I was in the bullpen Sunday, the provisional preacher in case the one who was scheduled was called away at the last minute.
So I prepared a back-up sermon, went to bed early with a horrible headache and woke Sunday morning with the pain still raging. I took a maximum strength Sudafed, put a heating pad on my face and prayed the preacher would show.
He did, thank you Jesus.
I sat gratefully and gingerly in one of the back pews – careful not to move my head too much, the pain just barely masked and threatening to break through full force at the slightest wrong move – and listened to plan A’s take on the passage, which went in a completely different direction from mine.
While sipping coffee in fellowship hall a woman asked whether I would give my sermon another time. “Probably not,” I said, “since the lectionary will have moved on to a new passage.”
But wait a minute, I can give my sermon another time. I can give it to you right now. I can turn my tentative sermon into a definite blog post. Lest it go to waste.
The gospel reading was from Matthew:
Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” – Matthew 18:21-35
“Forgiveness,” our pastor said the previous Sunday, “is the hardest thing Jesus asks us to do.”
I pondered why that is and came up with a few possibilities:
1. We don’t understand how it works.
Josh McDowell explains it best:
“… let’s say my daughter breaks a lamp in my home. I’m a loving and forgiving father, so I put her on my lap, and I hug her and I say, “Don’t cry, honey. Daddy loves you and forgives you.” Now usually the person I tell that story to says, “Well, that’s what God ought to do.” Then I ask the question, “Who pays for the lamp?” (More Than a Carpenter p.156)
Who pays for the lamp? It’s such a brilliant question. It completely redirects our skewed thinking.
I’ll forgive him/her/them after they’ve suffered enough, is what we think. After I have exacted enough payment. After they are sufficiently sorry for what they’ve done.
That thinking completely misses the point.
It is the forgiver who pays for the lamp, not the offender. That is what makes forgiveness so hard, that is what makes it so great – the innocent party pays!
Forgiveness says, “I’ll pay for that.”
“I’ll pay for that, too.”
“And for that, and that, and that.”
Which brings us to what makes it so hard #2.
2. We haven’t really looked at the price-tag.
I can’t afford to pay for all those lamps, we think, I’m not rich (financially, spiritually, emotionally). I can’t absorb all that cost.
And that brings us to our parable.
The first guy – the really rich guy – forgave a huge debt because he could easily afford to do so.
But the guy who was forgiven wasn’t rich. So he harshly demanded payment from some guy who was as not-rich as he was.
And that’s what we do. We flippantly accept God’s forgiveness because we think He can easily absorb the cost. We think that all of our many, many lamps combined are a mere drop in His vast ocean.
We think our sins against God are like pilfering pencils from the supply room of Ford Motor Company, but when someone sins against us they are taking food from the mouths of our babes.
We think this way because we haven’t taken a good look at the price-tag.
We parrot a phrase that never really made sense to me: “All sin is the same.”
But all sin is not the same – my little white lie told to spare someone’s feelings is not the same as a mass act of terrorism.
All sin is not the same but all sin does carry the same price tag.
“For the wages of sin is death.” – Romans
“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” – Hebrews
No matter how small or insignificant we deem them to be, our broken lamps all carry the same huge price tag, which is not as easily absorbed as we like to think.
I sometimes picture God readily handing out volumes of forgiveness vouchers to each of us when, in fact, He handed out One voucher to all of us. And we only come face to face with the itemized invoice once a year on Good Friday.
Okay, you might be thinking (if you’re like me) it wasn’t easy for God to pay for our lamps, but…
3. If I give my heart to you, I’ll have none and you’ll have two.
Why should the offender keep getting away with it? Why should I keep having to pay for the carelessness of others?
Because God did/does.
“Be holy because I am holy.”
And look what paying for our lamps got Jesus – a seat with the Father in glory.
You won’t be left with nothing, while the perp has two.
It may seem like the story I’m about to tell has nothing to do with this principle, but it does.
When I was in high school, I dated a basketball player. He was a starter on the varsity team as a mere 10th grader. I went to a huge high school so that was a really big deal – it’s not like we were desperate for players.
I had been dating this player for a year when the seniors on the team started to tease him about not having sex, so he started to pressure me.
I said, “No, we’re too young.”
I should have said, “No, we’re not married,” because sex is a matter of marital status, not age, but I didn’t know anything back then.
Anyway, I kept saying no so he dumped me.
He immediately started dating a girl who had had a crush on him for a looong time. She was more than willing to do whatever she needed to do.
And she did.
And as soon as she did, he lost respect and dumped her.
So, we both got dumped – me for saying no and her for saying yes.
But I still had my self respect, the respect of my friends, my virginity and apparently the respect of the b’ball player.
Because he wanted me back.
No, thank you.
So don’t worry that the lamp breakers are going to get away with it, or get ahead of you financially, emotionally, et ceterally.
Just say, “Yes, I’ll pay for that.”
“And for that and that and that.”
And enjoy your self-respect.
And the camaraderie and esteem of the One who sits contentedly on the throne.
The parable Jesus told was in response to Peter’s question about forgiving another member of the church.
But those outside the church have issues with forgiveness, too.
I know someone who suffered a lot in her youth. I don’t know how much, exactly. I don’t know if it was much more or less than anyone else. But to her it was a lot.
So she has the idea that she has already pre-paid for any sins she might commit. She took it. She took it all without complaint for all those years and God owes her.
She doesn’t need His forgiveness, He needs hers.
I guess this falls under not getting a good look at the price-tag.
She may have paid for the lamps of others with her innocent little girl heart and soul, but she didn’t shed innocent blood on a horrific cross.
And it also falls under not understanding how forgiveness works.
You can’t pre-pay for your own sins because with forgiveness, the innocent party pays and you are not the innocent party.
That is what makes forgiveness so powerful. Perhaps it’s why Jesus tied it to love.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Luke 7:44-47.
Love says, I’ll pay for yours because He paid for mine.
And we are both poor.