The Power of Grace
I’m going to say a word, and I want you to tell me what image popped into your mind. Are you ready? Here we go. The word is “power.” What picture popped into your mind? The image that pops into my mind when I hear the word “power” is a terrible storm.
Do you remember the incredible storm that came through in August of 2015? We were all standing out in the yard as it hit, and it hit fast. And there were about 30 people standing out in our yard with us. We’d just finished up a 4H meeting, and everyone was getting ready to leave. You could tell by the skies that a storm was coming, and I pulled out my phone to check the weather radar and see how close it was to us. You know how the radar depicts changes in severity by color? So for summer weather, blue might not even be hitting the ground. Green is for sure a rain shower, and then there’s yellow and orange and then red for bad storms. And then the red just gets deeper and deeper for really severe stuff until its black. Well, when the weather app opened, all I saw was deep red and black, and it was almost on top of us. I yelled for people to get in their cars and get out now, or get in the house, and then I watched about 5 poplar trees on the edge of our property fall instantly as the wind hit. But the wind still wasn’t blowing 300’ away where I was standing. The front edge of the storm was that well defined.
And then it hit. Rain, thunder, lightning like crazy, and the wind. There’s a power pole on our property carrying power to the house, and as the wind blew, it started to s-curve like a snake, actually wobbling back and forth and bending more than one direction at the same time. I was sure it was going to come down, but it didn’t. We just stood there in the living room watching it, kind of in awe. It was crazy. Becky and I were driving down our road a few days ago and Becky looked out the window at trees in the woods that fell during that storm that are still just lying there, most of them caught up in trees that are still standing and said “It’s going to take decades for the damage that storm did to be fully restored.”
Something that has power is able to alter the landscape, the world, your life in some way. This morning we’re going to listen in as St. Peter asks Jesus a question, after which Jesus answers that question directly and then tells a story, a parable, to illustrate his answer. And in both his answer and in the story that follows he paints a picture for us of the landscape-altering, world-changing, life-transforming power of grace. Turn in your Bibles, or on your Bible app, to Matthew 18:21-22.
Peter asks Jesus a question. Now, if you know Peter at all, you know that he’s kind of famous, during his time as Jesus’ disciple, for missing the point, for being sometimes arrogant and often brash. For acting, and speaking, impulsively. But here, he wants Jesus to know that he’s catching on. And so he asks, “How many times should I forgive someone when they sin against me? Seven times?” Peter thinks he’s beginning to understand what Jesus is all about. You see, most rabbis in his day taught that forgiving someone three times was the good and godly thing to do. If you needed to forgiven more than that, the person sinning against you was likely not truly repentant, and was instead taking advantage of you. So forgive three times. But Peter has been with Jesus for quite a while now, and he thinks he’s beginning to catch on. Maybe he wanted Jesus to know how insightful he was getting by asking and then offering an answer to his own question. Maybe he really wanted to know what Jesus would say, but knew enough to know that it was for sure going to be more than three. So he more than doubled it and went for seven. And seven was an important number to the Jews. It was the number of fullness and completion and perfection. Made sense that Jesus would say seven.
Except he didn’t. He didn’t scold Peter. He simply said, “No, not seven times, but seventy seven times.” Or seventy times seven. It’s been translated both ways and the Greek language isn’t really clear about which he intended. Fortunately, that doesn’t matter to us, because between Jesus’ answer to the question and then the story he told to illustrate, his point hits its mark. And his point is, offer forgiveness, and don’t count how many times you’ve forgiven someone for something. If you are counting at all, you’re missing the point.
And then he launches into his story. And like many plays, this story can be viewed as a series of acts. Act 1 happens in Vv. 23-27. Look at the first sentence: “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared too …” Jesus didn’t come to establish a new religion. He didn’t come to modify an old one either. He came to tell people that there is a very real kingdom of God, and that every single one of us has an invitation to immigrate and become a citizen of that kingdom. In fact, that kingdom is the kingdom of God, and it’s citizens have placed themselves under the rule of the Lord of the kingdom of God. And while we will one day reside in that kingdom in peace in its fullness, we can live as a citizen of that kingdom now, even as our lives continue here on earth. In fact, your citizenship in the kingdom of God become your primary identity, your primary residency, and the source and guide for your life, even as you carry on your life here on earth. Jesus invites us to 1. Believe him, 2. Trust him, and 3. Follow him. When we do that, we become citizens of the kingdom of God. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. That’s what it means to be a Christian. Before I am male or female, before I am American or the citizen of another earthly realm, before I am a republican or a democrat, before I am anything, I am a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. My citizenship there comes before everything else that I am and influences everything else that I am.
So how does God rule his kingdom? With grace, and with justice. Imagine God as a king, and some of his servants are in his debt, and he wants to settle up with them. And one was brought before him who owed him ten thousand talents. Now, that means absolutely nothing to us. Is that like ten grand or something? That’s not too bad. No. The typical daily wage for a day laborer, hired and paid a day at a time, was one denarius. So depending on how many days a laborer worked in a week, he could earn up to 6 denarii. That translates into a little over 300 denarii a year, if the laborer was hired six days a week for 52 weeks. A talent, a single talent, was worth 6,000 denarii. It would take a laborer over 19 years, working six days a week, 52 weeks a year, to earn a single talent! Half a life-time’s work at least. And this guy owes the king 10,000 talents? That’s 600 million denarii, 600 million days work! Money was often forged from silver. Ten thousand talents would be roughly 300 million tons of silver! It was the equivalent of 275,000 years’ wages. This was an enormous sum of money! The combined annual tribute that Galilee and Perea paid to Rome was only 200 talents. It’s unlikely that this much money even existed at the time.
But the amount isn’t the point. You see, the talent was the largest known denomination of money at the time, and ten thousand was the largest amount for which the Greek language had a word. Jesus just picked the largest amount for which he had a word, and the largest denomination of money, and mashed them together. It would be the equivalent of someone saying “zillions of dollars” or something like that today. His point is, this debt was beyond human calculation.
But that’s exactly where Jesus places us in relation to God – owing an incalculable debt that we cannot pay. Waking up and finding out that you owe the IRS enough money to pay off the national debt of every country on the planet and then some. No one can possibly pay this debt off. Not themselves. But this idiot thinks he can pay it off. He falls to his knees before the king begging, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Viewing this story from the outside, we’re supposed to have one response to that statement – “No you won’t! There’s no way. The debt isn’t repayable.” Viewing the story from the inside, we’re supposed to see ourselves in the place of this foolish servant, thinking that we can repay the debt we owe to God. There is always a barb in a story Jesus tells, and this is it. “There’s no way this guy can pay off the debt. Our whole country couldn’t pay off the debt.” And then Jesus looks us in the eye and says, “Neither can you.”
But then something amazing happens. The king forgives the debt. He doesn’t do what the servant asks. He doesn’t give him more time. He’d need a few hundred thousand years. He simply puts his hand on the fool’s shoulder, looks him in the eye, and says, “You can’t pay this debt off. So I am forgiving it. It no longer exists.”
Act two. Look at Vv. 28-30. This guy’s foolishness has not yet run its full course. After having his astronomical, unrepayable debt forgiven by the king, he goes out and finds another servant of the king who owes him a hundred denarii, grabs him, and starts choking him, demanding repayment. One hundred denarii. That isn’t chump change. It’s about four months’ worth of work. But it’s repayable with concerted effort. It’s doable. But the word translated as “found” makes it seem like he just happened upon another servant who owed him money. That isn’t what the word translated as found means though. It means “went looking for.” Maybe he thinks he can show the king that he’s paying off the debt by giving some of what is owned, even though it’s a laughably small amount compared to the total he owes. Who knows. The poor guy who owes the money does what the man choking him has just done before the king. He falls before the servant and pleads for patience, time to repay the debt. But the servant whose astronomical debt has just been forgiven refuses and put him in prison until his family could come up with the money to repay the debt and secure his release.
Act 3. If Act 1 is titled “Unspeakable Mercy,” Act 2 is titled “Unbelievable Arrogance.” The one who has just been forgiven refuses to forgive. And that opens the door to Act 3 – “Unchained Judgment.” Look at Vv. 31-35.
Basically, the other servants see this unforgiveness in the heart of the one who was forgiven so much, and tell the king. And upon hearing about it, the king calls the man before him, condemns his wickedness, and has him thrown into debtor’s prison until his family can come up with every cent. And we all know that they will not. There is no way. But most English translations miss something important here. The word translated as “jailers” is actually better translated as “tormenters.” This man isn’t just going to sit and rot in a jail cell for the rest of his life. He’s going to be tortured and tormented. That sounds a lot like … hell. Our salvation does not depend on our willingness to forgive. But our willingness to forgive is an outward sign that we have been forgiven. Those who have been greatly forgiven will be greatly forgiving. Those who’s sins are no longer counted will not count the times they must forgive someone else.
So what are you saying pastor? Are you saying that if my husband beats me up, if my wife is unfaithful, I’m just supposed to forgive and move on. No. And neither is Jesus. Yes, we are to forgive. Whether the one who has sinned against us is large ways or in small is willing to re-earn our trust is up to them. Sin still has its consequences. If you are unfaithful, your spouse can forgive you, but it may still cost you your marriage. Verses like this one have been used to spiritually abuse people for decades, especially women whose so called Christian husbands are physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive to them. Sin still has its consequences, sometimes before the law, sometimes in the loss of a relationship or a friendship.
Now there’s one more thing we need to notice here. Go back up to Peter’s question. “Lord, how often must I forgive MY BROTHER?” And the two servants in the parable are fellow servants of the same king. Those who have been forgiven, forgive. Period. But Jesus takes it a step further in this parable by applying that big picture principle specifically to relationships within the kingdom of God. This is the care and kindheartedness that God expects of those who are citizens of his kingdom for one another. The church isn’t made up of perfect people, and you will be hurt if you hang around long enough. I don’t care how big or small, how old or young, the church is. You will be hurt. We must be willing to forgive.
Forgiveness can be a struggle. And forgiveness does not necessarily mean that we must allow someone who has hurt us deeply back into our lives, unless they repent. It doesn’t mean you have to stay in the same home as an abusive spouse or person. Grace is a powerful, powerful force. I would argue that it is the most powerful force in the universe, and the most powerful force in heaven, for grace is God putting God’s full self – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – into action to redeem. Grace brings all of the resources of the kingdom of God to bear on your debt and mine and cancels them out. The cry of Jesus from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46) is the sound of our debts being paid. In full. And it is that cry that enables you and I to fall on our knees before God crying out, “Thank you for forgiving me. Help me, empower me, to be forgiving.”
On June 11, 1963, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on The University of Alabama campus, Vivian Malone, a young black woman, enrolled as a student at the university, but not without opposition. Federal troops were there to ensure her entrance into the school, but her way was blocked by Governor George Wallace. Holding out for racism and segregation, the governor failed in his attempt. Vivian became the first African-American student ever to graduate from the University of Alabama. Vivian wasn’t the only African-American that day seeking to enroll at the university. James Hood was at her side, but he was scared and needed encouragement. Vivian helped him along and slipped him a simple little note, a prayer: “Whatever may be our adversary this day, our Father, help us to face it with courage, for it can be conquered when thou art with us. In faith we pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.”
Governor Wallace regretted his actions of June 11, and years later was taken in his wheelchair into the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, and there asked the black people to forgive him for his hardness. The governor also regretted how he treated Vivian that day and sought out her forgiveness. He wanted to make amends before he died, and he wanted to meet her. Vivian did meet him and told him that she had already forgiven him years earlier. Interviewed in 2003, she was asked about this: “You said you’d forgiven him many years earlier?” “Oh yes.” “And why did you do that?” Her reply: “This may sound weird. I’m a Christian, and I grew up in the church. And I was taught that—just as I was taught that no other person was better than I—that we were all equal in the eyes of God. I was also taught that you forgive people, no matter what. And that was why I had to do it. I didn’t feel as if I had a choice.”[i] She didn’t. Let us pray.
[i] “Transition—Vivian Malone Jones,” Newsweek (10-24-05), p.10