you were gone, a bill came, and I paid it for you.’ In order to know how to properly respond, I need to know how large that bill was. If it was postage due, then I can say, ‘Thank you, I appreciate it.’ But if it was that bill from the IRS which says I owed thousands of dollars that I didn’t have, well, that’s another story. But until I know the size of the debt you paid, I don’t know whether to say thank you or to fall down on my knees and kiss your feet.”
Think about that for a minute as you consider what Jesus did on the cross. For it was on the cross that Jesus incurred and paid the debt you had accumulated with your sinfulness. It was on the cross that Jesus died as a payment to remove that which kept you from being on good terms with God. It was on the cross that Jesus endured the wrath of God so that you don’t have to. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.” On the cross, Jesus reconciled the world unto God. Jesus reconciled you unto God when there was this huge outstanding debt that you had accumulated through your sinfulness.
And if you realize, first off that you were sinful and had accumulated debt. Then, if you realize the size of the debt that Jesus paid for you. Then, if you understand that He did this to wipe out anything that stood between you and God, you will get to that point where you say, “Man, I want all my relationships to be this way. I don’t want anything to be in the way of how I live with others. I want to be reconciled with them just like I am reconciled with God.”
And so, if someone has sinned against me, I don’t wait for them to come to their senses; I don’t sit on the pain and just let it fester; there is something wrong, and if God took the initiative to fix it, then I want to take the initiative to fix it with whoever has wronged me. And I will go to the one who hurt me, not in a spirit of self-righteousness because I needed forgiveness too, but in a spirit of humility–in a spirit of reconciliation. I will go to that other saying, “I am not here to point out your wrong because I am so right; I am here because there is something between us that is keeping us from living out our relationship to the fullest. I don’t want that thing to be there. I want to be reconciled with you but I cannot because there is this hurt you caused me.”
And if the other party does not agree, then, because you want this reconciliation so badly, you will involve others–ultimately the entire church because reconciliation is that important. And if in the face of the church the other party does not repent–treat them as a Gentile or tax collector. Which we need to ask–how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? He ate with them. He healed them. He associated with them and worked with them for the express purpose of proclaiming to them the Gospel. He wanted them to know the marvelous power of God so that their lives would be changed–just like our lives are changed by what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. Such forgiveness–such reconciliation from the heart is a difficult thing until you realize what Jesus has already done for you. He’s forgiven your debt, and now He asks you to do the same. Amen.