Sunday, October 20, 2013
Homily for The Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 22)
Matthew 18:21-35; Philippians 1:3-11; Micah 6:6-8
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The problem with indebtedness is that someone else owns your car, your home, and your life. In a very real sense, when you are in debt, you have sold yourself into slavery. As a result, you live every day in the fear that the rightful owner might come knocking on your door and demand that you pay back in full what you owe. And, if you can’t do that, you’re going to lose your car, your home, or, perhaps, even your life, as your wages are garnished, fines and penalties accrue, and you are sued, or possibly even imprisoned. Yes, of course, there are bankruptcy laws, − we even call it bankruptcy protection today − but they are a relatively new invention originating in 16th century England. The concept, however, finds its roots in 9th to 14th century Italy. Whenever a man refused to pay his debts, those he owed would storm into his house or workplace and destroy his workbench. In Italian, broken bench is “banca rotta,” from which we get the English word bankruptcy.
Spiritually, you are indebted and bankrupt to your Creator. In the beginning He provided you everything you required to live and to prosper. But you took what He did not give, what He had forbidden, and now you owe. And, how are you ever going to repay your God who made you and all things? What, O indebted man, do you truly own that you could repay Him with? This is what the Prophet Micah is getting at when he says: “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgressions, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” None of these are truly yours, for you have nothing of your own, and all these already belong to Him. No, if the LORD is not merciful and forgiving, there is no hope for you. But, He is merciful and forgiving; therefore there is hope, and more than hope, for forgiveness, life, and salvation. There is more than hope, because your LORD, Creator, and God did not send His henchmen to break your bench, but He sent His own Son to be broken for you, in your place. In Jesus, God did the unthinkable: He switched places with you. He became the debtor, and you go free. He didn’t merely lower your APR or write-off a portion of your debt, but He completely erased it, canceled it, tore it up, forgave it. Still, a debt is a debt; and, forgiven or not, someone still has to pay. That someone was God Himself, in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Jesus paid for all your debt to God’s righteousness until it was finished, canceled, paid in full. He drank the cup of God’s righteous wrath against your sin down to the bitterest dregs, so that there is nothing left. Therefore, you don’t need to bargain with God for more time to make things right – not withstanding the fact that you could labor in hell for all eternity and never come close – but you need only receive His forgiveness by grace alone as a gift – the most pure, holy, and perfect gift you could ever imagine. And, you must understand that receiving this gift is not a work; faith and trust in God is not a work. For, anything that you might dream to offer God towards paying your sin debt, negotiating it down, even believing that your receiving the gift is a work that you do (because you have to take it?), is a slap to the face of God, suggesting that Jesus’ suffering and death for you was insufficient, not enough. No, either God has forgiven your sin debt one hundred percent in Christ Jesus or you are still in debt to Him.
You see, this is the radical nature of God’s grace and of our Christian faith. Finished really means finished! Free really means free! Forgiven really means forgiven! And, that’s because grace really means grace. With God, it’s really all or nothing: It’s all His grace, or it’s no grace at all. It’s all His forgiveness, or it’s no forgiveness at all. It’s all His work, to His credit and glory, or it’s none of His work at all – which means it’s all your work, and you will never, never be able to make yourself right with God by your works and merit. However, some think this sounds too easy, that sinners are let off Scot free, that that somehow cheapens grace. Yes, while it is true that our sin-corrupted flesh and reason will seek to take advantage of God’s grace, such people deceive themselves and remain in their sins. For, God’s grace is anything but cheap. In truth, it is the most costly thing there is, costing no less than the holy, precious blood and innocent suffering and death of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
Before moving on to Jesus’ parable of The Unforgiving Servant, I want to take a moment to address an objection that is raised by some Christians to the use of language concerning the payment of debt, punishment, God’s wrath, and substitutionary atonement. The use of such language offends some Christians because they believe that it somehow lessons or contradicts God’s true motive in sending His Son to forgive our sins: Love. They argue that for God to have wrath against man for His sin so that He has to sacrifice His own Son to satisfy and satiate His wrath makes God to be an angry and vengeful God, not a God of love. Likewise, they argue that for Jesus to bear the punishment we deserve as a scapegoat negates His great love and compassion for mankind, acting more out of obedience to His Father than from love. While I can appreciate the desire in such remarks to keep the focus on God’s boundless love instead of on negative things like wrath, debt, punishment, etc., nevertheless, the Bible, and Jesus Himself, often uses such language and imagery to illustrate the nature of our sin and God’s righteousness, as well as His love and forgiveness. In fact, Jesus’ parable of The Unforgiving Servant is a perfect example of this.
When Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who sinned against him, Jesus answered Peter and all the disciples with a parable saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” Now, who is it that said that it was proper to compare God and His kingdom to a debtor / debtee transaction? That’s right, it was Jesus who said that. You see, however, the words “may be compared” are of key importance. Jesus is not saying that the kingdom of heaven is a debtor / debtee transaction, but only that such worldly things serve to illuminate what is truly a Divine and holy mystery. It is very similar to Jesus’ teaching about prayer where He said, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him.” The point is that, as imperfect and broken as human relations are in this world, they still bear a shadow or a dim reflection of what is holy and true. God can use them, and He does use them, that we may know Him better and His will and love for us in Jesus.
In truth, the entire parable is about love. The cancelation of debts, mercy, and forgiveness are really fruits of this overarching and underlying good law: love. Peter was seeking to place a limit upon forgiveness, upon love, to make that commandment more do-able. That’s what we do with love; we make it conditional. But, God’s love is unconditional; it makes no demands upon us at all. How many times should you forgive? How much love should you show? There is no limit. Further, the one who has wronged you does not need to deserve, earn, or merit your love and forgiveness, but you must give it always and unconditionally, even if they hurt you again, and again. Now, that’s Law! You bet it is! If you are to abide and live by that standard, then there is no hope for you. But, that’s where the Gospel comes in and says, “Do not be afraid! Lift up your head. I forgive you, for Jesus’ sake. Moreover, I love you perfectly and completely. I will give you love and more that you can truly love your brother, your neighbor, even your enemy, because you will love them with my boundless, limitless love. You will forgive them, as I have forgiven you, with my boundless, limitless forgiveness.”
You see, Jesus has fulfilled the Law to love for you. Mind you, He has not done away with it, it is still there, but He has fulfilled it for you. This means, not that you are free to not do it, but rather that you are free to do it, without coercion, without fear, but with Jesus’ love. In fact, you must do it; you must show love, and you must forgive. But, these musts are not terrifying commands of the Law, but fruits of the Gospel. You must love and forgive your brother, your neighbor, and your enemy because you are forgiven by God in Jesus – you are a branch connected to the True Vine, and Jesus says that you will bear much fruit. You must love them and forgive them, not only with your head, with your intellect and mind, but you must love and forgive them from your heart. Why? Because love and forgiveness are the fruit that Jesus bears through you when you believe and trust in Him. They are His fruit, borne through you, by which all will know that you are His disciples.
This is what you pray regularly in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Your forgiveness of others is connected to your receiving forgiveness from God – and vice versa. If you will not, or can not, forgive your brother, your neighbor, and even your enemy, from your heart, that is a sign, a bad sign, that Jesus is not in your heart, or that His foothold there is slipping. Now, I know that this may sound like the preaching of the Law – and, to some of you, it probably is, and probably needs to be – but what I mean to preach to you now is the sweet liberty of the Gospel. You are truly free from your sin debt. It is canceled, paid in full by God in Jesus Christ because He loves you. But, will you, now that you are released, freed, and forgiven, hold your brother, your neighbor, even your enemy, in their sin debt and refuse forgiveness? What did the master in Jesus’ parable say to his servant whose debt he forgave when he in turn would not forgive one indebted to him? “You wicked servant! I forgave you all the debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” Therefore, forgive with Jesus’ forgiveness. Give with Jesus’ grace. Love with Jesus’ love. This grace is not cheap, but the most costly grace imaginable. Therefore, do not be stingy and withhold from others what has cost God so very, very much, which He has purchased and given in love for you and all the world.
Come now and eat and drink deeply from the True Vine, Jesus Christ, that you may live with His life and bear His fruit of love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. For, this fountain is ever-flowing, and its waters are sweetness, peace and eternal life.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.