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Apr 15, 2018

A Parable of Feelings & Forgiveness

A Parable of Feelings & Forgiveness

Passage: Matthew 18:21-35

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Parables That Change the World

Keywords: forgiveness, mercy, parable, slavery, unforgiving

Summary:

What we do or do not experience with Christ will impact what we do and do not experience with people This parable brings us face to face with the relationship our actions and reactions with others have to our experience of God.

Detail:

A Parable of Feelings & Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35

April 15, 2018

INTRO:  Anybody here never been in debt in any way?  (We’ll be asking you to lead our next Financial Stewardship class!)  Truth is, most of us have had to contend with debt in a variety of forms. 

  • Today some 80% of Americans live under the burden of debt.
  • That debt burden is roughly $13 trillion, or
  • Average credit card debt per household in America is $15,654. [https://finance.yahoo.com/news/average-us-household-owes-15654-credit-card-debt-171830579.html]
  • Average mortgage debt is $196, 014 per home.
  • Average college student loan debt is $37,173 for a national total of $1.34 trillion. The default rate is currently over 11%.
  • 107 million Americans have auto loan debt for an average of $30,534.

[Unless otherwise noted, data was found at https://www.creditkarma.com/studies/i/average-debt-american-household-on-rise/ on 4.14.18]

Here is one more depressing reality about debt in America:

  • Payday Advances: $40 billion—at 14 day interest rates of 15-20%...or 400-700% APR!

Not only do Americans and our country as a whole depend on debt for survival; so does most of the world.  All of this seems “fine”…just as long as no one starts “calling” these loans in large quantities… which could happen at any moment. 

            Debt in this country has been, at least during most of our lifetimes, a relatively “kind” system of indebtedness. 

  • If you go to the hospital for surgery and can’t pay for it immediately, the hospital will usually work out a way for you to pay over years and may even forgive some of that medical debt.
  • If you have credit card debt, the banks are happy to let you carry that year after year…as long as you make “minimum payments.” If you default, it hurts or destroys your credit score…but you don’t get sold into slavery to pay off your debts. 

The same cannot be said for 35 million people today who, due to poverty, are forced to work in horrific conditions all over the world, just to survive and have enough food to eat.  Men, women and children often labor from 12-27 hours a day in conditions that are toxic, dangerous and life-threatening.  Their life-expectancies are half or less of ours.  A full one-third of these enslaved people are the result of sex trafficking.  It is estimated that slave labor in our world right now produces over $150 billion of profit a year for its human traffickers and owners. 

            Take 2 minutes to look into what life is like for just a handful of these poor people who have been sold and trafficked into slavery due to their poverty.  This is in India.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwB6bPgPol4

[Time:  4:23-6:17]

So how does seeing that make you feel?  Sad at the least? Angry?  Just think how you would feel if those pictures were of YOUR family members?  Your close friends or brothers and sisters? 

What does that have to do with Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18 that we are trying to learn from today?  Everything.  Let’s read it together.

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.[g]

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[h] was brought to him. 25 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.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.[i] He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

We started this morning talking about the role emotions can have in our spiritual experience. 

Some of us are here today because we woke up with a strong enough desire to gather together with God’s people for various spiritual experiences of worship, fellowship, communion, giving, prayer, Bible study, etc.  Emotions of joy or discouragement, sadness or anticipation could have motivated us and worked to get us to come. 

Others of us came here despite our emotions of apathy or indifference.  Our wills (or, as Chuck said, your spouse’s or parent’s wills) moved us to be a part of things here for a few minutes today. 

Emotions play an important part in everyone’s spiritual experiences.  And they play an important part in the biblical passages we study Sunday after Sunday.  Jesus told these short stories to grab our hearts, not just our heads. 

            So for this parable about the unmerciful servant, let’s start today encountering some of the emotions both in and around this story.  We’ll begin with Peter, the one who’s comments to Jesus led Christ to tell this parable. 

How was Peter probably feeling when he asked the question he did in vs. 21? 

  • A little historical context might help us. Rabbinical writings of the time let us know that this issue of how often we should forgive someone was a question of debate of the day.  The most generous rabbis of the day suggested that a person should forgive someone who was repentant up to 3 times.  After that, they were on their own.  There was no obligation to forgive.
  • This is also late in the ministry of Jesus. So Peter was probably feeling a bit more secure about being a disciple of Jesus.  And his question of forgiving a brother or sister who sins against him up to 7 times was at least double and then some of what the Rabbis were teaching.  How do you suppose he felt about his over-the-top forgiving spirit when he suggested this?  [Proud?  Confident?  Like a good spiritual leader?]
  • How long do you think that feeling lasted? J [As long as it took for Jesus to allow a pregnant pause and respond, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”]

Just a little note here on the number Jesus gives.  Some of the ancient manuscripts on this passage give “70 times 7” (or 490) while others say “77 times.” It really doesn’t matter because the precise number is not the point.  I dare anyone to keep track of offenses that exhaust even the 77 times!  “Let’s see, we’re not at 39…there’s 40…41.”  You’d have to be an accountant to keep track of that many offenses.  The point is, “Forgive INFINITELY…as many times as someone comes to you and apologizes, asking forgiveness.” 

            So NOW how is Peter feeling?  [Humbled, sheepish, looking for the back of the crowd?] 

APP:  I think this is how it always is when we hang around Jesus and try to impress him and others with our supposed spiritual knowledge or wonderfully mature character. The Holy Spirit has a way of sort of whispering, “Good start, John.  Not too bad for over 60!  But here’s where I’d like to get you….from 7 to…INFINITY!”  He always brings the “Jesus Standard” and holds it up to my “John Standard.” 

            Now we get to the king in vs. 23.  What’s his dominant desire in that verse?  [To “settle accounts with his servants.”]  He’s being a good steward of his kingdom, no?  He isn’t upset or angry, not demanding or demeaning.  But early on in the little “audit” process, this one servant “who owed him ten thousand bags of gold” (as the NIV says) was summoned to settle up. 

The Greek literally says, “ten thousand talents.”  Some of your footnotes state that a single talent was worth about 20 years of daily wages for a laborer.  Do that math of 20 times 10,000 and you get 200,000 years of work.  Again, the exact number is not the point.  What is?  [That this man was never going to repay this debt.  I’m asking myself, “How does a guy get into that much debt in his entire life?”  That is like billions of dollars of debt for just one family.]  Again, the point is not how he got that much debt but that it was an enormously impossible amount. 

Vs. 25 simply tells us what has been the normal practice for millennia when it comes to debtors:  if you can’t pay your debt, you…and often your whole family…lose your freedom and go to “debtors prison” or indentured servitude. 

Obviously this man’s debt would never be repaid even by a lifetime of work by his entire family, wife and kids included.  So this effectively meant the end of everything he held dear—the disillusion of his marriage, the enslavement of his family and the horrible reality of living the rest of his life knowing he had completely failed everyone closest to him. 

Q:  So, what’s the emotion of the debtor right about now?  [Despair? Fear?  Terror?  Dread?  Panic?  Sorrow?  Self-loathing?]

Vs. 26—“At this the servant fell on his knees before him, ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’”

Seriously, imagine how you would feel if you knew that today your family would be sold into slavery to work, no matter how young or old, in the brick mines of India or sex-trafficked to L.A. or Chicago or Calcutta for the rest of their lives?  Most of us would want to kill ourselves rather than face that prospect, right? 

            Vs. 27—“The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” 

Q:  What is the master’s emotion at this point?  [Pity. Generosity.  Kindness.  Grace.  Love.  Self-sacrifice, etc.]

APP:  The king, of course, is representative of God in this story.  Isn’t it amazing to know that the God of the Bible is all that and more towards every human being on the planet?  It takes an infinite God with infinite love for every one of us to ever be able to say, “No matter what you owe me because of your spiritual indebtedness, your spiritual failures, I forgive them ALL whenever I hear someone cry out for mercy. 

            And even when our picture of our own neediness before God is incomplete and self-deceived, God still opts to forgive us everything.  Notice how this poor chap didn’t even understand how poor he was.  “Be patient with me…and I will pay back everything.”  REALLY? I think not.  Yet the king doesn’t even demand that he go to prison until he gets in touch with reality.  He takes what little humility and recognition this guy has and does far more than every could have been expected:  he forgives the impossible. 

APP:  Have we come to the place where we are beginning to grasp that we have little if any comprehension of just how great a debt God has forgiven us?  Or are you still trying to “pay off” your own sin?  Are you still trying to have the good outweigh the bad?  Are you still trying to earn God’s favor and forgiveness by what YOU do?  That will never work. But genuine repentance and genuine contrition over your spiritual debt will always encounter the forgiving God. 

Vs. 27—What’s the servants emotion at this point?  [Swinging all over the place…from panic to unbelievable relief; from abject sorrow to never-imagined joy.]

APP:  When is the last time we felt so relieved, so joyful that God had actually forgiven our unforgivable sin-debt?  Know what the proof of that is?  Keep reading.

Vs. 28—“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. 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 it back.” 

            But he refused.  Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.” 

The amount owed here is said to be 100 denarii.  That would be equivalent to about 100 days of work or about 16 weeks with a day off each week.  That’s doable, right?  Four months of regular salary to pay off a debt?  Most of us would gladly trade that for the remaining balance on our mortgage or student loan, right? 

            Again, the point is not the exact amount but rather the great disparity between about what this man had been forgiven in debt (10+ billion dollars) and what he was exacting out of his fellow servant (maybe $10-20,000 in today’s dollars?).   

The progression of things in vs. 28 makes it pretty clear that this little incident took place fairly soon after that rather big incident of the King’s forgiveness.  “…when that servant went out…” from the presence of the king. 

            Here is a very good indication that there is a big difference between mouthing a plea for mercy and meaning it.  I’m guessing this unmerciful servant was a master at manipulation?  (Aren’t we all when it comes to wanting God to treat us with mercy?)  Forgiveness had not been transformational for this man.  (It often isn’t in this life.  People who ask for forgiveness from others often don’t extend the same forgiveness to others.) 

It’s as if all he wanted was freedom from the consequences of his bad behavior, not freedom from his bad behavior itself.  He obviously had used some of his master’s money to make others indebted to him.  So he should have used the forgiveness he had also received from his master to grant forgiveness to anyone and everyone who owed him anything. But he was just like so many today who just want to be spared the consequences of their sin without really being rescued from the choices and lifestyles of sin that make us such debtors to God. 

APP:  There is nothing like how we treat others around us to test whether or not how God treats us has really sunk in or not.  Our treatment of others is actually the most accurate measure of how much of God’s treatment of us we have actually embraced. 

  • If I’m impatient with others, you could honestly say I haven’t allowed God’s patience with me to really sink into my soul.
  • Same goes for love…or mercy…or grace…or kindness…or generosity…or forgiveness.

If we look at how much we demonstrate towards others any desirable character quality of God, it will be a very good measure of just how much of the heart and actions of God towards us we have actually embraced. 

APP:  This is why it is so vital that we are constantly experiencing God at work towards and in us personally. 

Without experiencing His constant forgiveness, we will not be transformed into forgiving people.

Without experiencing His grace and mercy, we won’t be extending grace and mercy to others. 

It’s never that God stops extending all that and more to us; it’s that we stop receiving it and truly embracing it at a heart level. 

            When the king found out about this travesty of justice by his former mega-debtor, he called him back in and said, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?”  The extension of mercy from the king to this man was not simply about getting His debt forgiven; it was about changing his relationship to others as profoundly and deeply as the king’s debt-forgiveness had changed his entire life and family. 

APP:  We often miss this truth when it comes to our relationship with God.  What He does for us and extends to us is never just about us.  It is always meant to be passed on in some capacity to others. 

  • When God meets our needs, we are meant to use some of that to meet other’s needs.
  • When God loves on us, we are meant to take some of that and love on others.
  • When God is patient with us, that is meant to give us more patience with others.
  • And when God forgives us our sins (as He is constantly doing whether we realize it or not), He means for us to become more forgiving…much more forgiving…than we have ever been or imagined we could be.

This is why our lack of Christ-like character is never something that we can blame on someone else’s actions towards us.  Lack of Christ-likeness in us towards those around us is simply the evidence of a lack of real, dynamic and transformative relationship with Christ in my life. 

ILL:  I was having breakfast this week with a group of Christian guys, one of whom is a counselor in town.  He share with all of us one of the tools he uses to try and help people who are in conflict with each other embrace.  It could be parents and children or husbands and wives or pastors and church boards.  Here’s how this tool goes. 

            When someone starts telling him WHY they reacted to their spouse or parents or kids or whomever with un-Christ-like words or behavior, he grabs them a DVD and says, “So imagine that this past year of your life is on this DVD.  It’s what God is going to use to judge your last year some day.  If God starts playing this DVD, you’re going to discover something interesting.  You’re probably going to try and tell God that there is a mechanical malfunction going on in the playback or that the copying software was faulty.  Because all you are going to see and hear is what YOU said, what YOU did, and how YOU treated someone.”

            “But God,” we are prone to reply, “You didn’t hear what they said to me that made me so mad…or so withdrawn…or so hurt…or so wounded.”  And God is going to say, “Well, you’re not responsible for what they said or did; you’re responsible only for what you did and said and thought.” 

            It’s always nice when other people are Christ to us, right.  But God never says that is necessary for you and I to be Christ to others.  All that is necessary for that to happen is for you and I to be truly transformed by who Jesus is and wants to be constantly to us!  If Christ is our life, what in life can separate us from the love of God…or the patience of Christ…or the forgiveness of the Father…or the comfort of the Spirit?  NOTHING!  (see Romans 8). 

ILL:  Corrie Ten Boom wrote the book Hiding Place about her family’s experiences as Dutch Christians in WWII hiding Jews in their home…and the subsequent horrors they all experienced in a German concentration camp when their “crime” was discovered. They saved some 600 Jews.  But Corrie and 29 of her family members were arrested.  She lost her father and sister in the camps.

Just before her sister, Betsy, died, in December 1944, she said this to Corrie:  “There is no pit so deep that He [Christ] is not deeper still. They will listen to us Corrie, because we have been here.” Twelve days later, Corrie was miraculously released from prison due to a “clerical error.” A week after her release, all of the female prisoners from her age group were killed.

It was something that happened just 2 years after her release that powerfully illustrates what we are talking about this morning.  Corrie writes, “It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear.

It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.  It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown.  “When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.”

The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.

And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.

It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin.

Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbrück concentration camp where we were sent.

Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”

And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course–how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?

But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.  “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein”–again the hand came out–“will you forgive me?”

And I stood there–I whose sins had every day to be forgiven–and could not. Betsie had died in that place–could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?  It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it–I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”

I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality.

Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.

“Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.

And having thus learned to forgive in this hardest of situations, I [wish I could say that I] never again had difficulty in forgiving.  I wish I could say that merciful and charitable thoughts just naturally flowed from me from then on. But they didn’t.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned at 80 years of age, it’s that I can’t store up good feelings and behavior–but only draw them fresh from God each day.

Maybe I’m glad it’s that way. For every time I go to Him, He teaches me something else.

_____________________________________________________

I recall the time, some 15 years ago, when some Christian friends whom I loved and trusted did something which hurt me.

You would have thought that, having forgiven the Nazi guard, this would have been child’s play. It wasn’t. For weeks I seethed inside. But at last I asked God again to work His miracle in me. And again it happened: first the cold-blooded decision, then the flood of joy and peace.

I had forgiven my friends; I was restored to my Father.

Then, why was I suddenly awake in the middle of the night, hashing over the whole affair again? My friends! I thought. People I loved! If it had been strangers, I wouldn’t have minded so.

I sat up and switched on the light. “Father, I thought it was all forgiven! Please help me do it!”

But the next night I woke up again. They’d talked so sweetly too! Never a hint of what they were planning. “Father!” I cried in alarm. “Help me!”

His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks.

“Up in that church tower,” he said, nodding out the window, “is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding then dong. Slower and slower until there’s a final dong and it stops.

“I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive someone, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.”

And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in my conversation. But the force–which was my willingness in the matter–had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at last stopped altogether.

And so I discovered another secret of forgiveness: that we can trust God not only above our emotions, but also above our thoughts.

_______________________________________________

And still He had more to teach me, even in this single episode. Because many years later, in 1970, an American with whom I had shared the ding-dong principle came to visit me in Holland and met the people involved. “Aren’t those the friends who let you down?” he asked as they left my apartment.

“Yes,” I said a little smugly. “You can see it’s all forgiven.”

“By you, yes,” he said. “But what about them? Have they accepted your forgiveness?”

“They say there’s nothing to forgive! They deny it ever happened. But I can prove it!” I went eagerly to my desk. “I have it in black and white! I saved all their letters and I can show you where–”

“Corrie!” My friend slipped his arm through mine and gently closed the drawer. “Aren’t you the one whose sins are at the bottom of the sea? And are the sins of your friends etched in black and white?”

For an anguishing moment I could not find my voice. “Lord Jesus,” I whispered at last, “who takes all my sins away, forgive me for preserving all these years the evidence against others! Give me grace to burn all the blacks and whites as a sweet-smelling sacrifice to Your glory.”

I did not go to sleep that night until I had gone through my desk and pulled out those letters–curling now with age–and fed them all into my little coal-burning grate. As the flames leaped and glowed, so did my heart.

“Forgive us our trespasses,” Jesus taught us to pray, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In the ashes of those letters I was seeing yet another facet of His mercy. What more He would teach me about forgiveness in the days ahead I didn’t know, but tonight’s was good news enough.

When we bring our sins to Jesus, He not only forgives them, He makes them as if they had never been.

[Found at https://www.guideposts.org/better-living/positive-living/guideposts-classics-corrie-ten-boom-on-forgiveness on 4.14.18.] 

CLOSE:  

I’d like us to end this service encountering God.  I would like to suggest that we do so this way.  We’re going to PRAY.  But I don’t want us to pray sentences, just WORDS.  I want us to lift up to God and before one another words that represent 2 things:

1.) The sins OTHERS have forgiven us of and/or…

2.) The sins WE have forgiven others of. 

The reason I want to do it that way is because few if any of us will know whether the sin you mention was yours or someone else’s against you. 

For instance, if you say, “hatred,” no one will know if it was your hatred or someone else’s hatred against you.

If you say, “adultery” or “abuse”, no one will know if you committed adultery and abused another or if you chose to forgive abuse and adultery against you.  

            That is how repentance and forgiveness should be—so intertwined that when we give forgiveness, it is because we have been forgiven of far more than anyone has ever asked us to forgive. 

[Begin with a short prayer telling thanking God that all the sins we are going to mention in the next few moments have been washed away by the blood of Christ.]