The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant has always been one of my favourites, but ever since I began working with young people it has become a very tricky one for me. The story is found in Matthew 18:23-35 and I’m sure you know it. In quick summary a king forgives a servant who owes him sixteen trillion dollars and then that same servant goes out and throttles his mate who owes him twenty-three cents. The king finds out, does his block, and puts the first servant back in gaol for being such a Grinch. In the same way we need to forgive the trifles of those who sin against us because of our awesome gratitude for the mountains of personal garbage which God put on Christ Crucified. As Jesus explains: this is how my Heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart. This has not been a problem for me because I love God too much to say, and I know He loves me logarithmically more than I love Him. I have never been hideously naughty, but God has forgiven me for stuff I am ashamed to even think about, and beyond forgiving God is helping me to forget it just as He has. I have the brilliantest God: I love Him so much.
So imagine you are seventeen and the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life is that one time when you were twelve and you nicked $50 from your mum’s bag before going down the Northern, flogging a bottle of black label from the drive-thru, spending the $50 on smokes and then hiding around your boyfriend’s place for three days of smoking, drinking and pashing yourselves stupid while your mum went out of her mind worried at your disappearance. That’s pretty bad, and as you sit and chat with the school chaplain you know that you owe mum and the man at the Northern an apology. And probably $50. Each. Perhaps, if the chaplain is brave enough to suggest it, you might even acknowledge your need for God’s forgiveness because you have broken two of the Ten Commandments: you disrespected your mother and you stole. Actually it’s three commandments if it happened on a Sunday because that’s the Christian Sabbath.
Now imagine you are seventeen and the worst thing that’s ever been done to you is that one time when your dad raped you. What if it happened eleven years ago, when you were six?
I can just imagine the conversation from there. Answer this one for me King Jesus: who owes who ten thousand years’ wages now, and who owes who a hundred days’ wages? Let me get this straight: because I can’t forgive my dad for doing unspeakable things to me when I was little, God cannot forgive me and will send me to be tortured in Hell for the sake of $50 and a few stolen kisses. But if my dad asks you to forgive him for what he did to me, and then he forgives me for making my mum upset, he will go to Heaven? Is that what you are telling me? Thank you for forgiving my sins, but if you’re gonna make my forgiving my dad’s sins the condition for your forgiving mine, then you can stick your grace.
Some of the children I worked with believe in the God of grace, and they don’t want to know Him. They ask “how can I worship a God that will forgive my dad as much as me? I can see that I am a bad daughter and a shoplifter, but my dad is an incestuous child molester and I was the child.” Hmm, they’ve kinda got a point there.
What if, as you see it, what you have done against God is outweighed by what others have done against you? What if you believe in a God who knows and sees all, but did nothing to stop those things being done against you? “Let me get this straight” you ask, “I have to forgive all that sin that God did nothing to protect me from. I have to forgive the horrible people who did those things to me, and then I have to ask that stand-by-and do-nothing-type God to forgive me for childishness and misbehaviour that is so insignificant compared to what I went through? And if I do that only then will God be pleased with me?”
No wonder the gospel is such a hard-sell these days; Amazing Grace can really suck as a message at times.
So how are we feeling so far? Ha ha, and you thought high school chaplaincy was about handing out free toast and helping Scripture Union to plan youth-friendly concerts.
The gospel we proclaim is a gospel of the grace found in forgiving others. It can be surprising to us how many kids know they need grace, but it really shouldn’t be. Undeserved mercy and favour is what kids live on. Unconditional love is what good parents do, and even poorly parented kids know that because love without limits is what they see they are missing. The need for people to be forgiven and to have the opportunity to make a fresh start is a gimmie for many: but the necessity to offer forgiveness and compassion to “those who sin against us” in life-changing ways lives in the category of foolishness to the Greeks. The gospel we proclaim is defined by this: forgiveness means giving up the right for revenge. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Forgiveness does not mean that what was done was acceptable in any way, or that perpetrators should not face consequences. Forgiveness does not mean that perpetrators must be welcomed back into my life. There is great strength and divine justice in being able to say to someone “I forgive you, now get out of my life.” Of course this is not the answer for every conflict, but in some cases that sort of “grace of steel” is the cutters that can release someone once and for all from an abusive past so that they can fall into an abundantly loving and caring future found only in Jesus Christ.
The gift of the grace of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with the character or activities of the person you forgive. You need to offer grace so that you can move on; not only so you can receive the grace of Jesus (forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us) but also so that you can be free of the anger and bitterness which is holding you back from fully embracing the future and enjoying an extravagantly abundant life. Your anger only punishes you: let it go and let God sort them out for you.
This is a cause that moves Heaven to tears. Wicked outcomes are likely when children are seen as a lower priority in society or a second-best option. This is why youth work is of such importance. But wickedness is also the likely outcome when grace is overlooked in favour of revenge, or the pre-emptive strike, no matter how old the victims of abuse.
To be totally forgiven is to be released from sin: your sin and their sin because if you can’t give forgiveness you can’t receive it. It’s not that God refuses to forgive you unless you first forgive others; all sin was forgiven at Calvary and there is no unforgivable sin except the sin of unbelief. The point of Jesus’ story was that if you carry a root of bitterness in your heart you won’t be able to access that peace which passes all understanding which the grace of God brings. Your sins will be blotted out in God’s book, but you’ll continue to live a life of pain if others’ sins are not blotted out in your book.
One of my favourite definitions says that sin is the vandalism of shalom. It comes from the theologian Cornelius Plantinga. This idea sits well in this situation: don’t let anger spray paint all over your joy; and don’t let the grudge that you carry rip out the upholstery of your peace.
I used to work in a gaol. You learn a lot about crime and punishment when you work in a gaol. Inside our gaol we had 768 prisoners. Outside our gaol we had none; well, none that we could see anyway. But I wonder; if the man who had done something nasty to me or my family was locked-up in a particular gaol, and I knew he was there, wouldn’t I want to camp outside that gaol day and night to make sure he was being punished properly? Would you do that? Of course you wouldn’t, and neither would I. We could be angry about the crime, and angry at the man, but we’d leave the punishing up to the officers and governors of that gaol because that is their job. In the same way our God says “vengeance is mine”, not because our God is a God of vengeance, but because God’s people are not supposed to be a people of vengeance. Plantinga entitled his book about sin “Not the way it’s supposed to be.” What has been done to you may well suck, but Jesus died so that you could live free from that. A life filled with vengeance and hatred driven by an identity of “I’m the victim of crime” is not the way it’s supposed to be.
So let’s get back to the Bible. In Matthew 18:34 the evil to be punished by the torturer is not the debt of the unforgiving servant, but his decision not to freely extend grace another. The God of Golgotha hates our lack of mercy because it stops God from being merciful toward the victims of crime. Mercy is wasted on the merciless: and those who have the greatest pain and the greatest need for grace are often the very ones cut off from it. This too is a cause which brings Heaven to tears.
I say to pastors when they invite me to speak that whatever the topic they give me, the outcome would be a message on social justice. Anything I say, and most of the things I do, comes back to social justice. But in this case I feel justified by the editors of scripture as my Poverty and Justice Bible has highlighted key phrases of this story in orange ink. I wonder what their thinking was. This story illustrates one key for me with respect to the girl I mentioned earlier; grace and justice don’t compute. Retribution doesn’t happen in a world ruled by grace, indeed in this king’s case it wasn’t until grace was refused by the unmerciful servant that he rescinded the pardon and handed the man over to the law. The whole of the Bible is very clear on this message: live by the law and you will die by the law, but live by grace and you will LIVE by grace.
But getting back to youth work. As Christians we know that we can’t truly forgive until we’ve been forgiven; I must have experienced grace before I can offer it to another. Christian and non-Christian children grow up with patient and loving parents, and they learn to love patiently. If a child does not grow up with love and patience then the results of that are seen in the child’s life. Patience and forgiveness are normal; but normal patience has limits. Only God, and those who are enabled by God to love as God loves, can show unlimited patience and truly unconditional love. A forgiving spirit will always express and accept forgiveness, it’s never one without the other.
The message we proclaim as Christians is that it is up to the individual to take the initiative to forgive those who have sinned against you, (Matthew 18:15), but that you can only do this from a place of first having been forgiven by grace. Even the most unchurched of children knows about grace because they have seen it: the grace of God the Father is hidden in every supportive human adult. Grace cannot be offered unsupported because for people grace is unnatural.
Jesus’ teaching in this story follows four other stories which were gathered together to make up Matthew 18. Together these stories present grace as a dynamic within the fellowship of believers and a fundamental characteristic of the local church. In fact this passage is one of only two places in the gospels where Jesus specifically uses the word “church”; here he is specifically referring to a local congregation. It is the church which supports the act of conciliation and forgiveness in the lives of those who belong to it: that is why it is the role of school chaplains as local Christians to be part of this conversation. These kids may not belong to you, but they belong to me, and I belong to you. This is why I need your support in what I do, not because I need money to offer toast and Milo to empty tummies but because I need grace to offer oil and wine to broken hearts.
The message we can all give to the girl I spoke of earlier is not that God refuses to forgive the unforgiving. The message is that the unforgiving lack the humble attitude that would release them to seek and accept forgiveness, and frees them to extend it to those who don’t deserve the time of day from us. It’s the two sides of a single coin, or the two wings of the one dove. Which wing on a bird is more important, the right or the left? It’s a bit of a silly question, but grace works the same way. It is equally important to both give and receive forgiveness because one on its own can only send you spiralling into the landscape, or at the very least make you walk in circles.
In truth the amount of money owed in each transaction didn’t matter. The relative depravity or effect of the sin each one of us brings before Jesus is beside the point. What matters is that whatever is owed to God, God forgives each sinner the same amount. All. Now we can argue that the girl’s all might be a lot smaller than her dad’s all, but even in Bible College authorised New Testament Greek the word “all” means all. We each acknowledge that the shed blood of Jesus Christ is sufficient to save both the girl and her dad from their sins. What the girl needs to hear is that the same blood and the same death is also sufficient to save her from the sins of her dad, if she is prepared to accept that all means all.
And so to the application phase. “All good so far Damien, but what do we do about it”? Well I’m glad you asked because there are two key outcomes.
1. As Christian women and men we must allow God to work God’s healing in us, to redeem our histories and to save us from the destructiveness of hating our enemies. I hope you’ve got that from what I’ve already said this morning because I don’t want to say much more about that now. However, if you are struggling with the actual work of trying to forgive someone who has acted heinously toward you then I invite you to come and find me or one of the team and allow us to pray with you. Being Church means no one has to defeat the demons of the past on their own. There are Christians here this morning who are ready to help you in any way you need. Just ask, and do so quietly later on if you want.
2. As local Christians and members of the Church in our cities and towns we must see to it that no child is disqualified from an abundant life because of the sinfulness of their significant adults. If we had time we could read in the next chapter from Matthew (Matthew 19:14) that when his disciples prevented a mob of children from approaching him Jesus was indignant. For those of you who speak Bible College approved New Testament Greek this is the same word indignant that the Ten felt towards James and John when the sought the cushy seats in Heaven, and the same indignant that Judas Iscariot felt about Mary wasting her jar of spikenard all over Jesus’ feet in the days before his burial. This Jesus is not some meek smiley man going gooey over the ickle wickle bubby wubbies, but the Lord of All Glory thundering that such as these must no longer be inhibited. It says in Matthew 18:3-6 that Jesus had told the Twelve that children are important and that entry to the Kingdom depends upon having a childlike spirit. The God Jesus revealed is searching for those who have a spirit like a child’s; not a childish spirit of selfishness and squabbling but a childlike spirit that is trusting and open, uncomplicated and obedient. There are children in our city who have had their trust and openness stolen from them and who are destined to a life of complication and disobedience if they are not shown that grace release them from all of that into another way. That lie of a life, that you are a worthless piece of nothing left over from your early childhood’s tragedies, has got to stop. More than that it has got to be fixed and fixed right now.
So who’s with us?