+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti Amen +
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Theme: The Nature of Mercy
Dear friends in Christ Jesus,
God is merciful. Perhaps you’ve heard that so many times it doesn’t really register. You just block it out. Perhaps you’re waiting for evidence, remaining skeptical until God proves Himself to you. Maybe you think those are fine-sounding but essentially hollow words? Or maybe you pretend to think God is gracious, you try to say all the right things and nod your head approvingly when appropriate, but inwardly you are gripped with doubt and even anger. Efforts to convince you are likely to be pointless. The Holy Spirit must do what no human can. The divine witness must speak for itself.
Forgiveness is always an act of UNDESERVED grace. Jesus teaches this vividly today in Matthew. The storyline is straightforward. A king wanted to settle accounts. Each debtor was brought before him in turn. The relevant debtor for this illustration owed him the equivalent of millions of dollars. He was not able to repay. The king ordered what was customary for the time: Total liquidation of his assets, plus sale of himself and his family into slavery. The ruler is not depicted as a tyrant. He has already been lenient by not requiring payment earlier. He is only rendering justice. The man pleads for mercy and has all of his debt cancelled. The ruler is shown to be magnanimous. The freed servant, however, goes out and denies mercy to a fellow debtor who owed him only a small sum. His hypocrisy is revealed.
Modern parallels to today’s parable are not hard to find. Common is the hypocritical person who pleads for leniency on some occasion that turns right around and dictates unfairly to someone at their mercy. Jesus uses an example that applies to economics. But the principle applies to all situations. And it applies to all of us. Unwillingness to give and receive forgiveness is one of the clearest symptoms of our sinfulness.
The Scripture says to forgive from the heart1. But how is this possible? What if we don’t feel inclined to forgive? To be merciful? Can it be forced? Forgiveness certainly does involve a movement of the heart. But when proper sentiment is lacking, forgiveness is firstly an act of the will. It’s helpful to recognize the complex dynamic between the heart and the will. Often the intellect knows the right thing to do is to forgive, but the heart is unwilling. We know the Scriptures, we know the command of God, but our heart is in the grip of resentment. Nothing is more treacherous than the human heart. The Bible says, “The heart is deceitful above all things...who can understand it.”2
The core of the problem relates to our natural desire to want to play God. The true reason people don’t forgive is because they don’t believe the offending party deserves forgiveness. Put the other way, people don’t forgive because they believe they are justified in withholding pardon. The key element is belief. That doesn’t mean the evidence is unimportant. If there is no evidence of repentance, no desire to be forgiven on the part of the offending party then the offended person may be forced to leave the matter with God alone. But, assuming the person does honestly seek forgiveness, then whether or not the person deserves forgiveness becomes moot for the Christian. Forgiveness is always unmerited grace. Trust in God’s promise becomes paramount.
A mother once approached Napoleon seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had committed a certain offense twice and justice demanded death. "But I don't ask for justice," the mother explained. "I plead for mercy." "But your son does not deserve mercy," Napoleon replied. "Sir," the woman cried, "it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is what I ask for." "Well, then," the emperor said, "I will have mercy." And he spared the woman's son.
The debtor today was so desperate he begged for mercy. But he was still not humbled. His motives were not pure. Not every desperate-looking act means the soul is ripe for spiritual healing. The law of God must do its proper work. It’s a mirror for us in our own relationships. What is our motivation? Is it selfishness? Is it fear? Is it anger? This man was about to lose his whole way of life. Is it concern for the well-being of others? Is it gratitude? Is it love of the truth? These are the works of the Spirit.
Two brothers went to their rabbi to settle a longstanding feud. The rabbi got the two to reconcile their differences and shake hands. As they were about to leave, he asked each one to make a wish for the other in honour of the Jewish New Year. The first brother turned to the other and said, "I wish you what you wish me." At that, the second brother threw up his hands and said, "See, Rabbi, he's starting up the feud again!"
Dear friends, a year one student may understand forgiveness better than a mature pensioner. But not because it’s a natural inclination or kids are naturally innocent. It’s only because they haven’t been as thoroughly scarred by the experiences of life. The more often we’re hurt the more likely we are to become jaded. That makes the gospel all the more essential. It alone has the power to transform us. It has the power to heal us. Such healing is only possible because Christ has addressed the root of the problem.
Forgiveness never makes light of the sin. It doesn’t whitewash it. Forgiveness recognizes that a restored relationship is more important than hostility and estrangement, even when that must be taken on faith. God doesn’t pretend. He doesn’t just turn a blind eye as if our transgressions were of no consequence. Rather, He assigns to them great weight. The punishment for them was endured at the cross. Nothing we do can influence the value of His forgiveness. And God doesn’t forgive us on account of our sorrow for sins. He doesn’t wait until we’ve done something worthy of earning His pardon. It’s a matter of sheer grace. That is His promise to you. There is no chasm that His death and resurrection can’t bridge.
Yes, we might like to see the Red Sea parted3 as the Israelites did today; but haven’t we seen greater things with the eyes of faith? The Saviour was nailed to a cross and laid in a tomb. We see in the crucifixion the means by which our sins are forgiven. We see profound love and compassion. Three days later He rose triumphantly from the grave.
Dear friends, repentance and forgiveness become habitual for the Christian. Even more, this dynamic of seeking and receiving grace characterizes the lives of the baptized. We hear His promise in the words of the gospel. We are washed by the cleansing waters of baptism. We taste His divine favour in Holy Communion. When you eat and drink the body and blood of Christ you are ingesting forgiveness. The Holy Spirit continually revives, restores, and renews us in the promise, presence, and power of Christ. That’s how the heart is changed. That’s how the soul is moved to extend pardon to others. That’s how we are clothed with spiritual armor. That’s how we exist as living stones in His temple and living sacrifices for His kingdom. Finally, that’s how we maintain our confidence even in the face of death. The Scripture says, “None of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”4
Christ is the embodiment of mercy. Philosophical arguments won’t convince you of that. His record speaks for itself. Amen.
+ In nomine Jesu +
1 See Matthew 18:35 2 Jeremiah 17:9 3 See Exodus 14:19-31
4 Romans 14:7-8
Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
14 September 2014
Reverend Darrin L. Kohrt