How, Then, Shall We Live?
February 23, 2003
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"
Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.
"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
"The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.
"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow-servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.
"His fellow-servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'
"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
"Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow-servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." (Matthew 18:21-35)
This morning we are looking at some major Christian themes: forgiveness, judgment, God's mercy and love, making the most of the hand that is dealt us.
All of us here have had some experience in this matter of hurt feelings. People have said things or done things that have upset us; our pride or ego was threatened, and we were angry and hurt. For a moment, think back to the last time you were really hurt. Visualize the person or people involved. What happened? And what was your response? I wonder how far back you had to go? Last week? Last month? Also, if this same situation arose now, would we react the same way we did then, or would we change our part in this emotional exchange?
All of us, at times, have our feelings hurt. We do not live in a perfect world with perfect people--and some damaging, painful things are going to happen to us. The far more important question is: What do we do about our hurt feelings? How do we handle these difficult situations? How, then, shall we live?
I'd like to mention several things that we might keep in mind, all of which grow out of the shining example: the life of Jesus Christ our Lord. If we can gradually move in this direction, we will be much better off, in every sense of the word.
We need to do something positive and tangible about this breakdown, the sore point, as soon as possible. Almost always we can do something: make a phone call, write a letter, or visit the person, and try to understand what happened--what went wrong, and why. Often a genuine friendly gesture opens doors of reconciliation. If the hurt is deep, and we do nothing, usually it festers and grows into a mountain, and finally explodes.
The Lord tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that even worship should be postponed until reconciliation has at least been attempted. When we come to a church service and our heart is filled with bitter, hostile feelings, we are not going to get very much from the worship experience. Good relations with other people--this is the very foundation of our society. And when hurt feelings interfere with and break down good friendships, we should do everything within our power to restore those broken relationships. And so often, when we are really honest, we can learn a great deal about ourselves as we examine what went wrong.
When our feelings have been bruised and we want to retaliate, we might remember how much we have been forgiven. You recall that wonderful Gospel story where Jesus talked about the man who owed his master ten thousand talents, and couldn't pay it back, so he came begging for mercy. Do you see the irony in this story? The whole of Palestine paid ten thousand talents in taxes to Rome in one year. It's a totally ridiculous figure; the people in that crowd are laughing at this fantasy.
The Lord is making a basic point: God is that king, and we can't ever begin to repay God for what he has given to us, and is constantly showering upon us. So God forgives this man his enormous debt; he gives him a brand new lease on life. And then this same man goes out and bumps into someone who owes him a few dollars, and he refuses to cancel this tiny debt. He won't listen to reason, but instead has this poor man thrown into jail.
The lesson is obvious, isn't it? We can't begin to repay God. Everything we have and are comes from him in the first place. Everything. It all belongs to the Lord, and we are called upon to be good stewards. The only way we can begin to repay God is to go out and treat other people as he has treated us--which is with much mercy and forgiveness indeed. We all have made some big mistakes; we have behaved badly and foolishly. Yet God forgives us completely.
There is one condition on receiving God's forgiveness, as found in the Lord's Prayer: we ask the Lord to forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. This principle is very clear throughout the Gospels. If we have no intention of changing our ways, and if we demand the last penny from those who have hurt us, and if we enjoy seeing them squirm, then we cannot receive God's forgiveness--and our hateful attitudes and feelings will eventually make us sick, both spiritually and physically.
Is there anyone here this morning who is willing to say to God: "Okay, God, you deal with me exactly as I deal with other people. You treat me just as I treat others!" Are we willing to strike that bargain with the Lord?
You recall the parable of the Prodigal Son. The brother who stayed home and behaved himself had some very uncharitable, envious thoughts toward his wayward brother. He simply couldn't understand his father's forgiveness. And even though he was invited to the feast and the dancing, he chose to stay outside in the cold, all by himself. This was not the father's doing. This is not the way God acts. But that young man, by his rigid, judgmental, spiteful attitude chose to stay outside. When we have been hurt, we can forgive and forget, even as God forgives us; or we can decide to bear a grudge and try to get even, which leaves very deep scars indeed.
We might also reflect on the fact that we are not alone in having our feelings hurt. All the people on earth have had their feelings hurt hundreds of times. And life goes on. If we want to, we can sit around and brood over all of the terrible things that have happened to us, and feel sorry for ourselves, and feel like a martyr, and all the rest of it--which doesn't help anything or anyone.
It has often been said that life isn't fair. And there is no reason why it should be, inasmuch as we are the ones who judge whether a certain event is fair or not, and we are not very objective, impartial judges! The fact remains that in this life some unjust and unfair things are going to happen to us, and we might just as well make the best of it.
These difficulties are bad enough in themselves, but how much worse it is when we waste them! Life, from birth to death and beyond, is a process of becoming a child of God; and here on earth it is rather a short process at that. We don't have a great deal of time; we don't have all the time in the world. So why waste it by arguing about things like fairness, or how hard life is, or trying to get even? Consider Helen Keller, who was totally blind and deaf virtually all her life, yet she never complained about life being unfair. Indeed, she saw and heard much more than most of us do.
I wonder if we can go so far as to pray for those who have hurt us. This is not easy, but it is possible--and this is what the Lord recommends. He asks us to keep unfriendly persons within the circle of our goodwill. We are not to judge or condemn them. We can ask God to help them realize their mistakes and to stop injuring themselves and others. Perhaps the person doesn't change his or her behavior; but that part is not up to us. We cannot change other people. We can hold them in the Light; we can keep the door open; we can do our part in building bridges of friendship. We can choose to act like followers of Jesus Christ ourselves, regardless of what others around us may or may not be doing.
In 1 Corinthians 13 the apostle Paul says that love is patient and kind; it is not irritable or resentful. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Somehow, as individuals and as a world, we must return to that concept of love over and over again. This is what God's love for us is like: it is a constant outpouring of divine mercy and acceptance and compassion. It isn't turned on and off again like a faucet; it flows forth continually.
This perfect love generates a gentle, friendly approach toward all of life--one that does bear all things, believe all things, and hope all things. When we are growing in God's love, there isn't much room for a lot of resentment and bad feelings toward anyone. Remember the little poem by Edwin Markham:
He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took him in.
This morning we've touched on a number of major themes: judgment, forgiveness, God's mercy and love, making the most of the hand that is dealt us. How, then, shall we live?
O Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we have felt many hurts, many slights. We have struggled with sorrow and grief, with the loss of friends and loved ones. We have experienced the pain of friends and family members turning against us and inflicting wounds upon us. And we often feel that life is not fair; that we have been unjustly dealt by--and even, at times, that some pay-back is in order. Yet it all pales in comparison to the gifts you have given us, the wrongs you have forgiven us. Help us to focus, not on our own pain, but on your love and forgiveness. Keep us focused on the goal of creating a heavenly society among all people. Amen.
Rev. Paul Zacharias