The Boundary of Grace
By Linda Rex
September 13, 2020, Proper 19—Last night I decided to microwave some fresh green beans for dinner that I had received from one of our members in Cookeville who likes to garden. I washed them and broke them up into a microwavable bowl and cooked them. As I was eating them, my mouth began to burn. It wasn’t until I had eaten several of the green beans that I realized that I had inadvertently cooked a hot pepper with them and made the green beans inedible in the process!
As I sought something to help to relieve the intense burning in my mouth, I thought about how easy it was to go about doing what we believe is the right thing to do and find ourselves in a place where we are broken and hurting instead. This happens so often in our relationships, because we are broken people—we live as self-centered persons rather than as the other-centered persons God created us to be. This includes our understanding of what it means to be forgiving of those who wound us.
The disciples knew what the rabbis said about being forgiving—forgiving someone three times was being very generous and understanding, they said. So, when Peter asked Jesus how many times a person should forgive an offender, he thought he was being excessively generous in suggesting that he should forgive someone seven times.
Jesus took forgiveness to the next level by suggesting that a person should forgive someone “seventy times seven” times—in other words, a ridiculously large amount of times. We should not hold grudges, but be generous in our offering of grace. Then he told a story in which he described what forgiveness looks like within the kingdom of heaven—what it means that God forgives us.
He began with a king who brings his vassals before him to account for his portion of their tax assessments. He is a generous king, apparently, for this one particular vassal owed him the equivalent of twelve million dollars—a sum he could never repay in his lifetime. The king concludes that maybe the only way to get his money back from this man was to throw him and his family into prison (a common practice then) with the possibility that one of his friends might pay his debt.
This vassal begs and pleads for the king to have compassion on him. And the king does. He forgives this huge debt—lets the man completely off the hook. The king writes the debt off the books—he no longer expects any payment from this man. As far as the king was concerned, there was no longer any need for the man to do anything except from that point on, to do a better job at collecting the king’s share of the funds and turning them in.
Apparently, the king’s vassal totally misses the point of what his master had done. He does not admit to nor accept the reality of the immense debt of which he had been forgiven. He doesn’t receive the grace and compassion shown him. He is still, in his mind’s eye, living in the place of collecting on debts and debts needing to be repaid.
So, when the man encounters one of his debtors who owed him about twenty bucks, he grabs him by the throat and drags him off to prison until he paid him back. Do you see the vast comparison in the two debts? The vassal had just been released from a debt of about twelve million dollars, but would not release his debtor for the mere sum of twenty dollars. Jesus was using hyperbole, an exaggeration, to make a point.
This is the type of thing we do to one another in the face of what God does for us. Think about the nation of Israel, who God lived in covenant relationship with. How often had he forgiven them for idolatry, injustice, and trusting in other nations rather than trusting in him? Even when Israel justly ended up in exile, losing their temple and nationhood, God had restored them, giving them a new temple and a new space in which to live, albeit under Roman rule. Even so, they repeatedly rejected the Messiah, Jesus Christ, which he had sent them. In due time, Jesus knew they would even crucify that Messiah, at which point he would pronounce the most gracious words ever given to humanity, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
To live in the kingdom of heaven is to live in the reality of our need for grace and God’s overwhelming generosity in offering it to us. Abba offers us unfailingly the opportunity to start anew, giving us ample opportunity to change by wiping the slate clean and allowing us to begin again. The problem is that we as human beings prefer to live in the debit-credit mode. We may enjoy receiving God’s grace, but we prefer not to have to make the changes which go along with having been forgiven. By necessity, living in the truth of the immense debt we have been forgiven, we must admit our need for that grace, repent of the ways we incurred that debt, and in living out the truth of that repentance and forgiveness, we begin to be equally forgiving toward others.
So often in the gospels, Jesus offers forgiveness prior to repentance. We see the lame man lowered down through the roof in front of Jesus. Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then he tells the man to take up his mat and walk. The lame man hadn’t even asked to be forgiven—but no doubt, he felt he needed it. He probably had been told over and over during his lifetime that the reason he couldn’t walk was because he or his parents had sinned. Jesus affirmed that this was not the case, but that even those sins he had committed were removed. And that he needed to move forward in his life from then on.
In the case of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus ends the encounter by saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Jesus’ forgiveness was obvious, but he didn’t let anyone off the hook. The accusers needed to repent and so did she. And Jesus did not leave her at that place—he told her to go and do the next right thing, to leave her life of sin. Would Jesus have forgiven her again if she sinned? No doubt, but what he was seeking was not retribution, but repentance and faith—a life change—wholeness and healing, not punishment.
In the story about the king and the debtor, the vassal missed the whole point. He had been forgiven an incredible debt—so he needed to repent, to change the way he did business. He needed a change of heart and mind—to have a heart of compassion and forbearance like his master’s. But instead, he continued on the path of self-deliverance. He was going to work out his own salvation—paying back the debt himself by collecting what others owed him.
The only boundary on God’s grace is the one we set by refusing to see our need for it and to receive it as an undeserved gift. We are the ones who make forgiveness something which needs to be earned instead of receiving it humbly and then offering it to others. We are the ones who ignore the reality of the huge debt to God we could never repay and focus on the petty inconveniences or miserable pains those around create in our lives. If God could forgive us for an unpayable debt, shouldn’t we do that for others?
Maybe there is some hurt or grudge that’s been festering in your heart lately. Or perhaps you are holding something against yourself that seems unforgiveable. Why don’t you bring these to Jesus right now and ask him to give you his heart of forgiveness instead. Allow him to provide you with a willingness to forgive that is grounded in him and his sacrificial offering, and to move you and the forgiven one into a new place of wholeness and restoration. May you find true freedom living in this place of forgiveness and grace through Jesus Christ our Lord in the Spirit.
Abba, thank you for your limitless forgiveness and grace which is expressed to us in the gift of your Son Jesus. Thank you for your patience with us when we are not forgiving, but are judgmental, condemning, and punitive. Grant us the grace to ever participate in Christ’s forgiving Spirit that we might forgive as you forgive us, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, | Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. | He will not always strive with us, | Nor will He keep His anger forever. | He has not dealt with us according to our sins, | Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. | For as high as the heavens are above the earth, | So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. | As far as the east is from the west, | So far has He removed our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:8-12 NASB
See also Matthew 18:21–35.
The Real Debt
By Linda Rex
Recently I got to thinking about how we as Americans, in general, think nothing of being in debt. Nowadays it seems as if owing someone money is an accepted way of life. To not have a credit card is more unusual than having one. I have lost count of how many credit card offers I threw away last month.
When my children were little I remember having one of those money conversations with them. We were wanting to do something together which would have been fun for all of us and which would have been a good thing to spend money on in my opinion. But the money just wasn’t there.
So I was trying to explain to my children how we would need to wait until I had the money for this opportunity. One of my children popped up and said, “Just write a check, Mom.” I explained that in order to write a check I had to have money in the bank to cover the check.
“Just use your credit card,” they said. So I began to explain how with a credit card I would still need to have the money to pay it off when the bill came. This was just one of the many conversations needed to help my children understand that we can’t just have what we want whenever we want it. Sometimes we just have to say no to ourselves and to others.
Being in debt or owing another party for the use of their money has become a way of life for many of us in this country. Borrowing money is how we buy a car or purchase a house. We even borrow money to send our children to college.
Perhaps one of the reasons our country is struggling is because we have ignored the description of life in Christ which says, “Owe no man anything but to love one another.” It would be quite radical if all of a sudden every debt was forgiven and people shared freely with one another rather than expecting payment with interest in return.
This seems rather Pollyanna-ish, doesn’t it?
The breaking in of the kingdom of God in our world often takes on forms such as these. In loving one one another rather than using one another, the kingdom of God receives its full expression. When someone forgives a debt or offers to pay in our place we experience the real presence of the Living Lord. When people freely offer financial and physical help to one another even when it’s not deserved, this manifests Abba’s heart. We’ve seen many illustrations of this in the aftermath of hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes.
To offer mercy rather than just retribution is what our Lord does best. We can trust he is not out to get his share, but instead is sharing with us all which is his. He is not seeking his own, but is seeking our best.
In the midst of the havoc of the storms of our lives, he is not exacting retribution, but is holding us and carrying us, and offering us his strength, comfort, and provision. He puts people in our lives who can and will lift us up, encourage us, and help us to carry the burdens which are too heavy for us.
I would imagine if we were more occupied with serving and loving one another and less with indulging ourselves, we might not only be happier and more at peace, but we might also be a lot more financially sound. If we were more involved in blessing one another rather than using one another, we might find ourselves in an entirely different world.
We can go along and live as we are or we can live as though the kingdom of God has come to us in Jesus. We can live now in the truth of who we are in him. But we must realize this society is uncomfortable with and resists such truth while at the same time embracing the beauty of the possibilities it might brings.
To live in love and debt-free requires a radical life change I’m just beginning to get my mind around. But God-willing, as we embrace Christ’s debt-free life we will be catalysts for change within our debt-laden society.
Abba, forgive us our refusal to live free of all our debts, personal and financial, toward you and one another. Give us the courage to swim upstream against the current and to daily offer grace to one another in and through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. Romans 13:8 NASB