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Tales With a Twist: Forgiven! Forgotten! Forever!

Matthew 18:23-35

It is no accident that Abraham Lincoln is regarded as the most admired President we have ever had in this country. Two quick glimpses into his character are enough to prove the point…

Back during the War Between the States, a young teenage boy enlisted as a soldier in the Union Army. He lied about his age and got in, but he wasn’t ready for what was ahead. He was too young. Consequently, when he found himself for the first time engaged in combat, he became terrified. He ran away. Later on, he was apprehended, arrested, tried, found guilty of desertion and sentenced to death by firing squad. His parents wrote a letter to President Lincoln pleading for mercy for their young son. Touched by their letter, the President called for the facts in the case, and when he saw what the situation was, he overruled the death sentence and granted the teenage boy a full presidential pardon. In his official statement explaining his action, Lincoln wrote these words: “Over the years, I have observed that it does not do a boy much good to shoot him!”

On another occasion, some months later, as the Civil War was winding down and it was obvious that the Union cause would prevail, someone asked President Lincoln how he would treat the Southerners after the war was over. He answered: “Like they had never been away.” The questioner protested: “But Mr. President, aren’t we supposed to destroy our enemies?” Lincoln calmly responded with a question of his own: “Don’t we destroy our enemies when we make them our friends?”

It is that gracious, forgiving spirit which has so endeared Abraham Lincoln to all who have come after him and so enshrined him as one of history’s greatest leaders. There is something so appealing and attractive about a gracious, merciful, forgiving spirit when we see it lived out in the human life.

In fact, I suspect that most of us would agree that mercy stands at the forefront of the human virtues. We endorse it, affirm it, applaud it—and with good reason, which becomes clear when we consider the alternative: vengeance, bitterness, resentment, harsh grudges, brooding anger, seething vindictiveness, burning hostility. These are toxic spiritual poisons—they will contaminate your spirit and destroy your soul. That hateful, unforgiving spirit does not a pretty picture make. It’s like a spiritual narcotic that slowly but surely imprisons and devours the user. It’s like the Frankenstein monster that turns on its owner. It’s like the raging fire that annihilates the arsonist. It’s like the mad scientist who builds a bomb to use on others, only to have it blow up in his own hands. A merciful, forgiving spirit, on the other hand, brings the best out of us and makes the best of us.
Forgiveness is an overflowing spirit. It keeps no score of wrongs. It holds no grudges. It plots no revenge. It seeks no retaliation. If you doubt that, then look at Jesus hanging on the cross, dying as hideous a death as the world has ever known, and yet, forgiving the very ones who put him there. He is our standard. His words and actions are our measuring stick. To be Christian is to be Christ-like, and that means to have His gracious, loving, forgiving ways. My friend David McKechnie puts it quite unforgettably: “The love of Jesus Christ—you cannot pay it back. You can only pass it on!” I want to build this sermon today around those words.

The love of Jesus Christ—we cannot pay it back.

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 have put up a sign which 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 forgiving grace of God in Jesus Christ and life becomes the seedbed for hatred and hostility.

Anticipating that reality, Jesus delivered Himself of one of the most powerful parables He ever told. It’s called “the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.” It’s found in Matthew 18. It’s the story of a man who worked in the service of the king and who owed a monstrous debt to the king. How large was the debt? 10,000 talents. In those days, that was the equivalent of ten million dollars. But let’s put that figure in its proper context. The entire annual revenue generated by the great Roman Empire was in the neighborhood of one million dollars—an enormous sum in and of itself. Therefore, for this one man to owe ten million dollars was an impossible debt. No way could the man have repaid it. And yet this fellow says to the king: “Just give me some time and I will make it good.” At that point in the story, the people listening to Jesus would have laughed out loud at the absurdity of it all. They knew that the average annual wage in those days was about $80 a year. It would have taken this fellow 125,000 years to repay that debt.

Then 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. Didn’t reduce the debt. Didn’t stagger the debt. Didn’t ask the man to work it off. Didn’t put him on a repayment plan. Didn’t refinance the loan. Just canceled it, free and clear. And who is the king in the story? It’s God. Jesus is saying: “That’s what God has done for us. He has canceled the debt we owe. He has absorbed it Himself. 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 and Christ was dying on it. The Bible says that we owe a debt to God so big that we can never repay it. And so God says: “I’ll pay it.” Jesus Christ died to pay the debt rung up by your sins and mine. Here’s an easy way to remember it: Christ was hung up for our hang-ups. That’s what Christianity is all about. I mean, even if there were no heaven, it would still be worth it to become a Christian just to have a clear, clean conscience and just to have the chance to start all over again in life.

Do you understand how deep God’s grace really is? Do you understand that there is no place you can go, no word you can speak, no crime you can commit, no deed you can do or not do which God in Jesus Christ will not forgive? Christ paid the price of forgiveness. That’s the kind of love He has for you and for me. The cost of that love is so great that we cannot pay it back.

The love of Jesus Christ—we cannot pay it back; we can only pass it on.

A multitude of stories surround the painting of “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci. We don’t know which stories are true and which are legendary, but there is one story which does have about it the ring of truth. It seems that Leonardo had an enemy, a man who had gotten to him and triggered his anger and filled him with hatred. So when it came time to paint the face of Judas in “The Last Supper”, guess whose face Leonardo used. With great malice, he carefully painted this man’s face onto the body of Judas. Here was to be his revenge. For thousands of years, whenever anyone looked at Judas, they would see this fellow whom Leonardo hated. However, when Leonardo then turned to the task of painting the face of Jesus, he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t come up with the right image. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get it right. Interestingly enough, it was only when he went back and changed the damage he had done to this other man that he could go on to complete his masterpiece. 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. In the story, the man who had been forgiven this enormous ten-million-dollar debt, then encountered a friend of his who owed him 20 bucks. He demanded that the fellow pay the debt, and when he couldn’t pay, had him thrown in jail. The crowd of listeners would have gasped at that point—why the very idea of being forgiven for so much but then being unwilling to forgive so little! And Jesus quickly said to them: “Watch out that you do not do the same thing!”

It’s a warning we would 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: “What’s the best thing I can do for this?” The doctor, knowing the man’s lifestyle, said: “Each day after work, go home, have a good meal 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 and said: “Well, what’s the next best thing I can do?” That’s the way we are about forgiveness. We know that forgiveness is the answer. But we continue to ask: “What’s the next best thing we can do?” Well, Jesus, in this parable says that there is no next best thing—forgiveness is the only answer.

Did you read the editorial in our paper the other day by Philip Terzian? He was speaking of one of the most astonishing events of recent times but one to which the news media gave scant attention. It took place in Paris, just a few days before the tragic death of Princess Diana in that same city. This is what Terzian wrote: “Here was the spectacle of a frail, 77-year-old Roman Catholic prelate, Pope John Paul II, attracting approximately one million European young people to an outdoor mass and a stern lecture on morality.” How do you account for that? What is there about a frail old man, shuffling toward the end of his life, which holds such magnetic power over all those young people? Most people trace it back to January, 1984, the day the world was thunderstruck when Pope John Paul went to Rebibbia Prison in Rome to offer pardon and forgiveness 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 and the accompanying article carried these words: “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 doesn’t 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. Jesus said that the forgiveness we receive means something only when we pass it on. Like Leonardo, once we are forgiving toward others, then, and only then, can we see the face of Jesus.

Let me finish with this.

Some years ago in New England, a woman became angry with a pastor. She began to harass him in every way she could think of. She started ugly rumors about him. She ran him down in her daily conversation. She wrote vicious letters to him and about him. She made false accusations against him. She appealed to his bishop to discipline him. She turned his life into an unending nightmare. After several months, this woman moved to another city, and some time later, she was converted to Christ. Part of the pain of her conversion was the realization of the terrible wrong and the deep pain she had inflicted upon that New England pastor. Finally, she sat down and wrote a long letter to him explaining what had happened to her and how deeply she regretted what she had done to him. She asked him to accept her apology. She mailed the letter. Two days later, she received a telegram from that pastor. It consisted of three words—”FORGIVEN! FORGOTTEN! FOREVER!”

My beloved, that’s what our Lord has written across His relationship to us: “Forgiven! Forgotten! Forever!” Now that is what He calls us to write over our relationships with others:

“FORGIVEN! FORGOTTEN! FOREVER!”

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