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Tales With a Twist: A Forgiving God In An Unforgiving World

Matthew 18:21-35

In the Book of Hebrews 12:15, we read these words: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble.”

Whenever I read those words, I think of Paula D’Arcy. Back in 1974, Paul D’Arcy, her husband, Roy, and their two-year-old daughter, Sarah, were driving down a main thoroughfare. Roy was driving. Paula turned to look in the back seat at Sarah who was beginning to cry. She tended to Sarah, turned back and looked out the front windshield a split second before a white automobile careened headlong into their car, taking the life of Roy and little Sarah. Paula D’Arcy chronicled the story of her grief, her struggles, her bitterness and her anger in a powerful book entitled A Song For Sarah. She continued the story in a second book called, Where Does the Wind Begin? There she describes her feelings as she sat in the courtroom looking at the man who was driving the other car, a drunken driver, the one responsible for the deaths of her husband and her little girl.

What would you feel? There you are seated in a wooden chair, surrounded by lawyers, judges, and the jury, and seated across the courtroom is one who has destroyed everything you hold dear. You’ve not seen him since the wreck, you’ve never seen his face, but you’ve seen it a thousand times in your nightmares. What do you do with him? Of course, you have been there, haven’t you? Not in a courtroom perhaps. But you’ve been there as you looked into the eyes of the one you called “Dad” and realized that he gave you more grief than guidance in your life. You’ve been in Paula D’Arcy’s shoes. You’ve been there late at night as you looked across and saw on your mantle the pictures of the one who promised to be with you forever, but who, not long ago, said: “I don’t love you anymore”, and turned and walked away. You’ve been there. You’ve been there as you walked through the office and saw the employee sitting at the desk which should have been yours, but just because he knew what words to say or what strings to pull, he got the promotion and the paycheck and you didn’t. Yes, you’ve been there when you look at your children and you have to remind them to call you—you raised them, met their every need, sent them to college, but now they are so busy. You’ve been there where Paula D’Arcy was, what do you do? I’m going to tell you later what Paula D’Arcy did, but let me tell you for now who the prisoner was in that courtroom. The prisoner was not the one shackled and in prison garb. The prisoner was Paula D’Arcy. She admitted that. She said that she had locked herself away in a prison called resentment. Have you ever been there?

But before I tell you what happened to Paula D’Arcy, let me tell you the story of a man who received more grace than one could ever hope or imagine, but because of his inability to redirect that grace to someone else, he ended up in prison. It is the story told by Jesus in Matthew 18 and from that story we can glean three points—the call of forgiveness, the cost of forgiveness, and the consequences of forgiveness. Let’s look at the story together…

First, there is in this story the call of forgiveness.

Maybe you’ve heard the joke about the lady who was walking down the street and she heard a frog. She looked down and the frog said: “If you’ll kiss me, I’ll turn into a Presbyterian preacher.” So she leaned down, picked him up and put him in her pocket. He cried out: “Didn’t you hear me? If you kiss me, I’ll turn into a Presbyterian preacher.” She said: “I’d rather have a frog!” Well, there are some people in life we’d rather not kiss, some people we wish were frogs. Those are the people who are like sandpaper in our lives—they rub us raw. They get on our nerves. They hurt and wound us by the things they say or the things they do. Who are these people in your life? Don’t look at them, for heaven’s sake. I see some of you starting to look around. Don’t look at them, but you know who they are, and you know how you feel about them.

Simon Peter must have had someone like that in his life, because one day, he came to Jesus and said: “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother?” Parenthesis. The term “my brother” might be literal. Do you know that 90% of all resentment in the human experience occurs within the family, with those who are close, with those with whom we have to deal regularly. Like the little jingle says: “To dwell above with those we love/ That will be a glory/ But to dwell below with those we know/ That’s another story!” Close parenthesis. Peter said to Jesus: “How often must I forgive my brother?” Of course Peter knew the Jewish law: Forgive a first offense, a second and a third, but punish the fourth. Forgive three times, but then get even! That was the law and Peter knew it. But maybe he was trying to impress Jesus with his magnanimous spirit, so he went beyond the law. He said: “Lord, shall I forgive him seven times?” He expected from Jesus a word of hearty affirmation, but Jesus’ reply takes a surprising twist. He said: “No, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” In other words, forgiveness should be unlimited. Forgive an untold, never-ending number of times. For the Jews, the number “7” was the number of perfection. When time has run through seven days, it is complete; the cycle begins again. So Jesus was forcibly conveying the message that forgiveness is to be unlimited-seventy times seven times.

Forgiveness is not a matter of arithmetic anyway. It is not a matter of saying: “How many times must I hold off before I hit back?” No, forgiveness is an overflowing spirit. It keeps no score of wrongs. It holds no grudges. It plots no revenge. It seeks no retaliation. “Should I forgive the person who has hurt me or wronged me?” If that question ever comes to your mind, then remember the picture of Christ hanging on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them!” That is our standard. That is our measuring stick. That is the inspiration for Christian forgiveness. To be Christian is to be Christ-like. It is to have His gracious and forgiving ways.

So Jesus was saying to Peter: “Forgive and keep on forgiving.” You see, Jesus knew that the only thing that can hold this world together is forgiveness. The only thing that will hold your relationships together, your friendships together, your church together—the only thing that will hold this world together—the only thing that will hold your life together is grace. Fred Smith is a Christian businessman from Dallas, Texas. He travels and speaks a lot. Sometime when he speaks, he holds up a hand that is withered, deformed, virtually useless. And he will say: “This withered hand hurts me, but it is a fact. There’s nothing I can do about it. It’s a part of the life. But I have decided not to be controlled by yesterday’s hurts.” That’s the spirit which ought to be ours. It’s a fact that we are going to be hurt and wronged in life. But it’s also a fact that we have to forgive. There is no alternative. There is no choice. Puny is the mind that lives in yesterday. Great is the mind that lives toward tomorrow. There is the call to forgiveness. Jesus said: “Forgive, and keep on forgiving.”

Next, we see in this story the cost of forgiveness.

Just outside of Austin, Texas, there is a church building which has been sold to a karate institute. They’ve taken the cross down from the building, and in place of the cross, they’ve put up a sign that says “Learn Karate.” They didn’t intend the symbolism, I suppose, but it’s there. You take down the cross, the fights start. You ignore what God did for us, and the conflict breaks out. You miss the grace of God in Jesus Christ and the roots of bitterness spring up. Anticipating that reality, Jesus told the story of the man who owed an incredible debt to the king. How large was the debt? 10,000 talents. In those days, it was the equivalent of ten million dollars. Let’s put the figure in its context. The entire annual revenue generated by the great Roman Empire was less than 800,000 dollars. For one man to owe ten million dollars then was an impossible debt. No way the man could have repaid it. Yet, he says to the king: “Give me some time and I will make it good.” At that point in the story, the people listening to Jesus would have laughed at the absurdity of it all. They knew that the average annual wage was 80 dollars a year. It would have taken this fellow 125,000 years to repay that debt!

So, having set the stage of this overwhelming debt, Jesus suddenly gives the tale a surprising twist. He says that the king canceled the debt. Wiped it right off the books. He didn’t reduce the debt. He didn’t stagger the debt. He didn’t ask the man to work it off. He didn’t put him on a payment plan. The king just canceled the debt. And who is the king in this story? It’s God. Jesus is saying: “That’s what God has done for us.” He’s cancelled the debt we owe. He has absorbed it. He has set us free. Christ paid the price. That’s what God in Jesus Christ came to do. That’s why the cross was there. The Bible says that we owe a debt to God so big that we could never repay it. So God says: “I’ll pay it.” Jesus Christ died to pay the debt created by your sin and mine. Here’s an easy way to remember it: Christ was hung up for our hang-ups! That’s the Good News. I mean, even if there were no heaven it would be worth it to become a Christian just to have a clear, clean conscience and a chance to start all over again in life.

Do you understand how deep God’s grace really is? Can’t you see that there is no place you can go, no crime you can commit, no deed done or left undone which God in Jesus Christ will not forgive? That’s the kind of love God has for you and for me. And that’s the cost of forgiveness.

Then we see in this story the consequences of forgiveness.

Hundreds of stories surround the painting of “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci. We don’t know which are true and which are legendary, but there is one which does have about it the ring of truth. It seems that Leonardo had an enemy, a man who had really gotten to him. So when it came time to paint the face of Judas, guess whose face he used? With great malice he carefully painted that man’s face onto the body of Judas. He would get even with this fellow. For thousands of years whenever anyone saw Judas, they would see that guy. But then when Leonardo turned to paint the face of Jesus, he couldn’t get an image until he went back and changed the damage he had done to this other man. Once he forgave the other fellow, he could then see the face of Jesus.

That’s the point of this last twist in the tale told by Jesus. The man who had been forgiven the ten-million-dollar debt then encountered a friend of his who owed him just 20 bucks. He demanded the fellow pay the debt, and when he couldn’t pay the debt, he had him thrown in jail. The crowd of listeners would have gasped at that point—why the very idea of being forgiven so much but then being unwilling to forgive so little! And Jesus said to them: “Watch out that you do not do the same thing.”

It’s a warning we do well to heed. You see, we love to talk about God’s forgiveness of us, but we are not so quick to be forgiving of others. Did you hear about the fellow who was in miserable physical condition? He went to the doctor complaining of exhaustion, headaches, and weakness. He said: “Doc, what’s the best thing I can do for this?” The doctor, knowing the man’s lifestyle, said: “Each day after work go home and get a good night’s sleep. Stop drinking. Stop carousing. Stop running around all night. That’s the best thing you can do.” The fellow thought for a moment. Then he said: “What’s the next best thing?” That’s the way we are about forgiveness. We know that forgiveness is the answer, but we continue to ask: “But what’s the next best thing I can do.” Jesus, in this parable, says that there is no next best thing. Forgiveness is the only answer.

Back in January 1984, the world was thunderstruck when Pope John Paul went to the Rebibbia Prison in Rome and offered his pardon to the man who had tried to assassinate him. That single act of forgiveness was so shocking that Time Magazine put the picture on its cover with the question “Why Forgive?” In the accompanying story, Lance Morrow wrote: “Christ preached forgiveness, the loving of one’s enemies. The proposition sounds like an invitation to disaster. The prevalent style in the world runs more to the high-plains drifter, to the hard cold eye of the avenger, to a numb remorselessness. Forgiveness does not look much like a tool for survival in a bad world. But that is what it is.” How true. Spoken like the Master. The fact is that we are never closer to God than when we are giving grace like He gives it. The consequence of forgiveness is that we must give it to someone else. And, like Leonardo, once we are forgiving toward others, we can then see the face of Jesus.

Well…

Remember Paula D’Arcy? I promised to tell you what she did that day in the courtroom when she looked for the first time at the man who had killed her family. I’ll let her tell you herself. She wrote: “As I looked at his eyes, a new awareness found me. Instead of being blinded by my own hurt, all I saw was his fear and pain. By some miracle, I was seeing beyond his face and finding the self he could not show. Slowly I realized that I was not, as I had always felt, the only survivor of that car wreck. We were both survivors, the two of us. In fact, as our eyes continued to meet, I began to see that his pain was even worse than mine. I then experienced what it is to see another person through Christ’s eyes and to have forgiveness which withholds no love. It had become my nature to love him. What irony! In that moment it was I who was being released. I, who had been a prisoner, was suddenly set free!” Because she did not miss the grace of God, no root of bitterness sprung up to cause trouble.

That’s pretty heavy stuff, so let me finish with something a bit lighter. Back when my kids were young they used to love to read the stories and poems of Shel Silverstein. I remember one of those poems from the book Where The Sidewalk Ends. It is called “Hug O’ War.” It goes like this:

I will not play at tug o’ war
I’d rather play at hug o’ war.
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug
Where everyone kisses
And everyone grins
And everyone cuddles
And everyone wins.

When it comes to forgiveness, Jesus says that we have a choice. We can tug or we can hug. As for me, I think I’d rather hug…

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