Not optional

Well, today’s a big day, Friends!

I’m not talking about this being the Sunday after Black Friday. I’m not talking about who’s playing football this afternoon. Today we’re finishing up the series of messages I’ve been giving since September about the parables of Jesus.

Oh. Does anybody remember even one of the parables we talked about?

• the sower and the seed
• the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son
• the good Samaritan
• the parable of the net
• the friend who comes hammering on the door at midnight
• the wise and foolish bridesmaids
• the ten lepers

There are also some parables we looked at just in passing, like the Pharisee and the tax collector. And there are ones we didn’t have time to cover, like the parable of the crooked judge, or the rich fool who built bigger barns to keep his wealth in, instead of giving to the poor who were all around him.

We never got around to the parable of the different investors, or the story of the wicked tenant farmers, or the story about the guys working in the vineyard. We’ll have to look at those together some time.

Next week we start getting ready for Christmas. Today I want us to look at one of the most important parables in the entire gospel. It’s a story Jesus told, which goes straight to the heart of who we are and what we all need to do.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to collect all the money his servants owed him. As the king got started, a man who owed him 10,000 bags of gold was brought to him. The man wasn’t able to pay. So his master gave an order. The man, his wife, his children, and all he owned had to be sold to pay back what he owed.

Then the servant fell on his knees in front of him. ‘Give me time,’ he begged. ‘I’ll pay everything back.’ His master felt sorry for him. He forgave him what he owed and let him go.

But then that servant went out and found one of the other servants who owed him 100 silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he said.

The other servant fell on his knees. ‘Give me time,’ he begged him. ‘I’ll pay it back.’

But the first servant refused. Instead, he went and had the man thrown into prison. The man would be held there until he could pay back what he owed. The other servants saw what had happened and were very angry. They went and told their master everything that had happened.

Then the master called the first servant in. ‘You evil servant,’ he said. ‘I forgave all that you owed me because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on the other servant just as I had mercy on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers. He would be punished until he paid back everything he owed.

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

– Matthew 18:23-35

When I was a kid, my babysitter used to take me to the zoo every now and then. We’d walk around and look at all the animals, and she’d buy me a bag of peanuts to throw to the monkeys. I don’t think they let you do that any more, but it was fun.

I’d throw a peanut over the fence, and one of the big monkeys would rush over and grab it. He’d take his peanut over to one side of the place, and tear it open and eat it all by himself. While he was busy, I’d throw another peanut to one of the smaller monkeys. He’d grab it, but before he could eat it, the big monkey would run over, and take it away from the little monkey, and beat him up.

Then the monkey who lost his peanut would go and beat up an even littler monkey. And we’d laugh, but it was all too human. It’s just like what we do ourselves.

In today’s story, a king decided to settle up his accounts. He called in one of his top advisers, who owed the king a who lot of money.

Gold back then was very precious, just the same as today. God was measured out in a unit called a talent, which weighed 75 pounds. People in Bible study were asking how much a talent of gold was worth, and we did a little math.

Gold today sells for about $1,278 an ounce. It works out to a little over $18,000 a pound. A talent weighs 75 pounds, so that multiplies out to almost 1.4 million dollars for a talent. Jesus said that the adviser owed the king ten thousand talents, so that’s close to 14 billion dollars worth of gold.

That’s more than most of us keep laying around the house in the sock drawer. At that point, it stops being real money – it’s just figures on a piece of paper.

Doesn’t say how he managed to owe that much – whether it was a loan the king called in, or a gambling debt, or if he’d bought some land on credit. It was so much money that you’d have to carry a suitcase around, just to hold all the zeroes.

The servant in the story had a debt like that. It was so large as to be beyond anyone’s imagination. It was un-repayable for an ordinary individual.

Now, in those days, there was no such thing as declaring bankruptcy. You couldn’t do that. So, the king ordered that everything the man owned be confiscated, and the man, his wife and kids were all to be sold into slavery to pay the debt.

The servant fell on his knees in front of the king and begged, “Please be patient with me! I’ll pay it all back!” And Jesus said, “out of pity for him, the Lord released him and forgave him the debt.” The king wrote it off the books entirely, and set the man free.

But as soon as the servant walked out the door, he found another servant, one of his own fellow workers. This second servant owned the first servant a much smaller amount – 100 silver coins.

Servant #1 grabs servant #2 by the throat, and backs him up against the wall and snarls, “Pay up, or else!” It was just like the monkeys in the zoo we were talking about a minute ago. The first monkey gets beat up, so he goes and picks on a littler monkey.

And, of course, servant #2 says, “Please! Be patient with me. You’ll get it all back.” Same words that servant #1 had just used with the king.

When the people nearby told the king, the king called servant #1 back into the room and said,  “I wrote off the whole debt you owed me, because you begged on your knees for mercy! Shouldn’t you have done the same for your own fellow servant?”

Then it says the king threw the first servant into prison – actually, in Greek it says the king handed him over to the torturers – until the man paid back every last nickel.
This, says Jesus, is the way it really is.

Most of us, if we’re in debt, figure we would fall into the same class as servant #2, who only owed a few thousand dollars. We live more at the nickel-and-dime level. We don’t really get into the big money. We wouldn’t know what to do with the kind of money that servant #1 had tried to get away with.

But the story isn’t really about money, is it? It’s about where we stand with God. And again, we usually think of ourselves as pretty small-stakes sinners. When we try to cheat God, we figure we’re doing it at the penny ante level, not the level of international finance. We’re not hiding billions of dollars in off-shore accounts in Bermuda, like that story that came out in the news a week or two ago.

But we don’t really know that. We don’t really know how much other people owe God, or what their sins are, or what things they have to square up and settle. For all that we judge other people, we don’t know how much God holds against them. We only know about ourselves.

And before God, the balance we owe is always larger than what we can pay. We owe God for all the mean or careless things we’ve done. We owe God for all the times we did the wrong thing, when we knew better. We owe God for all the times we chopped and hacked at the cord of love that ties us together.

It’s an enormous debt, and we have every reason to be scared about the day of reckoning that we all face. Forget about what the other person did, or who hit who first, or who started it – before God, I know that I am one of the most guilty people around.

But all through Jesus’ teaching, all through the entire gospel, is the idea that when God sees our sins, when God sees the whole un-repayable pile of debt that we owe, God is willing to write everything off the books.

That is what mercy is. And if you haven’t heard about mercy, you haven’t heard the good news of Jesus. There is no debt that God can’t write off. There is nothing that God can’t forgive.

God says, “I forgive, because I want things to be right between us again. I forgive, because I’m your Father, and I love you. I want things to get back to the way they used to be. I want it to be just you and me, together, in love again, with none of this stuff between us. Let’s move on, and start again.”

So, that’s the first part of the story. God is willing to forgive us, no matter what we’ve done, no matter how bad we are. The first part of the story is the mercy of God, and it’s very good news indeed. It’s the best news we can imagine!

But then there’s the second part of the story. Servant #1, instead of learning by example, takes servant #2 by the throat and said, “Pay up, or else!” That’s the way we treat each other most of the time.

When the king forgave servant #1, he didn’t make any conditions. He didn’t say anything about strings being attached to what he did. But when the first servant went out and throttled his own fellow servant, over a much smaller debt, the one that could have been repaid, the king said, “Y’all come on back in here. . .!”

So far as I can tell, the only thing Jesus asks, when we are forgiven, is that we forgive each other.

Forgiveness is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. If you don’t believe me, look at the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our debts,” it says. But it doesn’t stop there. The Lord’s Prayer says, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. . .”

That’s this morning’s story all over again. If we don’t forgive, we can’t expect to be forgiven ourselves. God can and will forgive anything. But we also need to forgive one another. It’s that simple.

Whenever I talk with people whose lives are all tangled up, or who feel that God is far away from them, one of the first things I want to know is, “Who haven’t you forgiven yet?” Because lack of forgiveness is one of the single biggest things that keeps us away from God. It’s that straightforward. The way back to God is to forgive, and forgive again, and forgive some more.

I’m not talking about being a doormat. I would never tell a woman who was being beaten by her husband to go back for more.

You don’t have to be taken advantage of. You don’t have to be stupid. Just realize that hating other people is like a wall that not only keeps us apart, but keeps us apart from God.

God tears down walls like that. God doesn’t let any wall we build keep us away. But when we don’t forgive, we’re just trying to keep that wall built up. We’re re-building a wall that God wants to be torn down.

When we nurse our grievances, when we hold onto the things that other people have done to us, that isn’t the way for us to stay close to God. If you’re busy holding onto your anger with both hands, you can’t reach out to God.

The thing to do with hurt is to hold it up to God with our hands open, and say, “Lord, please take this pain, and my hurt, and my anger. Take these for me, please.” That’s how to forgive the things we think that we can’t possibly forgive.

So, if you don’t feel close to God, start by forgiving every grievance you can remember. And then start holding up everyone you know and saying, “Lord, I forgive this person. I don’t want to carry this hurt and this anger and this hatred around with me any more.”
That’s the first step back to God.

And the second step, and the third step, and every step after these, always involve forgiveness in some way.

When Jesus said, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” he meant that we mustn’t carry our hurt feelings from one day to the next. The day is not complete unless we have forgiven everyone we can. We are not complete, we are not whole, until we forgive. When was the last time you forgave someone? If you can’t remember, it’s been too long.

When Jesus told Peter, “I didn’t tell you to forgive the other person seven times. I’m tellng you seventy times seven,” Jesus was talking about making forgiveness as a way of life.

Forgiveness is not optional for Christians. If you want to be a follower of Jesus Christ, you have to learn how to forgive.

You can do lots of things that are optional – you can sing loudly, or not sing at all. You can come to Sunday School, or you can read the Bible on your own. You can do all kinds of things.

But if you don’t forgive, you haven’t learned the most important lesson Jesus taught. Jesus came into the world to show people how much God loves us. And he came into the world, to tell us to forgive.

When Jesus on the cross prayed, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing”, he was showing us how to live. Jesus forgave the people who killed him. He forgives all of us, for the un-repayable debts we owe. If he can do that, surely we can forgive all the other stuff.

Jesus taught us that to live is to love; to love, we have to forgive; and as we forgive, we enter into one another’s hearts, and into the very heart of God.

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