Christ Reformed United Church of Christ

This Sunday's Sermon



Matthew 18: 21-35


      There was an incident in 1992 in which rioting was launched by the acquittal of five white police officers who’d been videotaped viciously beating with their batons a black man named Rodney King – stopped for a traffic violation. Into the mess of rioting drove an unfortunate white truck driver by the name of Reginald Denny. A handful of angry young black men seeking pay-back stopped him, pulled him outta the truck, and beat him to within an inch of his life. Fortunately, there were numerous kind-hearted, God-fearing souls in that neighborhood who came to the poor man’s defense and got him quickly to a hospital. Following his recuperation, Mr. Denny appeared on a TV talk show with one of his attackers. I was startled by the anger which the studio audience threw out – NOT at the attacker, but at the victim. And why? Mr. Denny had the audacity to forgive the guy, because – to quote Mr. Denny – ""Jesus commands me to forgive.” "Well what kind of religion is that?” cried out one woman.


     The answer, of course, is Christianity. Forgiving Grace is, perhaps, the most distinctive and unique thing there is about the faith that’s founded on the message and modeling of the Christ who forgave the attackers who tortured and murdered him – who promised Paradise to a crucified criminal who asked nothing more but that Jesus remember him when taking the throne in his eternal Kingdom.   


     Am I therefore required to forgive my oppressors? That depends! It depends on whether or not I want the Lord to forgive me. Listen to how Jesus says it in Matthew 6: "If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (verses 14-15). The Book of James puts it this way: "There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you” (2:13). It means that God’s our willingness to forgive goes hand in hand with God’s willingness to forgive us. 


     Yet here comes good ol’, impulsive Simon Peter, looking for the loophole; and who doesn’t want to find the loophole? "Lord,” he asked, "if another disciple sins against me, how many times must I forgive? Up to seven times?” THAT seems generous enough, doesn’t it? Many a’ Jewish teacher had apparently preached something like a "three strikes and you’re out” rule for forgiving. Hurt me a fourth time, in other words, and look out for my right hook! Peter, however, is willing to double the "three strikes rule” and add to that one more for good measure. The point of fact is that Peter makes an assumption. He assumes that even a saint may sooner or later be liberated to explode in fury and retaliation. He wants Master Jesus to establish a limit on Christian patience, mercy, and compassion. But NO! says the Master. Forgive seventy times seven!!! It means, in other words, that you’re missing the point on forgiveness when you start down the road on trying to calculate it. "Seventy times seven” is Jesus’ symbolic, poetic way of saying that forgiveness must be boundless and unlimited.


     Jesus then launches into a parable that makes it as plain as the nose on your face that believers are NOT to be reflections of the popular culture but rather, reflections of the Good Master – telling us that there’s to be no boundary beyond which we’re allowed to give up on mercy. We are, in other words, to embrace the boundless forgiveness that the Christ shares with us. Jesus’ fable begins, after all, with a guy so deep in the hole with the king that there’s absolutely nothing for him to hope on except forgiveness. One Bible teacher writing almost 30 years ago estimated the debt at about ten million of our American dollars.


     For you and for me to be in debt to the Great King is to have sinned against God. And God, by the way, doesn’t cherry pick sins the way human beings tend to do it in our time and place. Gossip, greed, and envy (… among other things) are JUST as sinful in the eyes of God as any other evil we can think of. The truth of the matter is – to quote Romans 3:23 – that "Everyone has sinned. We all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” We are, in other words, in debt to God. Everyone one of us owes God a high payment for that debt; and the payment is everything we’ve got. Yet the LORD God forgives us even as the character of the king in Jesus’ story forgives his servant.


     So what did the servant in the parable do in order to deserve the forgiveness of the king? Well! What do WE do to deserve the Grace of God? Nothing! Forgiveness and Grace are, by definition, undeserved and unconditional. By forgiving, God has treated you and me far better than we deserve. Therefore, God fully expects us to do likewise with each other. When we forgive someone who’s hurt us, we are reflecting the character of God.


     Now the servant in Jesus’ parable departed from the Great King far richer than he’d ever been. The source of the servant’s fear, shame, anxiety, and depression was lifted and wiped away. THAT is the power of forgiveness! He was free to start life over with a new priority, a new loyalty, and a new joy. Then he blows it by refusing to forgive another person as he had been forgiven. That’s simply the way it is in the Kingdom of God: forgiveness NOT shared is forgiveness that’s taken back!  


     You and I are going to respond in one way or another to people who’ve caused us undeserved hurt or insult. We may choose to lash out and return insult for insult, rumor for rumor, blow for blow. Then again, maybe it’s the silent treatment that seems to work best. We’ll hurt them with our cold, hard silence, even though we’re still seething on the inside and cursing them under our breath. It is not, however, in the nature of Jesus Christ to return hurt for hurt OR to remain silent in the wake of an evil hurled against him; and if Jesus is Lord – yours and mine – then we’ve made the agreement to follow in His Way. "You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate,” he says. "Do not judge others, and you will not be judged,” he continues; "Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:36-37).


     Now forgiveness is NOT the way to let a hurtful offense slide off your back as though it didn’t matter. Read the teaching of Jesus that precedes the morning lesson and you’ll hear Jesus telling his followers to confront the oppressors with their hurtful words or deeds. The objective here is to reconcile with the one who caused the offense. Yet even if – for whatever reason – reconciliation is impossible, the gift of forgiveness is God’s way of healing your own heart of bitterness, spite, and hatred. Goodness knows but all that dark stuff inside of you will sooner or later displace the breath of God that fills a believer. Forgiveness is the medicine that heals the toxins and hijacks the distractions of bitterness and rage, of spite, fear, and hatred.


     One of my favorite Christian authors, the late Lewis Smedes, wrote a book titled FORGIVE AND FORGET: HEALING THE HURTS WE DON’T DESERVE. He suggests that our first prayer be for new insight. In your mind’s eye, he suggests, cut away the wrong that was done to you and look, with God’s eyes, at the person who hurt you. Separate the person from what they said or did to you, and look for a deeper truth about them. See them as the troubled, fearful, insecure, or embittered person that they are. By way of illustration, Mr. Smedes wrote the parable of a self-righteous man whose condemning, judgmental manner turned people away from him, including his sweet, joyous wife. She did, as a consequence, end up one night in the arms of another man. Torn apart with shame and guilt, she confessed the sin to her husband and asked him for his forgiveness


     Much to the surprise of everyone in town who’d come to know of her adultery, the man said that he WOULD forgive her because the Good Book told him to. Yet in the hidden recesses of his heart he could not forgive her and he WOULD not forgive; he only pretended to forgive her, choosing instead to punish her with his smug, superior, and self-made righteousness. Whenever he’d nurse the secret hatred toward his wife, a Messenger from on High came and dropped a small pebble into his heart. In time, his spite brought down so many pebbles that he experienced increasing pain that only served to deepen his bitterness. As the pebbles multiplied, his heart became so weighed down that he couldn’t walk straight and he was eventually laid up with paralysis.


     Finally, in answer to his prayer of desperation, the Divine Messenger came and revealed to him God’s secret for healing. There was but ONE remedy, said the messenger. The man would need God’s "magic eyes.” He’d need eyes that could look back to the beginning of his hurt and see his wife – not as a woman who willingly hurt him, but as a dear soul who cherished and needed him in spite of the distance that HE had created between them. All he needed to do, said the Messenger, was to ask for the eyes that only God can give, Then, whenever he’d look on his wife a pebble would be removed from his heart. So he asked and the LORD gave. As the days unfolded, his wife appeared to change before his very eyes. He began to see her as the lonely woman who cherished him instead of the wicked woman who damaged him. He gradually felt his heart grow lighter. He began to walk strong and straight again. More importantly, he invited his wife into those now-empty spaces in his own heart; and together they began a journey into a new season of joy.


     I, too, found healing from the betrayal of a man – I’ll call him George – who in another time and place spread falsehoods about me and my ministry. The "magic eyes” – the eyes of Jesus Christ that reflect God’s forgiveness – changed my hurt into a hurt for George. By trashing me with obvious lies – and he apparently had a long history of doing likewise with other people and previous preachers – the poor guy alienated himself from the members of his church community. Then, too, I can’t help but think that it’s an insecure, lonely person who tries to satisfy the hunger for attention, belonging, and importance by way of gossip.     


     Realize, finally, that Christians don’t forgive because the people who’ve hurt us somehow deserve it. No! We forgive others because the followers of Jesus Christ deserve to be set free of bitterness and anger. We don’t forgive because we "feel like it,” but because believers can’t allow themselves to be re-victimized every time they remember or rehearse the hurt. And often enough – not always, but often – the work of forgiveness will restore relationships that are broken.  


     It is, after all, by way of Jesus work and Word – by way of his life, death, and resurrection – that our sin-fractured relationship with the Most High God is mended and healed. And so it is that the Good Master continues to shower us with undeserved, unmerited, and unconditional love and forgiveness. It is by the Power of this amazing Grace that we can pray in every confidence: "Our Father who art in heaven… Forgive us our trespasses – forgive us our debts – as we forgive those who’ve trespassed against us.”