Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 17, 2017
Matthew 18:21-35 Commentary
Matthew 18 reminds us of a core Christian conviction: Forgiveness is something we live, something we embody, every moment. But that only stands to reason. After all, the very foundation on which our identity as Christians is built is nothing less than the death and resurrection of Jesus and the flood of gracious forgiveness which that grand sacrifice unleashed.
“Forgiven” is who and what we just are. Forgiveness is not a tool you need just once in a while. Forgiveness is not like that Phillips screwdriver that you keep out in the garage and that you fetch now and then when a kitchen cabinet is loose (and when a regular flat-head screwdriver won’t work). Forgiveness is not a specialty tool to be utilized occasionally.
Forgiveness is more like the clothes on your back. You don’t generally walk around the house naked and you surely never leave the house without some kind of attire covering you. Forgiveness is more like that: it goes with you, accompanies you, and is needed by you everywhere you go.
So what does this imply?
For one thing it implies that each and every one of us needs to be forgiven by God, and by others, every day. We need to be forgiven about as often, if not more often, as we need to eat. True, most days we are not guilty of anything huge. Most days we are not carrying around with us the burden of having committed adultery, of having embezzled money from our company, or of having been convicted of drunk driving. But there are always a slew of smaller sins, lapses, and faults. There are always those dark thoughts we’re glad no one else can see.
Seeing forgiveness as every much a daily matter as eating and drinking puts each of us into perspective. As Lewis B. Smedes once put it in a burst of alliteration: Forgiveness Fits Faulty Folks. The more keenly aware you are of your getting that gift every day, the more inclined you will be to distribute it to those who are in need of a healing, restorative word from you.
Someone once said that the scariest word in the entire New Testament is that tiny little word “as” in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” That vital connection between God’s abiding forgiveness of us and of our in turn forgiving others tells us that we must forgive. It’s the family style for the family of God and it starts with the Father and goes on down from there. This is not some weird demand on God’s part, however. This is not some hoop we must jump through to earn our salvation or to perform like some trained dog just because God enjoys watching us do tricks. No, the reason for the connection between God’s forgiving us and our forgiving others is because of the sheer power of God’s forgiveness. It is so great that it simply must and will change us.
The reason God expects us to forgive as a result of our being forgiven is the same reason you can expect to be wet after diving into a lake: water is wet and when you immerse yourself in it, you get wet. So also with forgiving grace: grace is magnetic and beautiful. When God immerses you in grace and saves your life eternally by it, you will be dripping with grace yourself. You will be full of grace and truth and so spread it to others. God forgives us daily. We forgive others daily. Forgiveness is our lifestyle. It’s our habit.
That very much seems to be Jesus’ point in Matthew 18.
Everyone who preaches is forced to do what the Common Lectionary also does; namely, preach on segments of the Bible. So the temptation is always there to zero in on the text at hand and forget about the all-important CON-text of any given passage. In this case, Matthew 18:21-35 cannot be seen in isolation from the previous Lectionary lection of Matthew 18:15-20. There we were given Jesus’ now-famous multi-step “method” by which to deal with those in the “church” who sin repeatedly and fail to repent. At the end of the day, Jesus says that when all good-faith efforts have failed to get this person’s attention, the offender must be put out of the church and treated like “a pagan or a tax collector.” And that would seem to be that. Unless, that is, you keep reading on to verses 21-35 after which one must conclude that whatever else it may mean to treat someone like a pagan or a tax collector, it apparently does not mean that this person’s exiled status relieves you of at least the desire to forgive him after all. We’re never finished with forgiving offenders. Not ever. What’s more, we should never want to be finished either.
In his memorable sermon “The Gospel as Hyperbole,” Fred Craddock points out that Jesus most assuredly had a way with words and with exaggeration as a way to get his points across. When it comes to conveying the sheer size of the gospel and of faith, Jesus refused to do what a lot of preachers today do; namely, make the gospel neat, tidy, manageable, as though the whole thing could get contained in pithy slogans and forty days of purpose or something. The problem with a lot of preaching, Craddock lamented, is that the gospel as presented is just not big enough. There’s not enough size to faith these days.
Jesus used hyperbole to get the point across. Jesus was not adverse to talking about someone’s walking around with an entire log protruding from his eyeball, or pondering a camel’s squeezing through the eye of a sewing needle, or someone’s swallowing a camel but gagging on a gnat, or telling a whole mountain to take a swan dive into the sea.
In Matthew 18 Jesus says that a certain servant had racked up a debt equivalent to thousands of lifetimes’ worth of wages.
Or as Craddock put it of this servant, “Now he has maxed out the card!”
So do we all. So do we all.
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