Season of Lent: Forgiveness
March 11, 2018 Forgiving others as God forgives us
Matthew 18:15-35, NLT
15 “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16 But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17 If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.
18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.
19 “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
21 Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”
22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!
23 “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. 25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.
26 “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27 Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
28 “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
29 “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
31 “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.
35 “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
2 Corinthians 2:5-11, NCV
5 Someone there among you has caused sadness, not to me, but to all of you. I mean he caused sadness to all in some way. (I do not want to make it sound worse than it really is.) 6 The punishment that most of you gave him is enough for him. 7 But now you should forgive him and comfort him to keep him from having too much sadness and giving up completely. 8 So I beg you to show that you love him. 9 I wrote you to test you and to see if you obey in everything. 10 If you forgive someone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven—if I had anything to forgive—I forgave it for you, as if Christ were with me. 11 I did this so that Satan would not win anything from us, because we know very well what Satan’s plans are.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!
MESSAGE Forgiving Others as God Forgives Us
Some of the examples of forgiveness we have talked about so far are one sided. We might forgive someone who just breezed recklessly by us whom we will likely never meet again. We might forgive someone we haven't seen in a very long time for something in our past. We might forgive someone who doesn't even realize they insulted or hurt us. Sometimes we choose to forgive someone without having to face them. We need to let go, but we are in no need of renewing a relationship. These kinds of forgiveness are for our own physical, emotional and spiritual health. The one we are forgiving receives nothing in the process unless we are perhaps kinder to them if we do cross paths again.
David Augsburger suggests this is typical of forgiveness in Western culture where individualism often reigns over community, but in much of the rest of the world, as well as in tribal cultures and from a biblical worldview, community is the priority. In this perspective, "The conflict belongs to the community as well as to the disputants; the responsibility to seek reconciliation is shared; and the understanding of forgivenss is focused on regaining the other as sister or brother." (Augsburger, Helping People Forgive, p. 14) If you remember the Lakota story I shared a few weeks ago, where the elder decided that the murderer should replace the one he killed in the life of the family and clan, this would be an example of such community involvement in what Augsburger calls mutual forgiveness. In unilateral forgiveness only the offended party moves forward. In mutual forgiveness offender and offended move toward each other.
With that in mind, let's take a closer look at Matthew 18:
We begin with instructions for dealing with an offense that relates to interactions between believers or within the Christian community. It follows Matthew's version of the lost sheep. It is about restoring the lost sinner back into the fellowship of faith.
But there is an element of it that feels appropriate in any community life. Notice first off that the goal of the process is restoration of the relationship. It comes from the community minded worldview rather than individual. The first step is to privately point out the offense. We're talking about the everyday things that happen between people. Maybe your spouse said something that really hurt your feelings or left you out of an important decision. Maybe a colleague cut you off at a meeting or the boss put you in an awkward situation. Try talking to them separately to see if it can be resolved with mutual respect.
If that doesn't succeed, take one or two with you as a neutral witness. This refers back to Old Testament law from Deuteronomy 19:15 “One witness is not enough to convict someone of a crime; at least two witnesses are necessary to prove that someone is guilty." Depending on the situation this may be mutually respected colleagues or friends. For example, when David and I needed help working through a settlement, we took the conversation to the office of a colleague we both respected. If it is still unresolved, it may need to go through "appropriate channels" whether that means a church council, a personnel department, marriage counseling, mediation or arbitration.
The process is about trying to resolve things simply, but recognizes that the one who offended you may not be open to that process. You may have to take more official steps to have a serious situation addressed. Hopefully something as simple as picking up after yourself or learning to listen to your partner, a procedural matter at the office or taking responsibility in a club meeting can be handled among yourselves. However, something as serious as abuse or harassment needs to be taken to higher authorities.
Marjorie Thompson writes "Serious offenses against the humanity of a person involving physical or psychological trauma cannot be forgiven quickly....It will take...perhaps a long time, before sufficient inner healing prepares the soil of our hearts to nurture the fruit of forgiveness." I like her realism in the next sentence, "When a loss is irreversible, when trust has been shattered and the heart battered, when fear is intense and grief overwhelming, we should not expect ourselves to leap easily to forgiveness." (Thompson, Forgiveness: A Lenten Study, p. 51) She is not saying we never have to forgive. She is being honest with us that it will take hard work, usually outside assistance, and a lot of time to reach the point of being able to forgive someone who hurt us deeply.
Even after appropriate measures have been taken, personal forgiveness may take longer. Notice in the letter from Paul to the Corinthians, he recognizes that punishment has been appropriate, but encourages them in the end to forgive the offender, so that he will not be lost forever.
In Jesus' teaching in Matthew 18, on oft quoted scripture is actually part of this whole process of restoration. It is Jesus' promise that where a few are gathered in Jesus' name, he is in their midst. When we take on the difficult process of bringing an offense to light in hopes of repentance and forgiveness, we are not alone. Jesus is with us. The offender is only removed when the fellowship is still endangered by that presence. The biblical goal is always restoration if at all possible. After all that is why God sent Jesus to us in the first place. To restore us to a full relationship with God.
So how many times, Peter asks, must we forgive? Some rabbis taught that enemies only had to be forgiven three times. Peter was generously suggesting "seven?" Jesus multiplied that. Whatever configuration of sevens your translation reads, in biblical numerology it basically means completely or continually? As John MacArthur puts it "innumerable times." (One Volume Commentary, p. 1158) I will repeat once again however, that in cases such as abuse, forgiving does not mean remaining in the dangerous situation. Healing will not come for either party if the offense is allowed to continue. Genuine repentance calls for hearts and lives to be changed forever.
Then Jesus tells us a story as Jesus does so well. As in our version of the Lord's Prayer, the English word debt, symbolizes sin. Keep that in mind as you consider this story. A man owed his king a HUGE sum of money. The KJV translates the amount as ten thousand talents. Thompson says, "A talent was worth more than fifteen years worth of ordinary wages." (p.46) Ten thousand talents would be worth several generation's worth of labor. More modern translations say ten thousand bags of gold or several million dollars. Ten thousand dollars is too much debt for me; I can't even wrap my brain around owing millions. The King's judgement was for the man and his family to become debt slaves and their belongings sold toward paying that debt.
I can understand why the man is begging for mercy. I can imagine the relief when mercy is granted. I can even understand why he tried to collect from people who owed him money. What I can't understand is why he was so cruel to his own servant who owed a much smaller sum. MacArthur says it was a hundred denarii, about three months wages. The man had his servant arrested over what would have been a few thousand dollars and thrown into debtor's prison. The servant's peers didn't stand still. They took the matter to the King, and the original debtor's own pardon was overturned, because of the way he treated his servant.
This is God's justice. We are all offered forgiveness and pardon of our sin debt to God, since it is a debt so enormous we could never pay it without Jesus' help. This is what Jesus offered us through the cross. But if we refuse to forgive others, then our own forgiven status is endangered. As in the teaching of the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6, our forgiveness from God expects that we will also forgive others. Couldn't that be one application of the Golden Rule, forgive others as you also want to be forgiven? We will deal more with this issue of unforgiveness next week.
But now I want to look at the other side of my sermon title for today, "as God forgives us." I had gotten about this far writing the message on Tuesday and had to stop, because I wasn't sure what came next. Then in Bible studies and other conversations Wednesday two different perspectives of God had an ongoing dialog with each other, and in the process God was helping me understand some things to share with you.
I've known since a comment by a woman in my Bible study back in the early 90s that some people only see God in the Old Testament as a serious, even angry, judge. Some of you grew up with a similar perspective. I didn't. While I was aware of that view, I really never understood the deep effects of it or my inability to relate to it until this week. I'm slow. God is definitely not done teaching me yet! So, Wednesday God wanted to teach me about the God as Judge perception.
I have a friend who grew up on army bases. Even as a child she had drilled into her that any misbehavior on her part would affect her father's status and hence the family's livelihood. She was afraid of the consequences of misbehavior. So, if the chaplain had even hinted that God was a Judge, her military base experience certainly backed up that image. Jessika pointed out to me that growing up with two clergy parents wasn't much different. Even though David and I didn't treat the girls that way, parishoners caring for them on Sunday mornings made it clear the girls were not to embarrass whichever parent was in the pulpit. I had no idea they were being told this. In the process, God as Judge made sense alongside God is Love.
Our perception of God is affected by the environment in which we were raised as well as how we were taught the Bible. We heard it through the filters of our own experience. Our understanding of God was particularly influenced by the significant adults in our childhood. For each of you that is worth taking time to think about this week. If you have had a God as Judge view, take time to sort out why, and ask yourself if that still seems accurate to your experience of God in your adult life.
To talk about God forgiving us, I have to introduce you to the God I know as Love. That's been my God perspective since at least 5 or 6 years old. I grew up not only on Jesus loves me, but my first memory verse was "God is love." I had been praying to God about things like stomach aches since 3 years or so. The belief that God was everywhere was a comfort, not a concern. I could talk to God anytime, and God always cared, always loved me. I was more interested in God than in Jesus, so I didn't grow up thinking of one as love and the other as judge. They were one family of love as far as I could figure. I was nervous about getting caught doing things I perceived as "naughty" but I wasn't terrified. I remember when I was first introduced to the Hebrews 12 concept of a cloud of witnesses, I thought of my great grandparents watching me from heaven. What I might effectively hide as a 11 or 12 year old from my mom or grandparents, my great grandparents were certainly seeing. I chose to behave, because I didn't want to disappoint them. I think that applies to my relationship with God even today. When I mess up, I am not afraid of God, it just hurts that I continue to disappoint God with my wrongful attitudes or behaviors, and so I try to fix them and do better next time. This is my very simple childlike faith. God loves me. God wants the best for me. God comforts me. God helps me. God forgives me. I want to live my life as best I can to love, serve and please God, because God is so good to me.
I don't want to deny the God of righteousness. God created this universe and everything in it including us. God had intentions for paradise, and humanity has time and again chosen to do things contrary to those intentions. God is patient, but God does not sit still forever. But even when God holds us accountable, I don't see that as punishment. I see it as love taking action to correct us. I don't see rules as arbitrary iron clad laws to maintain control. I see them as discipline given in love for our safety and well being, guidelines outside of which there are natural consequences that will hurt us and often hurt others or God's world.
Wednesday night our study group wrestled with the Hebrews in the wilderness of the Exodus. Think about a people who have been slaves for generations with someone else always telling them what to do and when and where and how. Then when they are suddenly on their own in freedom, it is a joyful, but at the same time a scary experience. They had always lived under someone else's authority. Even learning to live under God's authority was a difficult transition for them.
So God gave them a leader who had already learned to listen to and trust God. God gave them laws, rules, commandments not as a cruel and controlling dictator, but as a loving caring teacher giving them guidelines to learn how to govern themselves, how to behave toward each other, what was safe to eat, how to deal with disease, when to take rest, and God built in a means to begin to understand forgiveness. While some of those Old Testament laws seem really odd to us, God started with where they were, what they knew, and gently taught them how to be a people living for God.
As a class we came to realize that tthose Hebrews mostly had to go a whole generation in the desert, because those who remembered slavery in Egypt found it too hard to completely transition to a new way of thinking about life and God. Those born in the wilderness didn't have memories of Egypt holding them back.
If you still see God as a Judge, cut yourself some slack. Change is hard work. Ask God to help. If you see some of the Old Testament consequences as harsh or judgemental, try looking at it this way.
If you are going to go rock climbing, for example, or scuba diving or parachuting or other adventurous challenges, you don't just take off on your own. You start with an instructor who teaches you how to use the equipment and gives you many rules that are for your safety. That instructor is with you on your first several times out. If you ignore the rules you are putting yourself and possibly others in extreme danger.
God is an instructor excited to help us experience this adventure called life. God knows it is not an easy course, but the challenges we face help us sharpen our skills and appreciate the thrills. God gives us the equipment and the rules that we need for our safety and others.
There are going to be times when we slip unintentionally and times we rebel intentionally. There will be consequeces, but those consequences don't mean God has stopped loving us. They are intended to stop us from going too far in the wrong direction. God wants us to turn around, so God can help us back onto the right path. God is our constant companion and guide, and God enjoys our company. God laughs with us, cries with us, picks us up when we fall, scolds us when we need it, hugs us when we return, cheers us up when we are discouraged, forgives us when we mess up, celebrates with us when we get it right. This is how I understand the God I know as Love.
I pray that you will know God as the One who fully and completely loves you. Out of that experience of love, I pray you will challenge yourself to forgive others, even those who hurt you deeply. But know as you do there is a God of Love who is holding you with compassion and understanding willing to help you every step of the way.
(Many of today's ideas come from Total Forgiveness by R. T. Kendall.
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