Sunday 22 February 2015 – forgiving from the heart?

Readings:

Psalm 32:1-2; Matthew 18:15-35

Message         

This is an amazing passage. If you thought the Sermon on the Mount had challenges, read Matthew 18!

  1. Excommunication

The first few lines where we pick up the narrative in verse 15 are used by some churches as a process of excommunication. Listen to the process. It’s quite simple really:

Mat 18:15  “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.

Mat 18:16  But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

Mat 18:17  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

And of course treating them like pagan or gentile or a tax collector is not the end of the road. These people were not beyond redemption. Ask Matthew about his career!

  1. Being forgiven and forgiving

The story of the unforgiving servant is like stand-up comedy really. When you consider the amounts of money involved. Jesus’ listeners would have had a good chuckle! 10 000 talents equals about 100 million days’ wages. It raises some questions thought – as all good stories do. Why did the master let that debt get so big, for example? *

And of course the Master catches up with this man who fails the requirement to forgive as he was forgiven. So the debt is reinstated – all 100 million days’ wages worth. He gets handed over. The idea of a debtors’ prison has always struck me as odd. How do you pay your debts when you are in jail?

Here’s the line that speaks of consequences:

Mat 18:34  In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

This would have got Jesus’ hearers in a tiz/tizzy too – Jews didn’t practice torture, but Romans did!

And of course, the original plan was this: Mat 18:24  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.

Mat 18:25  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 most expensive slave in those days was worth about 1 talent. Even if he had three kids, the guy would have recouped only 5 talents.

So the grace act begins with the man’s plea:

Mat 18:26  “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’

Mat 18:27  The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.

So he goes off and demands that the other man pay him. You know the rest of the story. People notice the injustice and tell on him!

The story is in response to Peter’s questioning of course! Who else?

It is told to illustrate the teaching on forgiveness that Jesus gives. It should not have been a surprise to Peter – who starts the conversation. We’ve talked about this before – how Peter thinks that forgiving your brother up to seven times is okay. No, says Jesus – 77 times. Or is it 70 times 7?

It would have been no surprise to them because they would have heard Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s prayer: Mat 6:12  Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

So what do we do with this?

I think that the first passage from verse 15 is key to making things right. Accountability and truth telling are closely connected to forgiveness. And remember – follow this pattern and you won’t be using the old triangle method – You – person A – are mad with person B – so instead of going to sort things out – you tell person C. (Gossip and scandal – both serious sins). Listen again to the pattern:

Mat 18:15  “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.

Mat 18:16  But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

Mat 18:17  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

When we see “church” here we sometimes assume that this is the big organisation of today – and “telling it to the church” means standing up and announcing to the assembled people of God that the person is being kicked out, after due process of course.

That’s probably a mistaken view. Here’s why.

The context is a shepherding or pastoral one. Right before this discussion is this telling passage:

Mat 18:12  “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?

Mat 18:13  And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.

Mat 18:14  In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.

Anything to do with sheep is what we call today a pastoral matter. And when people are excluded in some way for not responding to correction, the purpose is to bring them to their senses (or to bring them to repentance) so that they will admit that they have wronged and for the sake of the church’s witness and unity they should make right and return. Return to the fold!

And central to this is relationships. When “church” is mentioned in bible times the chances are it’s a small group probably meeting in a home. Not in a church building.

So relationships would matter a lot. You could not hide in a crowd in a small group.

And confronting people is not easy. We are also sinners. Tom Wright puts it beautifully:

Every time you accuse someone else, you accuse yourself. Every time you forgive someone else, though, you pass on a drop of water out of the bucketful that God has already given you. From God’s point of view, the distance between being ordinarily sinful (what we all are) and extremely sinful (what the people we don’t like seem to be) is like the distance between London and Paris seen from the point of view of the sun. And so on. We can all relate to that.

The key thing, as I have already said, is not that one should therefore swallow all resentment and ‘forgive and forget’ as though nothing had happened. The key thing is that one should never, ever give up making forgiveness and reconciliation one’s goal. If confrontation has to happen, as it often does, it must always be with forgiveness in mind, never revenge.

Forgiveness is fundamental to the fabric of who we are as a Christian community.

Wright says “forgiveness is like the air in your lungs.   There’s only room for you to inhale the next lungful when you’ve just breathed out the previous one. If you insist on withholding it, refusing to give someone else the kiss of life they may desperately need, you won’t be able to take any more in yourself, and you will suffocate very quickly.

Whatever the spiritual, moral and emotional equivalent of the lungs may be (we sometimes say ‘the heart’, but that of course is a metaphor as well), it’s either open or closed. If it’s open, able and willing to forgive others, it will also be open to receive God’s love and forgiveness. But if it’s locked up to the one, it will be locked up to the other. This is a hard lesson to learn.

Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Matthew for Everyone Part 2: Pt. 2 (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 39-40). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

THE COMMUNITY WE BUILD

So all of this is about community in the Kingdom of God – the kingdom that we pray to come on earth “as it is in heaven”.

Our church Mission statement is printed every week: “Building loving communities that help people find and follow Jesus”.

These communities are more likely to “find” Jesus (although I hasten to add that he is not lost – usually we are) – people are more likely to find and follow Jesus in a community that is open, honest, and walking in the light. (cf 1 John 1).

We put people on committees when in fact they are needing community.

And community is more likely to sort out relationships than a large crowd of people who don’t really know each other anyway.

Which is why the apparent harshness of the final verse is so important.

Mat 18:32  “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.

Mat 18:33  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’

Mat 18:34  In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

Mat 18:35  “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

There is a serious warning here. These are matters of the heart.

When someone apologises to you for doing wrong, you know when it’s not from the heart.

I’ve experienced that. And I saw it in action when boys who were fighting were forced to apologise without them actually understanding how damaging their behaviour was. Forcing kids to say sorry (usually to siblings or friends at school where there has been a scrap over something) usually involves body language that is the direct opposite of their words.

Without repentance – confession of sin can also be perfunctory. Unthinking, an obligation, a kind of a duty. Often self-focused – wriggling getting out of trouble without really feeling remorse.

Those kind of apologies usually say something like “if I have offended you or hurt you” when we all know that they did. And they follow with “it wasn’t personal” when you know it was totally!

Let’s learn to fix things!

Amen.

*  Jarvis, Cynthia A. (2013-12-09). Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 2 (Kindle Location 3734). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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About robinpalmer

I am a Presbyterian Pastor living and working in Browns Bay on the North Shore of Auckland in New Zealand. We moved here at the end of March 2011 after spending five years in Wellington the capital city. I am passionate about what I do - about communicating and writing. I also enjoy my counselling work, especially with young people.

Posted on February 21, 2015, in Sunday Morning Sermons and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Great sermon Robin. I liked the analogy to inhale and exhale, and the equivalents of $1,000,000 wages. Grace and reconciliation are the goals of anyone who is a peace maker, (like me ) but keeping the account and fairness and justice is Mark’s strength. So we are well matched… though I wonder how our kids view that. Forgiveness is definetly a challenging life lesson, thank you. Good page layout.

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