Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB-A)

Matthew 18:21-35; Romans 14:1-12; Genesis 50:15-21

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” Now, I don’t know about you, but, for me, that’s not a very encouraging image. It makes me think of bank managers and credit card companies and collection agencies and the IRS – not very heavenly things in my opinion. But, that’s precisely the point, isn’t it, that the kingdom of heaven is actually very, very different than how we typically imagine it and expect it to be? You see, as Jesus teaches it, the kingdom of heaven is like a king, or a bank manager, or a collection agency, seeking to settle an account with a debtor. However, when the debtor was unable to pay and plead for patience, for more time, the king, or bank manager, did the unthinkable – he completely forgave the debt altogether. No payment plan with interest and penalties, but complete and total forgiveness. That’s not something that happens in this life and world, is it? Nevertheless, Jesus says that this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. Though you remain a debtor, a sinner, your sin-debt is forgiven you and is not counted against you because of the merciful forgiveness of your King and Master Jesus Christ who has paid your debt in full by His substitionary death on the cross and has cleansed you from all sin and guilt in His holy, innocent shed blood.
Now, that’s good news, isn’t it! That’s the Gospel! But, is that all there is to it? Well, yes, and no. Yes, in terms of your justification, your standing before God the Father, that’s all there is to it. All that was necessary to make you right with God has been accomplished, fulfilled, and finished by Jesus in His sacrificial, substitionary, and atoning death upon the cross for you and in your place. However, no, that’s not all there is to it in terms of the Lutheran question, “What does this mean?” As we confess in Luther’s explanation of the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed, Jesus has done this “that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.” In other words, Jesus’ love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness will cause you, will enable you, to bear fruit, good works of love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness toward others to the glory of God the Father in Jesus Christ.
And, bearing this fruit is not an option, but neither is it really a choice. To understand this, all you really need to do is to consider how it is that fruit is borne. Consider the apple tree, does it choose to produce apples? Indeed, does it think about producing fruit at all? No, of course not. An apple tree produces apples because it is, well, an apple tree! So it is with the children of God in Christ Jesus; a Christian produces the fruits of love, mercy, grace, charity, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness because they are Christians. The Scriptures even teach that such fruits must be present, for Jesus’ disciples are known by their fruits. Moreover, the fruits you bear are truly Jesus’ fruits borne in and through you. To use His own analogy, Jesus is the Vine and you are the branches. The branch bears fruit because, and only because, it is attached to the Vine. It is the life of the True Vine Jesus flowing through you, His branches, which makes you fruitful. And so, it is Jesus’ fruit that you bear in your words, deeds, and lives, fruit that others may both see and receive and benefit from.
Our Scripture readings today each deal with forgiveness, mercy, and, consequently, not judging. These are fruits, Jesus’ fruits, which you bear in your lives, words, and deeds for others to the glory of God in Jesus Christ. Moreover, though the word does not appear in today’s lections, these are each an aspect of the greatest fruit Jesus bears in you, love. Failure to forgive and failure to show mercy are ultimately failure to love. Likewise, when you judge others, you fail to love both your neighbor and God, who alone is the judge of all.
Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of heaven today was prompted by Peter’s question concerning how many times he should forgive his brother who had sinned against him. Jesus’ answer, in effect, was, “Don’t ask such a stupid question!” How often must you forgive? Always, every time, without exception. However, the reason you must forgive may not be what you think. It is not the Law that makes you fruitful with forgiveness, love, and mercy, but it is the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel alone that does that. If you have received forgiveness, love, and mercy, if the Holy Spirit is in you – and He is! – then you will, you must, bear these fruits. Truly, when you forgive others, you forgive with Jesus’ forgiveness. And, when you give to others, you give of Jesus’ gifts. And, when you love others, you love with Jesus’ love. In fact, you can only give to others what you have first received yourself. Those who do not have Jesus’ love, gifts, and forgiveness do not have anything to give to others – at least, not anything that is truly needful. Thus, Jesus teaches, “to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” For, to refuse to forgive others is relinquish your own forgiveness. And, the same goes for mercy, compassion, and the other derivatives of love.
Jesus’ answer to Peter came in the form of a parable, a parable conveying a central truth about the kingdom of heaven. A man whose enormous debt was completely forgiven by his master in turn refused to forgive the small debt another man owed to him. When the master learned of this injustice he was furious and He sent the man to prison until he could pay the debt he owed in full – the same debt he had previously been forgiven. “You wicked servant!” the master said, “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” This is Jesus’ story, and He concludes it with this threat, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
“From your heart.” Now, that’s the kicker, isn’t it? It’s one thing to say “I forgive you,” but it’s altogether another thing to mean it and to believe it in your heart. However, it’s the heart that matters, much, much more than what rolls off of your lips, for what comes out of your mouth has it’s origin in your heart. Thus, Jesus says that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but rather what comes out, for that proceeds from the heart and defiles a man. And, likewise does Isaiah proclaim, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” No, the heart must be changed. Jesus Himself acknowledges that not all who call Him Lord with their lips will be saved, but He knows the hearts of men, He knows His sheep and His sheep know Him; they listen to His voice and they follow Him.
The problem with Peter’s question is that it flowed from a heart that was turned in upon itself, seeking to limit the sacrifice of forgiveness and love he made towards his brother. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter was relatively mild. However, the problem with the unmerciful servant in Jesus’ parable was that he did not show love at all, but he treated his fellow servant with unmerciful contempt and scorn. Jesus’ rebuke of the unmerciful servant was harsh and unrelenting. To those who refuse to show mercy to others, no mercy will be shown. Lastly, Jesus warns all of his disciples, and rather strongly, that the Father’s mercy will be revoked even to them if they do not love their brother from their heart. Yet, as harsh as this truth is, it is nothing that should cause you fear and concern so long as you trust in Jesus and strive to show mercy, love, and forgiveness towards others. And, when you fail – and you will – flee into the merciful absolution of Jesus repenting of your sins.
The Old Testament pairing of Joseph’s absolution of his brothers with Jesus’ Parable of the Unmerciful Servant was truly a brilliant lectionary decision. You know well the story of how Joseph’s brothers despised him and treated him horribly. In our reading today, even when they realized that it was Joseph who had provided grain for them during the seven years of famine, they still lie to him, telling him that their father’s dying wish was that he would forgive them. When he heard this, Joseph wept. I believe that he wept over his brothers’ brokenness and sin even after he had done them so much good. I believe that he also wept because of God’s mercy, goodness, and love by which He had worked all the horrible things that had happened to Him for good. Joseph answered his brothers, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love – that is what the kingdom of heaven is like. Your King and Master has canceled and forgiven your debt completely, paying the price Himself in Jesus’ holy, innocent shed blood. How can you withhold mercy and forgiveness from anyone? You cannot. You must not. And, if you remain in Jesus, the True Vine, He will remain in you, and you will bear His fruit, His fruit of love. What you must do is receive. Keep your eyes and your ears and heart and mind focused on Him. Receive His gifts of Word and Sacrament that you may be filled to overflowing with His gifts and bear His fruits. Thus, the kingdom of heaven is like…, well, it’s like this Divine Service in which your sins are forgiven anew, and you are showered in your King and Master’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love in Jesus Christ. And, because you have these gifts, you will be given even more that you may have an abundance with which to forgive and love others. You can only give to others what you first have received yourself. Therefore, come and receive today the gifts Christ freely gives and live, even as you give life to others to the glory of God in Jesus Christ. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

No comments: