July 25, 2021 Series on Colossians
Colossians 3:9-15; Matthew 18:21-35
Forgiven and forgive
Christians are followers of Jesus Christ. We follow him for we are convinced that Jesus is the Lord of all! The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Colossians is very clear that there are implications when you are a follower of Christ and confess Jesus as the Lord. Last week we looked at one of the implications: those who confess that Jesus is the Lord do not focus on the differences between people. So-called realists when they look at people focus on their differences: They see Jews and Gentiles, in other words the see national and ethic differences. They see people who are circumcised and uncircumcised; that is religious differences. They see slaves and free people; that is social or economic differences. Christian realist say, no Christ is all in all. They are human beings for whom Christ gave his life! This is a rather significant implication!
Today the Apostle Paul points out another implication of what it means to confess Christ as Lord of all: They are willing to forgive others.
When he studied the meaning of the parable we read this morning, the well-known German theologian, Helmut Thielicke, said that there were two possible reasons why Peter asked Jesus how many times a person should forgive.
The first possible reason, Thielicke says, is that Peter realizes that Jesus accepts anyone and everyone. No-one falls outside of his embrace. Thielicke goes on to say that we, unlike Jesus, draw the line somewhere. We can only go so far before we say, “enough is enough”. Someone’s reputation disqualifies her, or his views are too far from mine. She is a sinner, he is a tax- collector – but for Jesus it does not matter. He treats everyone, even those who are really bad or morally depraved, with friendliness, acceptance and love. And at some point, Thielicke says, his acceptance of everyone is bothersome. He is so open and accepting, he tolerates and forgives so completely that it becomes a bit irritating. You feel a bit uncomfortable. He never answers hate with hate, he does not do the gossip thing, he does not accuse or makes people feel guilty, or pushes them away. It certainly is not possible to be this forgiving? Surely, Peter must have thought, everyone has his bounds, everything after all has it its limits, even forgiveness.
And let’s be honest: we too have our limits. We would have responded the same way as the Pharisees who were offended about Jesus’ willingness to forgive sinners and tax collectors.
The second possible reason, according to Thielicke, is that Peter knew about the Jewish Rabbis’ teaching that one should forgive, once, twice and at the most three times. Maybe Peter, after observing Jesus for a while knew that Jesus was a bit more generous than the average Jewish Rabbi – seven times should most certainly do it. It is plausible that Peter may even have thought: “Ah, if I say seven times maybe, Jesus would say, no that is pushing the limits too much, 5 times would do!” So, Peter is still setting a limit -albeit a generous one, it still is a limit.
When you know the limit, you can, with a good effort, forgive one more time. You could perhaps bite our tongue just one more time before you hit back.
We are like Peter too: somehow, we intuitively know that being willing to forgive a couple of times reflects well on the one who forgives. It shows that we are not bad people.
But at the same time, like Peter, we want to make sure that there is a limit- whether 3 times or five times or seven! And don’t get me wrong, when I reach that limit then I am done! Then no-one can blame me if I retaliate. It is normal and human to at some points say: “the time to forgive is over!” Oh, and by the way, I will forgive, even a few times, but no one should expect me to forget!
But Jesus’ answer comes as a sobering surprise: Not 7 times, but 70 X 7! Now let’s be clear, this does not mean 490 times for this would still set a limit- a very generous one, but still.
No, Jesus is saying forgiveness has no limit. He is in essence saying, stop counting! It is not about 3 times or 7 times! If we want to count then we still don’t really get what it means that Jesus is the Lord!
To illustrate this point, Jesus tells a story, a parable. “The kingdom of heaven may be compared…”. This parable in essence has three scenes:
First scene: A king settle accounts with his slaves. One owed the king ten thousand talents. Now back then, ten thousand was the biggest number people used. A talent was the biggest money unit. So, we would perhaps say something like: the man owed billions and billions of dollars! There was no way he could pay it back at all.
So, imagine how this unbearable debt impacted the man. He could not sleep, he was constantly worried and anxious, waiting for the day that he would be enslaved because he could not pay his debt. He knew it was only a matter of time.
So, when the day that he dreaded arrives, he falls on his knees and he begs: “Have patience and I will pay you everything!” This was of course not true. He would not even have been able to pay the interest on such a huge amount.
And then we read: “Out of pity for him, the lord released him and forgave him.” His burden is lifted. He is able to smile and sleep again, able to plan for the future! He feels alive again!
Second scene: That same man goes out and what does he do? He seizes another by the throat demanding he pays back the few cents the man owes him! The man falls on his knees and uses the same words he used before: “Have patience and I will pay you”. But he has no patience and he lacks pity. He then does what was legal but immoral- he throws the man in prison! Clearly, the man does not see his own hypocrisy! He received his master’s grace and mercy but he is not moved by that. He either misses the wonder of God’s forgiveness or he takes it for granted.
Voltaire, atheist, philosopher and author on his death bed apparently said: “God will forgive, that is God’s job!” Some people think this way. They take God’s forgiveness for granted. They live their lives, do what they want and then wait for God to does God’s job to forgive. They miss the wonder, the marvel, the surprising grace of God’s forgiveness. They accept it is “just the way it is!” This man was not moved by the mercy shown to him! And therefore, he was unwilling to pass it forward!
There are realists and Christian realists? The realist reflects his environment, this world. The Christian realist reflects the world that is above. The man who receives forgiveness but does not show forgiveness does what the world does, he reflects the worldly approach; you take what you can but don’t see the need to share or to pass it forward. The Christian realist knows that what God does is grace, a gift, divine and surprising. Out of deep gratitude she passes it on, shares it and rejoices in the mercy and grace shown. She reflects what is above.
But there is a third scene: When his fellow slaves see what is happening they are greatly distressed and they go to the king and report this injustice. His hypocrisy and ungrateful actions are clear for all to see. The king’s response is what the man deserves: “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you have pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” The king reverses his decision and now demands that the man pays his debts!
It is interesting that the king uses the past tense. The man’s debts were forgiven, he felt sorry for him, he showed mercy. All of these were already a done deal. However, for some reason, the man undid what the king had already given to him by not showing mercy. It is clear in this parable that someone who understands God limitless love and forgiveness, will forgive others “from your heart!”
The answer to Peter’s question is now clear. The one who knows he is forgiven, will also forgive from the heart. He does not count how many times one should forgive. The one who knows she is forgiven will never get to the point where she will say, this is now enough! Forgiveness is like love – there is no diminishing return. It is never a zero sum game. It does not run out or get used up!
There is however a subtle warning: It seems as if there is a possibility that one can undo what God has given. That happens when you don’t set your mind on things that are above. If you don’t keep your focus and if you are not move by the wonder of God’s love and mercy.
The same Helmut Thielicke used a helpful metaphor. He says that God’s grace is like the baton in a relay. You only share in the victory if and when you pass the baton to the next runner. If you keep it and refuse to pass it on, you will be disqualified even if you come in first. Why? Because it goes against the rules.
Remember a few Sundays ago I shared with you what Dietrich Bonhoefer said in Nazi Germany. He said that only those who side with the Jews during the week, may sing hymns of praise on Sundays. The same is true that only those who are willing to forgive others can say, “I am forgiven.”
You cannot embrace the first scene of being forgiven but then refuse to forgive others.
But let’s be honest. It is hard to forgive. Friedrich Nietzsche of “God is dead” fame, said that what disgusts him most of Christianity is that it teaches us a master–slave morality. We live like slaves of others. We turn the other cheek, we walk the extra mile, we forgive. We are kind, we show empathy and sympathy. He says this morality makes people weak. He prefers the natural, worldly, and in his view, strong response: Hit back, take revenge, step on others. This of course is the natural response of someone who never realizes that he received forgiveness. Such a person reflects the worldly mindset. The one who knows that I am forgiven, I have been shown mercy and grace, reflects a different reality. A reality where Jesus is Lord of all, a reality where we are already loved and comforted, a reality where we are safe. That is why we forgive – from our hearts, even our enemies, always and without any limits. Amen.