“An Honest Look into the Mirror”

For the first two weeks of this series, I introduced the major idea of “reflections on the Christian life” by the illustration of going on a long hike or adventure, noting that it would be particularly helpful to have someone who has already done it to give advice and perspectives. I turn this week to another illustration.

A prime influence in my choosing to attend what was then known as Philadelphia College of Bible (now called Cairn University) was a son of my church pastor – a guy who was two years older and who was going to that college. He had prepped me in many ways about what to expect, how to navigate some of the practical matters about dorm life, what professors to seek out or avoid … that sort of thing.

And a unique thing happened when I arrived to begin studies at the college in downtown Philadelphia. The student who was to be my roommate did not show up, and I found out before long that he had sadly been killed back in New York State in a car accident about a week earlier. So, while everyone else had a roommate to go through orientation week, I was alone in a double room.

And then, when the upperclassmen returned a few days later, I ran into my older friend from home – who told me that he did not know where he was going to stay because the school had not remembered to assign him a dorm room (since he had been in Israel for the spring semester of the previous year and had been overlooked). I was able to tell him of my situation, and before long, he was my roommate.

It was then especially helpful to have someone I knew who was with me who could help me through the maze of the early weeks of college, having previously done it himself.

I am hoping that this current sermon series of this Fall season will serve many of you in a similar fashion. Having been a veteran – essentially an “upperclassman” student now of learning about following Christ for nearly six decades – perhaps I can pass along to you some study tips about my educational experience. Frankly, my Christian life report card is a mixed bag of grades, though hopefully my GPA (grade point average) is rising through the process that you know from our theological discussions of the past summer could be called “progressive sanctification.”

With each week of this series we have a theme and a statement. So, for this third week and this third of eleven topics …

Theme – An honest self-appraisal leads to an appreciation of grace and a sincere humility.

Statement – If I had not become so aware of the extent of my sin, as well as God’s grace and forgiveness, I might be inclined toward an excess of self-righteousness.

Again, our title this week is: “An Honest Look into the Mirror.”  And that honest look will give back a truthful reflection that we are very broken and damaged people as we navigate our way through this sin-riddled and evil-infested world. We hark back a bit this week to the byline of our Spring series in the Corinthian letters: “I’m a mess, you’re a mess.”

So, you might be thinking, “Randy, what’s up with all the self-loathing? Like, for beginners, what are you talking there about yourself? You don’t have a police record, you never fathered an illegitimate child, the amount of alcohol you’ve drunk in your life would fit inside a 12-ounce soda can, you never smoked a cigarette or reefer, and you were known as a good church boy. And you follow God by rooting for the Orioles and Cowboys.”

But if you knew me as God knows me, you wouldn’t listen to anything I have to say, and TSF would have never hired me in the first place. I deserve nothing. And recalling some of my worst and most stupid life events for which I’ve been forgiven (and surely did not deserve to be) has had – I do believe – the benefit of having taken a big chunk of the self-righteous edge off my life.

None of us are perfect, that is for sure. As the Scriptures say in Romans 3:11,12,23 … None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God …

So, there is no news here to any of you that none of us are perfect. We get that; we know that grace is a pretty big deal. But even so, I’m afraid too many of God’s people in the church of Christ don’t truly get just how massive is this forgiveness through the work of Christ. It would be like a person who was severely injured in a crash, was unconscious for weeks, went through multiple surgeries, only to come back to consciousness with the internal sense that he was only asleep for a few hours. And then, beyond that, he was insufficiently grateful for the doctors and nurses and family members who went through so many ordeals for his restoration. He was like … “So what’s the big deal?”

Therefore, when the true nature of forgiveness for any of us is not fully understood, there can be an insufficient appreciation that even goes beyond to some attitudes of self-righteousness and critical judgment upon others who are perhaps often earlier in the sanctification process. It has sometimes even crossed my mind that some folks might have been better served and in a currently humbler position if they actually had sinned more and been forgiven more!

We are going to look today at what Jesus taught about this through two different parables:  A) the unforgiving servant, and B) the Pharisee and the tax collector. And along the way I would like to highlight eight perspectives on sin and forgiveness.

To begin with the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, let’s go to Matthew’s gospel, chapter 18, beginning in verse 21 … Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Peter was going here with what was a pretty big number as to times of forgiveness. The current teachings of the rabbis of that era was that you needed to forgive three times, and after that you could take a different stance or lower the boom on someone. But Jesus takes the number and magnifies it higher, the meaning being that it was unlimited. That was radical; and Jesus gives them a picture to help their understanding …

Matthew 18:23 … “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.

So let’s get something of a handle on the size of this debt. One source I researched spoke of a talent in terms of wages, whereas another presented it relative to the weight of gold. The math on these work out to a range of $8-billion by today’s standards, to as high as $18-billion. In any event, it is an absolutely huge debt – big enough to even pay to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, for example.

Perspectives on Sin and Forgiveness …

  1. The debt of our sin before God is a whole lot larger than we tend to remember or imagine.

It is easy to have financial debts pile up on us faster than we realize. But when talking about sin, the problem is even worse than anything we can imagine in the financial world. We were born into it; we inherited the debt from our family heritage – from Adam. Though that may seem unfair, the Bible pictures us as in him, right there in the garden. It was more than just representation; we are seen as guilty participants. And our lifetime of sin demonstrates and proves who we are, adding to a debt that is insurmountable and as incalculable as 10,000 talents.

Matthew 18:25 … And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.

There was no possibility of paying, so the consequences were leveled against him – the loss of family and all that he owned.

  1. We tend to forget the consequences of our outstanding sin debt.

It truly is the loss of everything, yes, the death of everything. The warning to Adam about the tree involved the consequence of a death principle that would result in the loss of life and all that went with it. And worse than anything else was a total separation from God – whose justice and righteousness could not allow sin in His presence without judgment.

Our sin – the debt that we inherited and that we add to by our failures – is a big deal. It is not some sort of cute toddler disobedience that can be solved by shoving a pacifier in our mouth, being sent to our room until it passes, or having our Heavenly Father take a view toward us of … “well, kids will be kids.”  No, it is total rebellion.

Matthew 18:26 … So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.

So, the servant has this idea that he is somehow going to pay off the massive debt – the equivalent of billions of dollars.

  1. We tend to forget our total inability to pay off our sin debt.

It is the natural view of mankind that their goodness can outweigh their wrongdoing to the extent that God will have mercy, just because He’s so nice. The fact is that we cannot pay it. The Bible says that the currency we would use – good deeds and works – is not accepted by God as valid. Beyond that, it says that we are DEAD in our trespasses and sins, and we know that dead things don’t give themselves life.

But the master – obviously a picture of God – has had mercy. Jesus in this story, which is of course prior to his work on the cross, does not give the detail of what made the forgiveness of debt possible. But we know that it was the substitutionary payment of Christ on the cross, bearing the consequences of our sin debt, exchanging and imputing back to our account his positive righteousness.

  1. We tend to forget that we had nothing at all to do with the cancellation of our debt.

Ain’t that the truth! It is our tendency to believe that we have some measure of credit to be given to us that we were smart enough to hear and receive the gospel. We were smart consumers to reach out to God and receive the gift – that gospel being presented to us as a present to reach out and receive. And indeed, we speak in those terms to people, praying though that God is in reality doing a work inside them that gives them life so as to reach out and take hold of the gift of eternal life. We didn’t pay the debt or even look for the payment. It found us and we received it; we had nothing to do with making it happen.

Matthew 18:28 … But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.

Here is a different term for currency of that time – the denarii. One of these was equal to about an average day’s wage. So to put that into modern dollars, 100 of these would probably come out to maybe about $15,000. That is a lot less than many billions of dollars when previously talking about the talents.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. The debtor says all the same things as the man did previously before the king. You want reach into the pages of Scripture and slap this fool. That is, until you realize that you might well be that fool by application …

  1. We tend to grossly overestimate the offenses taken against us relative to the outrage of our offenses against a holy God.

It is easy to be angry with people who sin against us in some fashion. We may become quickly outraged. How could this person be this stupid and evil?  Why did they not understand what they did that was so wrong and was such a violation against us?  All the while, we forget that our sin before God was of a far greater magnitude.

Matthew 18:31… When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.

When we fail to forgive and demonstrate rather a high-minded and self-righteous attitude, it is seen by others …

  1. Others are able to see our lack of grace and mercy, making us ineffective.

We are not in isolation. Our ability to effectively serve God and others is ruined by a lack of forgiveness of others and a high-minded attitude about self and our own position. I have seen this over the years when I observe people who look around at the rest of the Christian community, communicating in varied ways, “I’ve really got it together. I’m living life right. I’ve got this thing figured out and the rest of the Christian community around me is just frankly not measuring up to where I am and the efforts that I’m making!”

Matthew 18:32 … Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

This sure sounds like forgiveness is a rather important value to God.

Understand that with the interpretation of parables, it is not that every element of the story has a one-to-one correspondence. If so, some of the parables would make God look terribly vindictive in ways that He is not. But we are to take from them the major ideas and principles – the big picture of the story illustration.

The big picture from this parable is to understand the immensity of what we have received, in order that we may be gracious people to our fellow sinners on planet earth … and so …

  1. An honest look into the mirror should bring us to a position of true humility.

It is all about understanding things correctly. And that brings us quickly to our second parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

In the Roman world, tax collectors were more than mere accountants. They could set the rates to some extent and were well-known to extort, overcharge, and keep a portion for themselves. All of this carried Roman authority. The Romans didn’t care what a collector skimmed off for himself, so long as they got their portion.

So tax collectors could be rich fellows, but also hated fellows for taking advantage of their fellow citizens and countrymen. If you wanted to pick out the most odious character in the land at the time, the local tax collector was about as low as you could go.

And you see that this parable was directed to those who had a high view of themselves – the Pharisees and their brethren …

Luke 18:9 … He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

So what is the essential difference between these two men? It is that the Pharisee compared himself to other men, whereas the tax collector compared himself to the righteous character of God. There’s a big application in that!

And that brings us to a final point …

  1. We must extend grace and mercy to others in the manner such as we have received it.

So how exactly is this?  How and when did we receive grace and mercy?  It says exactly how in Romans 5:8 … but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

That’s great, but what do we do with it? We extend it to others – those people in the body of Christ who, like us, are forgiven sinners who are trying to grow as a disciple. And this too is also in Romans … 15:7 … Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

Yes, we need to graciously extend to others what was immensely given to us.

OK, so the big idea is this: you’ve got to give what you’ve gotten. And having been the recipient of a tremendous amount of grace beyond all that we could ever imagine, we need to be quick to give it away to others in serving them.

Knowing that we would tend to be forgetful and to minimize this gift of grace, beginning in the upper room with the disciples, Jesus Christ shared a last supper – instituting the tradition of taking the bread and the cup as a memorial. Memorials are made so that people do not forget an event that happened – most often an event of great sacrifice. The early church gathered for this purpose above all others … above worship, preaching, fellowship, service – the main reason of gathering on a Sunday was to remember the immense sacrifice made to cover an immense amount of sin.

So when we observe the Lord’s Table, we need to be especially cognizant of why we take these elements together. And that awareness begins with an honest look in the mirror.

Week Three Items for Discussion

Have you found it to be your experience that the longer you have lived as a believer and the more you have grown to understand the work of God through Christ, the more you have marveled at the extent of grace?

How do unbelievers underestimate the debt of sin?

Even in the case of born-again Christians, how might such underestimate the extent of their sin and the extent of grace?

Discuss one of the great quotes of our time (by Timothy Keller – pastor in NYC) … “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

Why is it so difficult to forgive other people?  And does the time come when we must forgive people who do not care about seeking our forgiveness or who do not understand the wrong they have done?

Do you think most Christians understand the nature of communion?  Is there confusion about that, even in a strongly evangelical church like our own where we know that the observation is not that which GIVES salvation by participation. Is the observance undervalued?

The “hidden fees” of emotional debt (Matthew 18:28-35)

Financial debt is easy to quantify.  If you damage my property, justice comes when you pay what you owe.  But what about things that can’t be monetized so easily?

We spoke yesterday of “emotional debt,” the pain that accrues from being hurt or betrayed.  For some offenses, a simple apology won’t cover it.  The legal system has tried to put a price on this by pursuing litigation (and compensation) for “pain and suffering.”  I communicated briefly on this subject with our own A.J. Serafini, who said that it’s customary to ask for 2-3 times the physical damage to cover pain and suffering.  While I don’t doubt that financial restitution can’t improve one’s quality of life, I doubt that this brings genuine release from one’s emotional debts.  Take, as an extreme example, families who seek closure in watching a family member’s murdered get executed.  Common sense tells us that yes; those family members witnessing this event will find a renewed peace in seeing justice meted out.  But contemporary research from Stanford University says that the opposite is often true.  Families may feel re-victimized by witnessing such a traumatic event.  For others, the protracted wait from sentencing to execution may seem like justice deferred—and effectively denied.  For still others, a relatively painless death seems too convenient a price for the suffering caused by a hardened killer.

Now, most of us may—thankfully—never need to endure this level of emotional debt.  But like the debtor in the parable, we may feel like someone out there owes us something.

Take a moment to re-read the fallout of the debtor:

28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:28-35)

Why would God’s forgiveness depend on our willingness to forgive another?

Like the debtor, we want to see our offenders experience pain.  And pain usually travels downward.   We “distribute” the emotional debt by entertaining private thoughts of revenge, or feeling the need to “warn” others about that person’s potential actions.

In short, we’ve made forgiveness entirely conditional on our private sense of justice.  But here’s the point of exploring the whole topic of pain and suffering: it’ll never work. Even in the most extreme examples, we fail to find the closure we seek.

That’s why Jesus says that failing to forgive leads to a failure to be forgiven.  Why?  Because if I make forgiveness dependent on a moral code, it reveals that I never really understood the gospel at all.  The gospel promises salvation through God’s grace—through what Christ did.  To make forgiving others based on anything less than that only reveals hearts that seek to deal with emotional debt without God.  So Jesus isn’t saying: “Forgive or you’ll be punished.”  No; Jesus is saying: “Have it your way.”  Try and manage your emotional debt, and you’ll spend a lifetime hurting another human being while receiving no satisfaction in return.  Look to the cross for personal forgiveness and relational justice, and you’ll find a renewed capacity for love.




“…to forgive is divine” (Matthew 18:23-25)

If you grew up in a religious environment, then you surely were encouraged toward a spirit of forgiveness toward others.  Many religious systems emphasize forgiveness—usually as a part of a larger moral code.  Even if you’re not an overtly religious person, you’ve probably been encouraged to “be the bigger person” when confronted with the hurtful actions of another.

Jesus likewise encourages limitless forgiveness.  But what’s interesting is that in the context of Matthew’s biography of Jesus, we’re not explicitly told how to forgive.  Sure, Jesus describes a process of restoration and discipline.  But when it comes to forgiveness, Jesus is less concerned with the “how” and much more concerned with the “why.”  Why forgive?  Jesus’ parable illustrates how the gospel shapes the reason and the way we forgive:

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. (Matthew 18:23-25)

We might pause here just to chew through some cultural background.  The system of servitude most likely was patterned after social laws and order established in Egyptian culture under the Ptolemies—or at least Rome likely borrowed from their practices and this became a cultural standard.  Under this system, if a servant could not pay, the king had only one option to recoup a loss: sell the debtor into slavery.  But all our source material tells us that even the most expensive slave sold for only one talent—and the king could not possibly sell the man 10,000 times.

How much was a talent, you ask?  Good question.  In his recent commentary on Matthew, Craig Keener helps us understand the math:

  • 10,000 talents would have been equivalent to 60-100 million denarii, which would have been the equivalent of 30-100 million days’ wages.
  • This means that 10,000 talents would have been worth roughly 1.5—5 billion S. dollars
  • For the king to sell the servant, he would still have been at a loss of several billion dollars.
  • Keener estimates that the combined resources of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea was around 600 talents. Therefore the man owed the king more money than what was in circulation in the entire country.

However, as Keener also points out, in an agrarian society, there would have been little—if any—need for large numbers.  10,000 was the largest number they had back then, so it’s equally possible that Jesus was exaggerating.  He may have even been trying to be a bit humorous in showing the contrast between the debtor and the man we’ll meet in the next few verses.

26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.  (Matthew 18:26-27)

The king must by this point seem equally crazy to forgive such a massive debt.  But it’s also why the forgiven debtor’s next actions seem so appalling:

28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. (Matthew 18:28-30)

Let’s do the math again.  The debtor had been forgiven several billion dollars.  Now, in the system of the Ptolemies, if you were forgiven your debts by a superior, anyone beneath you was required to be released from their debts as well.  The debtor probably knew this, but still tried to get some money from his fellow servant.  How much was 100 denarii?  A lot less than 10,000 talents, that’s for sure.  Keener puts it at 0.2 talents, or about 30,000 U.S. dollars.  That’s still a lot, but let’s remember that it’s 500,000 times the amount he was forgiven!  And while the king had tried to sell the debtor, the debtor now inflicts physical harm on his fellow servant.  Maybe—just maybe—it wasn’t really about the money.  Maybe it was about feeling in control.

31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:31-35)

Can we “monetize” hurt?  We may try; we can even sue for “pain and suffering.”  But it’s impossible to truly deal with the kinds of hurts we endure.  We can cover them over, but the hurt bleeds through every time.

In recent years psychology has taken to calling this “emotional debt.”  When someone hurts us, we feel a sense of internal burden.  What do we do with that burden?  Like the unforgiving debtor, we shift our pain downward—or at least outward.  We try and spread it around.   But, says traditional religion, we shouldn’t feel as bad as all that. We should forgive; it’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?

In the absence of grace, in the absence of the cross, such forgiveness is impossible, because no one is equipped to deal with this emotional debt.  We can forgive, but now we’re forced to pay the debt ourselves.  How?  When we choose to forgive rather than run someone down, it hurts.  When we choose to wish that person success and not failure, it hurts.  When we choose to not hold a grudge, it hurts.

On the cross, Jesus absorbed all our debt—spiritual and emotional.  This means two things.  First, it means that like the unforgiving debtor, I am forgiven the enormous magnitude of debt in the eyes of God.  But second, I may look to the cross as a source of justice.  If I have been wronged in some way, I may rightly recognize that my offender deserves to pay for what he or she did.  The gospel says that instead of God taking the blood from my offender, he offers his own through Jesus.  So if I crave justice, if I crave satisfaction, I may look to the cross to find it.  But that also means that I no longer look to my offender to make absolute payment for his offense.  We’ll talk in the coming days about the role of earthly justice and repentance, but for now we rightly stand before the cross in awe of the mercy extended to both ourselves and others, a mercy that flows down to mingle with our tears and wash clean our pasts so as to clear a way for our futures.   Religion makes forgiveness necessary, but it is only the cross that makes forgiveness possible.


“To err is human…” (Matthew 18:15-22)

Pop quiz: What emotion tends to “go viral” most frequently?  If you remember from a few weeks ago, things “go viral” when they get shared through social media and email.  We might share news stories, videos, short pieces of writing, etc.  So if we survey all that, what emotion has the best chance of spreading throughout the internet?  Is it happiness?  Sadness?  Humor?  It’s anger, at least according to recent reports from the Smithsonian Magazine.  In 2014, Matthew Shaer reports:

“Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, reached a similar conclusion after conducting a study in the United States. “Anger is a high-arousal emotion, which drives people to take action,” he says. “It makes you feel fired up, which makes you more likely to pass things on.” (Matthew Shaer, “What Emotion Goes Viral the Fastest?” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2014)

Anger—particularly reactions to perceived injustice—seems to thrive when shared.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with anger, necessarily; it would be troubling if we responded to injustice or offense with indifference.

Jesus understood that as the church increased, so too would the opportunities for hurt and betrayal.  So Jesus outlined for his disciples a general method for dealing with pain within the church:

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:15-20)

Today we call this “church discipline.”  Now I know what you might be thinking, but “discipline” in this context isn’t about punishment but about restoration and keeping the community intact.  Still, the idea of having to bear with one another must have seemed a bit troubling to Jesus’ followers.

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him,“I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)

In some ancient cultures, the number seven was conceived of as bearing special significance.  So Jesus wasn’t telling his disciples to keep a journal; he was telling them that their forgiveness should be limitless.

That’s hard.  After all, there are some things that can be forgiven through an apology and some sort of restitution.  If I wreck your car, then I owe you the cost of the damage.  But not everything can be so neatly measured in dollars.  What about things that can’t be fixed through a simple apology?  Relational betrayal, lies, manipulation—these leave us with what pop psychologists have started calling “emotional debt.”  We feel better when we can distribute this debt around: we might run down that person in front of other people, we might vent our frustration to close friends, we might fantasize or wish for their unhappiness—or worse.  In 2009, you might recall the scandal surrounding the South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.  His affairs were quite public, as was the emotional toll on his wife, Jenny.  In September of that year, Vogue magazine ran a feature story on Jenny Sanford, though you’d have to skim to the end to really see the fruits of Jenny’s faith start to emerge.  Regarding the affair, she said:

“If you don’t forgive…you become angry and bitter. I don’t want to become that. I am not in charge of revenge. That’s not up to me. That’s for the Lord to decide, and it’s important for me to teach that to my boys. All I can do is forgive. Reconciliation is something else, and that is going to be a harder road. I have put my heart and soul into being a good mother and wife. Now I think it’s up to my husband to do the soul-searching to see if he wants to stay married. The ball is in his court.” (Rebecca Johnson, “Notes on a Scandal,” September 17, 2009, Vogue)

Jenny’s courage and character are equally admirable, as his her admission that forgiveness is part of a larger, lengthier process.

As Christians, we are called to forgive one another.  The natural question is: “How?”  But that’s what makes the parable Jesus tells—that is, the parable we’ll be looking at this Sunday—so unusual.  Jesus doesn’t go on to explain a method for forgiving others; he goes on to explain the basis for forgiving others.  See, it’s easy to say: “Forgive others because the Bible says so,” or to insist on forgiveness as part of a larger moral code.  Many religions have exactly that.  If that’s true, what becomes of our “emotional debt?”

Come along with us on Sunday as we explore the answer—though for now let’s pause and ask God’s Spirit to search our hearts for any unconfessed or unaddressed anger, that we might pursue healing first of all for ourselves, and second to step toward healing in our relationships.