Friday, April 16, 2010

Following Jesus - The Unmerciful Servant

"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.

"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24As 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.

"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow 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 canceled 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 jailers 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." Matthew 18:21 - 35

It starts with a question again. Such is often the case with a Rabbi and his disciples. The disciples listen and ponder, asking questions about things they struggle to understand. It is also possible, human nature being what it is, that questions were asked in order to show how much the questioner already knew. When Peter asked, how many times should I forgive my brother, and suggested seven times might be appropriate, he was being generous. Numbers often have special meanings in the Bible. The number one signifies the beginning, The One; number three signifies the Godhead, the three in one; and the number seven signifies perfection, completeness. Peter was offering a very generous picture of forgiveness. He had been there with Jesus when Jesus taught crowds of people in what is famously called the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5 - 7. He heard Jesus refer to the Old Testament teaching of reciprocal payment for wrongs done, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

At the time, Jesus said to them, "But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." The entire sermon on the mountain to a multitude of people was a revolutionary teaching. The Old Testament addressed sin as it needed to be addressed in a time when full forgiveness was not yet available. The OT taught the people of Israel what sin costs. And it is pricey. The price has not changed, by the way. To pay for knocking someone's tooth out in a fight by having one of your own teeth knocked out is cheap compared to the fact that the price of sin, ultimately, is death.

We kind of like the OT way of dealing with sin, though, don't we? Especially...okay, pretty much only when it applies to other peoples sin. What if, when you pocketed the extra $20.00 the cashier accidentally gave you in change, it automatically came out of your bank account, the $20.00 you stole and an extra $20.00 for payment for the steal? What if every time you lose your temper with your child or spouse, shooting verbal bullets with devastating results, your boss does the same to you when you get to work? What if every bit of gossip that leaves your mouth is met with a bit of gossip about your life? Ouch.

Jesus' sermon on the mountain stings only if we are looking at other peoples sin. And let's be honest, it is much easier to be aware of what other people are doing to us than it is to know what we are doing to others. We can have a tendency to amplify the sins of others, while minimizing our own. I remember working with a woman who routinely pocketed samples of the product that we were making on the job site. To her, there was absolutely nothing wrong with it, and she actually got angry at me for not wanting to do the same. One day, her lighter was stolen from the lunch room. She was horrified. She grumbled about how the other workers were "a bunch of thieves". I knew her well, and felt close enough to her to point out the discrepancy in her views. She maintained that "it's not the same thing!" It was humbling to realize that I am prone to do the same thing, and to look just as foolish to God.

Peter was being generous given what he had been taught, all of his life, about forgiveness. He was graciously pushing the boundary of forgiveness to the very edge of the neighborhood. I can almost see Jesus smiling at him, at his effort to be generous, at his desire to be extravagant in the manner of the Rabbi he loved. Jesus loves our efforts to meet Him where we think He is.

"Open your arms, your heart, your faith as wide as you can, child. And then let me stretch you farther than you could even imagine!"

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