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Matthew 18:21-35


It’s the line that separates the Presbyterians from the Methodists, and the Episcopalians, and many other denominations: ironically it’s a line from our Lord’s mouth that has gotten changed.  “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  It is clear that Jesus said those words, highlighted in red in King James Bibles!  But we must hasten to add that Jesus did talk about trespasses, just not in the Lord’s Prayer. In the sentence after the prayer in Matthew 5:14 we read these words of Jesus: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father, will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  Certainly the idea of forgiving trespasses is there; but why did Jesus deliberately not say the prayer that way, but say it using “Debts?” Those who know the Jewish training of the carpenter from Nazareth think they know: forgiveness in Jewish understand means to finally “pay the price for what you broke, or to suffer the consequences for things that can not be set right again.”  Debt is if someone sets fire to your house; forgiveness is complete when they rebuild it; debt means if you pick beyond the 10% of grains of wheat allowed for the poor from a farmer’s field, you would either pay for the wheat to square the account or plant and maintain new crops and give the produce to the farmer you wronged.  If, however, a man molests the young daughter of a man, he cannot fix his sin; the damage cannot be paid back and the consequential suffering measured out by the village to the perpetrator could be dire.  Those sins are more than walking on one’s lawn or dumping your trash in the dumpster of a neighboring business; that’s trespassing, and if caught, being told not to do it again is usually the remedy; few would go into the dumpster and ask the perpetrator to remove the trash, or tell the trespasser to walk back through your grass to undo the transgression. Yes, “debt” has the weight of a price to pay, and a price to pay was ultimately what Jesus taught us with the cross; but first he taught with his lessons. 


Several chapters after the Lord’s Prayer, we come to today’s text: Matthew 18.  Someone is asking Jesus how many times one should forgive another.  In earshot of all he says “some say seven times but I say seventy times seven.” I once new a faithful Christian woman who absorbed and forgave the hurt that her neglecting and thoughtless husband did to her 490 times as Jesus said, and then she left and sued him!  “She kept a log of all 490 transgressions!  Most scholars believe Jesus’ example was not a finite number, but a big one; he was saying in essence that people make mistakes; and if they do so (and implied in his words were ‘and if they follow the prescribed procedure in our customs for forgiveness’ then you should forgive them.) This is not a carte blanche for abusers, tormentors, liars, cheats, and stealers to keep deeply sinning against another, thinking that forgiveness is cheap and limitless; it is neither of those!  And just so he is clear with his answer, Jesus gives a costly illustration that follows his proclamation: a story of an unforgiving servant. Before we get to that, let’s remember the procedure in Jesus’ day for forgiveness to be requested by someone who had done wrong. This is the difficult but sincere way of showing change that few today remember to do. You can write these on your bulletin if you wish. These are steps that a wrongdoer should take to have the right to ask for forgiveness:

1)     Express REMORSE OR REGRET; such an action exhibits true sorrow over hurting the other and also hurting Jesus (In Matthew 25, Jesus himself said: “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers or sister, you do to me.”)

2)     Show REPENTENCE: turn from your harmful actions back to a restorative state. In Hebrew it’s called shub. (shove)

3)     RESTITUTION- which is squaring the account; paying the price to fix what was broken, unless the moral sin was so grave as to be considered unfixable, then the person has the suffer the consequences. Although belief in Jesus and the price he paid on the cross for our sins can make things right between you and God for Christians, that action is on hold, according to the Lord’s Prayer, until you earnestly and exhaustively try to pay for, in some way, the wrong you have done to the other person on earth.

4)     RECONCILIATION- is what God shows us how to do so that we can practice it between one another.

5)     RENEWAL OR RESTORATION of your relationship with the other one allows your relationship with God to be renewed as well.

6)     REUNION- That’s God’s ultimate hope, not out of our deserving, but out of loving and showing grace toward each other.


That’s the list, and the story Jesus tells about the actions of the servant illustrates how costly forgiveness of debts can be; he actually makes the example about money (talent was a measure of money in those days) but, and hear this, it is money not just because forgiveness has to do with money, but to illustrate how costly forgiveness is when it is accepted, and how priceless grace can be when it is offered by the debtor. The old hymn proclaims: “O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be; let that grace now like a fetter (a chain) bind my wandering heart to Thee.” It’s a fervent prayer to God.  It is a prayer of contrition, longing for forgiveness and grace. That’s what it takes to be forgiven.


But our story is not over today; the other side of the message is illustrated with the servant story: if God has forgiven you your debts, how will you go about forgiving the debts (wrongs, serious trespasses) of others? You who are the wronged one perhaps have set aside the fact that you are also already a forgiven one by Jesus and that he paid the ultimate price for your record in Heaven to be stamped “forgiven!”  So with that kind of knowledge, what happens when you withhold forgiveness from one who hurt you immeasurably?  That is one of many questions that will be explored in George Painter’s class “All things Religious Considered.” In the book THE SHACK a conversation goes on between Mack, a man whose precious daughter has been murdered, and Papa one of the God figures of the book. Papa says to Mack:

“‘I want to take away one more thing that darkens your heart.’ Mack knew immediately what it was and turning his gaze away from Papa, started boring a hole with his eyes into the ground between his feet. Papa spoke gently and reassuringly. ‘Son, this is not about shaming you. I don’t do humiliation or guilt or condemnation. They don’t produce one speck of wholeness or righteousness, and that is why they were nailed into Jesus on the cross. … Today we are on a healing trail to bring closure to this part of your journey—not just for you, but for others as well. Today we are throwing a big rock into the lake and those ripples will reach places you would not expect. You already know what I want, don’t you?’ ‘I’m afraid I do,’ Mack mumbled, feeling emotions rising as they seeped out of the locked room in his heart. ‘Son, you need to speak it and name it.’ Now there was no holding back as hot tears poured down his face, and between sobs Mack cried out ‘Papa how can I ever forget that [wretched man] who killed my Missy? If he were here today I don’t know what I would do …I want to hurt him like he hurt me!  If I can’t get justice, I want revenge!’ Papa let the torrent rush out of Mack, waiting for the wave to pass. ‘Mack for you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me and allow me to redeem him.’ ‘Redeem him’ Mack said angrily. ‘I don’t want to redeem him! I want you to hurt him, to punish him, to put him in Hell! … I can’t forget what he did.’ Papa said ‘Forgiveness is not about forgetting, it is about letting go of another person’s throat.’ (Remember the imagery in Jesus’ story about the servant?) …  ‘I don’t think I can do this’ Mack answered softly. [And Papa said] ‘I want you to. Forgiveness is first for you the forgiver, to release you from something that will eat you alive.’” [William P. Young, Windblown Media, pp. 223-225] 


Do you know people who spend the energy of their lives, and most of their soul, not forgiving someone? Maybe its several people, but one in particular. The one who hasn’t extended forgiveness (not to forget the wrong, but to give the vengeance or redemption to God) can’t tell that they have changed while they have nursed their grudge, but you can tell they have given away their power, joy, and happiness to the one who has hurt them. They are grim, they are bitter, and life has done them wrong. God, they think, won’t mete out enough retribution for the hurt they have received, so they’ve decided to add their own. But what they don’t realize is the perpetrator hardly notices their actions, while they turn themselves into bitter old men, or bitter old women, who by their actions have even cut themselves off from God. [Remember the prayer we pray: “O Lord, forgive us our wrongs, in the measure that we forgive those who have wronged us.] Hear this ironic note: even the perpetrator who has wronged them, if they regret their action, receive redemption and transformation from God, while the wronged person, by his or her stubborn and hurtful stance, mainly hurt themselves, and sadly, cut themselves off from the life God is holding for them. They do not let God do God’s job because they have taken it over; and it is killing them; or should I say, it is killing you?


Forgiveness is one of the hinges of faith; its roots are in Judaism, and Jesus solidly brought it as part of his teaching. Christians use it, but sometimes misuse it and misunderstand it.  Today, know again the joy of being forgiven; but also (and this is at least as important): know what weight is off your shoulders and what redemption is offered to you when you, appropriately, give back to God God’s job and keep praise, thanks, and service as your own.

I’ll close with an extraordinary modern day reminder of Christian forgiveness.


 “On October 2, 2006, a man shot and killed five school girls in a small crossroad town in Nickel Mines, PA….Family members of the murdered [Amish] children paid a visit that very day to the widow of the killer, offering her care and concern. Members of the Amish community attended the funeral service of the murderer, brought food to his family, and prayed with them. The public was puzzled by this behavior and by their immediate forgiveness. Being formed by a culture that nourishes revenge, few people outside the Amish community understood why and how they could forgive so quickly. Journalists claimed that they were cold and callous…. People wrongly assumed that if the Amish forgave then that undid the tragedy or pardoned the wrong. It did not. Their pain was as deep and real anyone would experience in such a circumstance. But for them forgiveness is a habit learned from earliest childhood. It is rooted in the wonder of God’s forgiving love in Christ Jesus. They forgive because it is how people loved by Jesus behave.” [Bill Klein, in a review of the book, AMISH GRACE.]


May such an example make we Christians consider doing some extraordinary forgiveness ourselves, to honor the God who holds our own forgiveness at arm’s length until we do.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                      September 14, 2008




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Matthew 18: 15-20


Society has always needed ways to deal with conflict.  From caveman days of fight or flight (instincts that are still in each one of us), to the rules that Jesus adapted from Torah teachings in our text today that referenced Deuteronomy 19:15 and Leviticus 19: 17-18, to corporate conflict specialists, to television judges like Judy, to small claims court, civil courts, and criminal courts: people have always sought to negotiate settlements from conflicts. The plots of most dramatic, even comedic television shows, like great Shakespeare plays, present a situation, then introduce a conflict or a conflictor, then resolve the conflict either peacefully or tragically, and then return to life more wise, more hurt, or more victorious. The watching of a football game initiates conflict, even though it is politely called competition; watching your children on a soccer field or in a swim meet can initiate conflict; political conventions can initiate conflict; neighbors can bring conflicts against neighbors over property lines, paint colors, or infractions that go against the codes of the community. Finally, in a less than exhaustive list, churches can have conflicts. There is an entire organization whose mission it is to assist churches when they get in conflict or off track. In his book called LEADERSHIP AND CONFLICT, the director, with the unusual name of Speed Leas, included these words in the introduction written by church administration expert Lyle Schaller: “Conflict may be the most widespread inhibiting factor in Western society today.  Every business leader recognizes that internal conflict is inhibiting the progress of the organization. Governmental leaders realize that the conflicts over goals and priorities … reduce productivity. The principal of the local high school spends many hours every month attempting to resolve conflict. On any given day in perhaps three-quarters of all churches the ministry of that congregation is reduced significantly as a result of nonproductive conflict. And when asked about desired improvements in their leadership skills, a substantial majority of business executives, educational leaders, government officials, pastors, military officers, labor leaders, and [community volunteers] lift up skills in conflict management as a high priority.  While some will argue that leadership is a God-given talent, Speed Leas makes it very clear that skills in conflict resolution can be identified, taught, and learned.” [Forward] 


When Moses was settling every squabble, from the biggest to the smallest in Exodus 18, his father-in-law, Jethro, saw it and put a stop to it. “What are you doing? You’re going to burn out trying to do this. Select wise people from those you know to settle the smaller disputes; then you deal with the biggest ones.” And that was even before the later rules were written in Leviticus that were the basis of Jesus’ words in Matthew.  People have always sought ways of resolution; they still do.


I know of a church that settles its conflicts between church people following Matthew 18 literally. They leave it to the judgment of the hurt one that his brother sinned against him; second, the hurt one tells the sinner his fault. (I’m using the word “brother” since this church’s rules don’t mention sisters!) If the sinner listens to you, his brotherhood is restored. If he doesn’t listen to you, you take other people to corroborate what you each say and do. Assuming that those people agree with you and not with him, if you then get him to agree, your conflict is resolved. If you don’t, you bring him in front of the church, and they’ll tell him to admit he is wrong (assuming that they agree that he is!) If he doesn’t admit he’s wrong, then his membership to that congregation is revoked.” And so it goes. Our own Book of Order has, for such purposes as church conflicts, what are called “Rules of Discipline,” and I was once in a church that had to remove an unrepentant member and call on police support to keep him away on Sunday mornings. But no one wants conflicts to get to that, the worse kind of conflict; the intractable conflict.


The way to resolve a conflict according to Jesus is one good way; I suspect that Jesus would have little issue with other methods of conflict resolution either. Conflict was apparent with the Corinthians, the Galatians, and other early Christian groups.  Some in churches are so innocent that they think that people who love Jesus shouldn’t have conflicts. But people who love someone, or some ideal, have a passion for that person or viewpoint; emotions and differences of opinion may be valid or petty, may be self serving or malicious, or simply may be the well-meaning differences between to persons.


The late Dr. Dan Taylor, founder of our Presbyterian Counseling Center, spent a day helping pastors learn the types of conflict, the levels of conflict, and the styles of dealing with conflict. They were well thought out and Spirit led. The idea that the Spirit of our Lord never leaves us, observes us, and is present with us, I think, is what’s behind Jesus saying in Matthew 18:20: “Remember, where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” He says he was watching them, and he says he is watching us too. Which of our actions make a tear run down his bearded cheek? Which of our actions make a broad smile part his lips and twinkle his eyes?  Sometimes we must weigh how far we should take each situation where horns get locked, heads get butted, and feeling get hurt. One of my colleagues uses this rule of thumb: “Before I decide to fight, I ask myself two things: First, am I willing to go to the cross for this issue? And second, I remember that I can’t go to the cross over everything. I think: ‘Is this conflict one of those that Jesus would encourage me to win? Is he honored if I fight?’  


Jesus is among us now, even when two or three of you (or of us): throw down gauntlets, dig in heals, fold arms, become red-faced and spew, or become silent and calculating. Jesus is watching … and making notes … and hoping that, since we want to bear the title “Christian,” we will act like him, and not make him ashamed of our words or actions.


At the end of this service our group hymn is a prayer: “Lord I want to be a Christian, Lord I want to be more loving, Lord I want to be more holy; and Lord be like Jesus.” How far away, or how close, are you to that? Make changes even now before you commune with Jesus, and go forth to make him glad to have been invited into you heart.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                             September 7, 2008