Follow by Email

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Grace, Forgiveness and Ingratitude
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church

Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity, 2010

Matthew 18:23 "Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.”

How do you feel when you have done something for someone and it is rejected? Or, how do you feel when you have helped someone out, perhaps in a major way, and it is not appreciated? We all know that it is not a good feeling.

In today’s Gospel, we hear about all of this in an amazing story of grace, forgiveness and ingratitude in a brief parable from our Lord Jesus Christ. In it, Christ speaks to all of these topics, but focuses on one of the central themes in all of Christianity: forgiveness. Matthew relates how Peter came to Jesus and asked, in Matthew 18:21, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" What an interesting question!, Maybe some of us might wonder why Peter sought to quantify forgiveness, or even to number the amount of times a person might receive it from another. Perhaps one answer for this quandary on Peter’s part lies in the fact that the Prophet Amos set forgiveness to three times and gives a warning that God may not withhold punishment for the fourth trespass (Amos 1:3-13; 2:1-6). Recall how he thundered in his prophecy, (Amos 1:6) “Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because…” and here he gave various reasons why the fourth offense was unforgiveable. In the same sense, some rabbinic teachers themselves also set a limit on the number of times one might be forgiven to three, in line with the prophecy, perhaps because they thought that repentance on the offender’s part might not be genuine.

Thus, when Peter says, “how many times shall I forgive my brother, up to seven times?” he may have actually thought he was doing well in our Lord’s eyes because he was going beyond the prophetical and rabbinical limit. Yet, Christ, in line with His Divine Character, totally explodes the limited expectation of man by an almost unthinkable degree. He says, Matthew 18:22 “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” To the Hebraic mind, this would have carried a certain amount of resonance mainly because of the principle of vengeance being carried out seventy times seven as was first stated in the Book of Genesis, chapter 4. Here Jesus characteristically fulfills and perfects this principle by applying it not to vengeance, but to forgiveness. Thus, a Hebrew would understand this number as expressing a virtually unlimited amount.

Christ further expounds this principle in a parable, using one of his favorite teaching strategies, an analogy. Once again, He makes the profound simple and transmits great truth through this device. He tells us of a great king who was settling accounts with his servants. Some commentators saw this as the accounting due to a suzerain from his tax collectors. In this parable, the king is settling up with his debtors. One man owes ten thousand talents, an impossibly huge amount. Putting this into perspective, one must realize the combined annual tribute of Galilee and Perea just after the death of the repressive Herod the Great came to only two hundred talents and entire tribute of Judea, Samaria and Idumea came to six hundred talents, as told to us by Josephus. . This fact sets in deep relief the poor man’s predicament and reveals the character of the illustration. In this case, the debt was more than all the hard currency that existed in the whole country at the time!”

Even so, when the man falls downs and pleads for mercy, the King is moved and grants him not just a reprieve in terms of time, but actually forgives him the entire debt. This is incredible. The man is free.

Then in a gross example of ingratitude, this same servant goes out from the presence of the King and finds a fellow servant, who owed him a very little amount of money, 100 pence. Now, a pence was worth about 14 cents, so the contrast to the amount the original servant owed to the amount is immense and actually quite ludicrous.

The end of the story is just; his fellow servants inform the Lord of his outrageous behavior and he is delivered to the tormentors until he can pay the debt, which, as we’ve seen, is not very likely. Thus, the man’s fate is sealed.

Christ closes this parable with a solemn statement: so our Heavenly Father will deal with us if we do not forgive, from the heart, those who sin against us. Where is this same thought echoed? Surely it is in the great prayer that Christ gave us, the Our Father. In that prayer, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trepass against us.” Thus, even our forgiveness is conditional, as we forgive the sins of others. This is very telling and very solemn, especially if we should act like the ungrateful servant.

Yet, to the true penitent, God’s love and forgiveness is not limited. Just as the King forgave his debtor an impossibly heavy debt, so God forgives us our impossibly heavy load of sin and guilt. Without berating all of us with our known burden of sin, we know that the only price God would accept was the only one that God could pay. This, of course, was accomplished by God the Son. Yet, despite this, one might be tempted to say, “How do I owe God anything?”

To the unspiritual man, this is indeed an excellent question. What, thinks he, do I owe God? This thought may occur if the thought ever enters his head, which is probably unlikely. Not being negative or nasty, but St. Paul tells us in tells us in 1 Corinthians 2:14-15: “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one”
The world thinks Christianity is foolishness, yet the Christian in his/her walk with God judges all things, rightly, with the mind of Christ.
While the natural or carnal man does not consider things that the Christian takes as items for great thanksgiving: things such as common grace, which actually restrains us from being as bad as we could be, or God’s wonderful sunshine and water that produce the fruits of the earth. Or, even man’s ability to offer love to his fellow man, which is merely a faint reflection of God’s love for us. To all of these things the Christian appreciates, while the carnal man may have some vague sense of gratitude to some impersonal force of nature for producing the good of the world. There is a world of difference between the Christian mindset and the natural man’s worldview.

Thus, we return to the question, “What do we owe God?” How are we debtors to Him? Aside from the common blessings that He pours on all men, we Christians do indeed owe a debt that we cannot pay. This debt incurred a payment that is both truly incalculable and truly universal. This payment allows us, who desire to be children of God, to escape our old nature and become something new. Not only in this life are we to demonstrate newness, both in our fresh and frank acceptance of the things of the Spirit and our conduct in the world, but also someday to be glorified and perfected so that we may see God.

The reason, of course, for our indebtedness to God is that He gave us the very, very, best that He had to redeem us, His Only, Holy and blessed Son. God redeemed us so that we could enjoy Him forever. That, my beloved brothers and sisters, is a payment worth more than anything in this world. That is why you and I are debtors to the extreme, in regards to God.

The point is this: we, who have been given everything by Him who forgives us completely through the sacrifice of His Son, cannot afford to withhold forgiveness from others. We have been forgiven; thus we must forgive others their trespasses, or we risk the abrogation of God’s gracious forgiveness to us.

Even if that weren’t the case, we would still be guilty of the most heinous, the most callous, and the most extreme ingratitude of all.
When we acknowledge our transgressions and offer humble repentance, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, forgives us. Can not we, who have received this grace, do the same? Can not we return a bit of God’s grace to the one who sins against us? The answer to this is rhetorical, of course, and can only be answered in the quiet recesses of our own souls.

We recognize that forgiveness is difficult; forgiveness is hard. Sometimes, it is the hardest thing to do, simply because we do not want to do it. Maybe the hurt is too deep, maybe the trauma, physical or otherwise, is too extensive. Maybe, God forbid, we want to cherish our hurt a little while longer, denying the forgiveness we know that we should give. I was once told by a teacher that while children will usually forgive you quite readily, adults are usually different story.

Yet, in the miracle of the grace of God, forgiveness is exactly what we must do in order to be healed. When we offer true, from-the-heart forgiveness, something miraculous happens to us as well. God, in His mercy and grace, begins to heal us. The forgiveness we give to others is like a balm to the soul for ourselves. It is life-giving, health-affirming goodness that we accrue to ourselves as we give it away. In the incredible, wonderful superfluity of goodness that is God, when we do what we should, God rewards us with His Grace and God rewards us with Himself.

This is the miracle of forgiveness. This is what our God is all about.

Matthew 18:35 - 19:1 "So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses."

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
18th Sunday After Trinity 2010
October 3, 2010

“What is the great commandment in the Law?”

(Mat 22:35) Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

This passage of Matthew, taken for today’s Gospel, may possibly be one of the pivotal moments in the New Testament and, quite possibly, for the entire Christian faith. This is, indeed a very large claim, but there are a couple of reasons for it. First, in what Jesus says next, he will turn the entire religious system of the ancient world on its ear. Second, he will give us the most concise and eloquent restatement of the Law of Moses to the very experts of the Law, those who were tasked in keeping it holy and undefiled as possible. Let’s consider each point in turn.

First of all, we all know the story, as Christ was “tempted” by a lawyer. As usual, the Pharisees were playing their deadly games with Him by attempting to get him to say something with which they might accuse him. Being schooled in the finer points of the law, they made the study of legal minutiae their life’s work. So, we presume that they were trying to get Jesus to emphasize one part of the Law over another, thus leaving himself open to some sort of theological charge that Jesus was denigrating one section of the law, while exalting another, or that he was invalidating the Law altogether. They were, as usual, preparing a trap.

This is a trap which Jesus deftly sidesteps, while profoundly altering their understanding of the Law with just one or two statements. In his reply to the lawyer, He completely altered the way Man looks to God and the way God appears to Man. How?

The answer lies in the question of the lawyer itself. He asks, “Master, what is the great commandment in the Law?” On the surface, it sounds like an honest question. Yet, the word in the Greek is peira,zw (peirazo {pi-rad'-zo}). This word, if used in a bad sense, means “to test one maliciously, craftily to put to the proof his feelings or judgments, or to try or test one's faith, virtue, character, by enticement to sin.” Translated in the Authorized Version as “tempted”, we may easily surmise that the question was laid out with evil intent.

It also shows the understanding of the ancient mind, and especially the ancient Jewish mind, in regards to Deity. What was the basis of the Law? How did Man relate to God? We know that it was simply based on obeying the precepts of the Law and included frequent sacrifice. Once became righteous by doing, by acting, and by performing. In short, one became righteous because of what one did, not because of what one was. Righteousness, and thus the possibility of salvation, was based on works. Thus one built, through “sweat equity”, their own personal house of salvation in the ancient world. It is the same in every single works-oriented system of salvation today as well.

The problem is, as St. Paul reminds over and over again, is that such a house is built on a foundation of sand. No one is justified by his works because, at our core, despite our best efforts, we run into our own sinfulness again and again. Recall St. Paul’s anguished cry of frustration, as he says from Romans 7:24: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” This cry comes at the end of a long discussion of his desire to do what is right and proper, according to the Law, as well as his utter inability to do so. Again, despite what the illuminati of the world desperately want to believe, that the heart of man is basically good, we know that this is not so. History belies that wish with complete consistency..

Thus, works are not the answer. There is not one commandment in the Mosaic Law that man can do to save himself. His work and obedience and effort come to naught because in the end, salvation does not come from works. Instead, Christ sums up the law by saying that man can do one thing: he can love. How is he to do this? Simply, 1) love God with your whole being: with all of your heart, with all of your mind and with all of your soul; and 2) love your neighbor as yourself. We Anglicans recognize this is as the Summary of the Law; which we hear each time we celebrate the Divine Eucharist.
In beautiful brevity, Jesus “boils down” the hundreds of legalistic commandments developed by the Scribes and Pharisees to two short commandments: love God and love your neighbor.

This was so radical that it must have shaken the Pharisees to their very roots. Their whole belief system, if only they realized it, had been changed. Now, man no longer looks fearfully to the heavens as he seeks to ingratiate or placate the Deity through legalistic obedience, sacrifice and rigid behavior. After all, how does one know when one has done enough to merit salvation? In a works-type system, how does one even know that one is saved?

Now, because of Christ, things were changed. Now man was called upon to love his God with his entire being and to love his neighbor as himself. Man was called upon to open himself to the infinite possibilities of an infinite Love. Man’s understanding of God, through Christ, had been altered irrevocably, forever. Love was the answer for man’s salvation, not his own feeble works.

For those of us who may think this type of statement sounds rather like a platitude, let us remind ourselves what life in the ancient world was like. It certainly did not run on love, but on raw power, merciless military might, the subjugation of entire peoples, and ruthless exploitation. At the risk of overextending this thought, let us say that the ancient world moved on the pitiless lubricant of human misery. To top it off, it was ruled by law, stern and foreboding.

Now, comes Jesus Christ with this radical, the incredible statement: Love God with all of your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. For those who heard Christ in the past, are hearing Him in the present, and will hear Him in the future, things will never be the same. A new law has come to town. For those who hear the words of Jesus, it is a whole new ballgame.

Actually, what Christ did was to clarify the great dichotomy in the Ten Commandments. You will recall that originally, there were two tables of the Law that Moses carried down from Mt. Sinai. The first table dealt with God, the second with man. If we truly love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, these commandments will be the focus of our efforts, with the help of the indwelling Holy Spirit..

The other vastly important point in this passage of Scripture is that Jesus testifies to Himself as the completion of the Law and the completion of the Covenants made with Israel in an indirect, yet forceful way.

This is why Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees by asking them a question: (Mat 22:42) “What think ye of Christ? whose son is he? They say unto him, The Son of David.” Their answer is instructive, as they respond, “The Son of David” and it is correct, being taken out of the Prophets of the Old Testament. But Jesus shows their incomplete understanding of the Messiah when He says,

(Mat 22:43-45) “He saith unto them, How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool? If David then call him Lord, how is he his son?”

What Our Lord is talking about here is the miracle that is Christ. He is referring to that once-in-history happening when God took on manhood. Thus, Jesus is the son of David in the flesh, as he is of the house and lineage of David. Yet, he is also God, whom David in spirit and in devotion calls Lord. Jesus Christ is the hypostatic union, where God and Man co-inhere perfectly in one Person, Jesus Christ.

Remember this is not as the Muslims claim, that Christians are idolators, and saying that we believe Man became God. We don’t believe this. Rather we affirm the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, where God became Man. This is very important, because to be orthodox, we must believe that Christ is both perfect God and perfect Man. The two natures do not intermix, or get confused, or get set aside.

Instead, this perfect God-Man came to save us from our fallen-ness, our “self”-ishness, to be united with Him in bliss forever. This Christ is not only the complete revelation of the Law, he is also the complete and final covenant with Man. St Paul sums it up in: Col 1:18-19: “And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell;”

This is what Christ was telling the Pharisees. They must have got the message, if not to the point of belief, then to the point where they realized that further debate was pointless. The Gospel for the day tells us: (Mat 22:46) “And no man was able to answer him a word, neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions.”

So it is, when the arrogance of man meets its match in the infinitude of God. Instead of faithless questions, may we ever offer endless affirmation and praise to Jesus Christ, our only Lord and Savior.

(Jud 1:25) To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost,