September 13, 2020
Today we are back in Matthew’s gospel for a question from Peter and a parable about grace. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today.
READ Matthew 18:21-35
For me… one of the nice things about bringing Meg into our ministry has been our getting together on Tuesday afternoons to discuss Presbyterianism… theology… scripture… the foundations of religion. Maybe one day I’ll turn our afternoon sessions into a book… “Tuesdays with Meg”. Could probably even be made into a movie somewhere down the road. In one of those discussions we talked about the theology of grace… and that for Presbyterians grace is our first principle. There are different forms of Christianity out there… we are all working from the same source material and such… but what really makes us different from one another is the order in which we put our theological principles… with the priority given to certain theological concepts and doctrines. It’s like DNA. I mean, it’s all the same building blocks, but how you order those building blocks makes all the difference, right.
So as Presbyterians… grace is our first principle. And everything else follows from there. The word “grace” connects all the different parts. Grace describes how God acts… from God’s own heart so to speak… from God’s own motivations. Grace means the sovereign God initiates… is ahead of us… is the creator from God’s own will and desire. Grace encompasses the nature of God’s love. Grace shows how God acts with forgiveness and mercy. Grace gives meaning to the cross. Grace explains why the tomb is empty.
Maybe it’s because of my Presbyterian eyes… but I read this parable and it is all about grace to me. And the failure of the wicked slave… the failure of the wicked slave is that he doesn’t respond to that grace. He’s not changed by his experience of grace. Our response to God’s grace is… to me… what our Presbyterian faith is all about. Our response… how grace shapes or doesn’t shape our lived out faith… shows what we really believe to be true about God.
When you look at this parable… the debt owed by the slave to the king is a debt that cannot be repaid. It is just too massive. There is nothing that the man can do to wipe out the debt owed. The only way the slave can come out from under the debt is for the king to forgive the debt. Grace. That’s grace. Change the language… the only way humanity can come out from under the debt of sin is for God to forgive the debt. Grace. The first principle of our theology. As Presbyterians, we don’t prescribe to some manner of payment plan… where the debt is reduced over time through faithful works… or assenting to right beliefs to such a degree that the debt is forgiven once God sees just how worthy we really are… how trustworthy we are that God can finally forgive the debt without any remaining doubt in God’s mind. We don’t believe that the debt is reduced by partial forgiveness, but we still have to make some manner of payment… no matter how small… to finally wipe away the debt. We believe in God’s grace… sola gratia… grace alone.
As a Presbyterian… approaching this parable with Presbyterian theology… the first thing I would say is needed in our hearts… in our faithful minds… is awareness… awareness of the enormity of the debt… awareness of my own inability to pay the debt… perhaps even the awareness that if I were to try to pay the debt, that I would still end up increasing the debt since this debt isn’t an accident… since I am not innocent in creating this debt. It’s impossible to appreciate the depth of grace if you are unaware or refuse to acknowledge the debt before you… between you and God. It’s impossible to admit to sin if you refuse to acknowledge the sin before you. If you somehow believe that this debt doesn’t really apply to you… or that you are somehow already above it… or that the debt is… in truth… so small, not as great as everyone says it is, so that its forgiveness is not that difficult. If God’s act of grace… if God’s act of forgiveness is minor because I don’t believe the debt is really that great… then all of this will mean little. There won’t be enough gratitude for grace to be amazing enough to be your first theological principle.
So grace first takes acknowledgement… which the slave does… falling to his knees after he, his wife, and his children are ordered to be sold to recuperate at least some of what is owed to the king. The slave realizes he is in need of mercy.
After he realizes the grace shown with the forgiveness of this immense debt… the slave is grateful… grateful for what it means for him and his family… but his gratitude goes no further. This is where he fails. This is where so many of us fail. We can acknowledge the grace of God… we can be thankful for what it means for me… but we aren’t transformed by that grace… we don’t become gracious… that grace doesn’t find new life in us. What Jesus in Matthew has been teaching is that it isn’t about you. That’s a big failure of Christianity today… whether it is Presbyterian or any other form… it has become too focused on the individual. Imagine it in terms of string art… where different pins are place on a board and the string is spread out between the pins to create the picture. It’s not very artful to have one pin be God and another be the individual. Two pins and one string of grace does not theological art make. Nor is it very interesting to have the God pin and then lots of pins all over the board… but string only going over to a small grouping of pins. But imagine instead what could be created with string coming from the God pin attached to individual pins who are then attached to other pins through other strings. It opens up the possibilities. That’s grace. That’s the vision of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven… of God’s kingdom coming into being.
Imagine being able to see the limitations we put on God… limitations that exist because we have made it all about us. Limitations because we’ve made grace smaller. Think bigger. So Christ on the cross sets me free from the debt of sin. My taking up my own cross helps that freedom to spread as the grace I was given is given to others who become aware of their own debt and the grace shown by God through Christ on the cross that sets them free from sin to spread that grace to others… and on and on and on.
But the slave in the parable… having been set free from his debt… gives judgment and shows no mercy to the one who owes him. So change the language… shift the setting… and the one who believes themselves set free by grace from their sin demands that another must pay the penalty for their sin. Imagine the Christian who embraces grace for themselves casting another into prison for their particular debt. Imagine the Christian who says God can forgive me of my particular sin… but your sin is beyond God’s forgiveness… and in my freedom I am given the power to punish you for your sin until you pay… until you remove that debt from before me. We are given freedom to set others free. We are not given the freedom to oppress others. Without my having to name anything… without my having to give any concrete examples… can you imagine that scenario described? Do you see the same thing happening around us on a daily basis? And the freedom that comes from God’s grace… do you see how by not freely sharing that grace… do you see how a new debtor’s prison is created? Do you see how judgment of another becomes the chains that bind us again to sin? Do you see how self-righteousness creates the bars that imprison? Do you see how the lock of the cell is created through ingratitude and pride and hypocrisy? If I cannot acknowledge my debt… if I cannot acknowledge my own need to be set free… then I cannot know God’s grace.
Saints, it’s hard not to recreate a debtor’s prison around ourselves even after we’ve been set free. It’s hard not to recreate sin’s debt through our own lack of grace. I saw this quote by Henri Nouwen on Facebook in a post by our denomination… "Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly, and so we need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. Forgiveness is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family."
But when grace is your first principle… when grace transforms the human heart… when grace sets free the human mind… what follows? What potential gets unlocked upon the earth? Our response to our awareness of God’s grace is everything. Some would say it is the whole of our journey of faith. We live our lives trying to respond to what God has done for us. We live our lives trying to love as God has first loved us. We live our lives trying to forgive as God has forgiven us. We live our lives in service to others as God serves us… setting others free from the weight of debt. Every week we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We pray for God’s kingdom to come into our lives… that God’s will will be done. We are to be the conduit for such things. We acknowledge our debts and we ask for forgiveness… but more than that… more than that we ask God to treat us as we treat our debtors. Big or small. If we cannot treat one another with grace… with mercy… with forgiveness… with some empathetic understanding… then we are asking God to do the same to us… to throw us into prison and forget the key… to have the same fate as the wicked slave in this parable. We ask for it… every week. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
So Peter asks his question. How many times must I forgive? And the answer really is another question… how many times do you think God ought to forgive you? Go and do likewise… with grace. Amen.