TEXTS: Matthew 18:21-35; Romans 14:1-12
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” (Matthew 18:21)
“If another member of the church sins against me …” Does that sound familiar? Like … maybe … last week’s blog post?
“If another member of the church sins against you,” Jesus said, “go and voice your concern privately, when the two of you are alone … if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you … if that doesn’t work, tell it to the whole church …” (Matt. 18:15-17)
Yeah. If you read my previous blog, you remember it, don’t you? It was about conflict in the church, and Jesus’ advice about how to deal with it. He describes a kind of step-by-step process, with an emphasis upon reconciliation; that’s part of what he’s getting at when he says, “if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven” (Matt. 18:19).
His underlying assumption seems to be that fellow Christians (“members of the church”) will have a deep and genuine love for one another. The kind of love that makes reconciliation possible. The kind that mirrors Christ’s own love for his people. That’s why he concludes by saying: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20).
Jesus expects us to love one another. He even commands us to love one another (John 13:34). Yet, at the same time, he takes it for granted that there will be friction between us. Disagreements. Quarrels. Backbiting. Personality conflicts.
He knows us pretty well. And last Sunday, we heard him give some very practical advice. Detailed advice. Step-by-step, he lays out a plan—a formula for sorting out church fights. First, try this. If that doesn’t work, do this. And if you still get nowhere, here’s something else you can try.
Jesus probably thought that he had covered all the bases, making clear that it’s really all about reconciliation—about building upon the love that his followers already have for one another.
After all, the church is supposed to be a community of grace. Surely, we are sisters and brothers, eager to forgive one another’s shortcomings. We are all forgiven sinners. We want to get along.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” Jesus says.
Yeah. Peter’s got a question: “Lord, if another church member sins against me, just how often do I have to forgive him, anyway? Is seven times enough?”
And we all know how Jesus answered: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times!”
Or, as some ancient manuscripts have it, “seventy times seven.”
Four hundred and ninety times, Peter. Keep on forgiving until you lose count! And then—perhaps in frustration—he engages in some hyperbole.
Hyperbole. What does the word hyperbole mean?
hyperbole noun, Rhetoric.
- obvious and intentional exaggeration.
- an extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally, as “to wait an eternity.”
Hyperbole is an extreme exaggeration used to make a point. It is like the opposite of understatement.
- I’ve told you a million times!
- It was so cold, I saw polar bears wearing parkas.
- He’s so dumb, he thinks Taco Bell is a Mexican telephone company.
- I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.
Jesus loved hyperbole. It was a tool he often used, when he wanted to make a point. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel—after warning them against lust—he told the men in his audience: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away …” (Matt. 5:29-30).
See, the thing about hyperbole—about hyperbolic language—is that it’s memorable. I doubt that very many of Jesus’ disciples plucked their eyes out. But I’m sure every one of them remembered what he said.
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”
Jesus gives his short answer: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven.” And then he launches into this disturbing parable about the hard-hearted servant. Or slave, as the New Revised Standard Version has it.
Anyway, this guy owes his boss 10,000 talents. To put that in perspective, one talent was worth 15 years’ wages for an ordinary labourer. In today’s money—based on an average labourer’s wage of $20 an hour—that comes to … well …
Ten thousand talents is about 6.2 billion dollars!
I told you Jesus loved hyperbole.
Six billion dollars. Of course, he cannot even begin to pay what he owes. So his boss—the king—orders him to be sold (along with his wife and children and all his property) in order to recoup at least part of the immense debt.
But the servant begs the king for mercy: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”
Which is unlikely. But—amazingly—the king takes pity on him, and decides to just cancel the entire debt. The man is free to go.
He is barely out of the room, however, when he bumps into one of his fellow servants, who owes him money. A much smaller amount. A hundred denarii. A significant amount—about $16,000 in today’s currency. Significant. But a pittance compared to $6.2 billion.
So this guy—who’s just been forgiven that whole massive debt … What does he do?
Seizing the other man by the throat, he says, “Pay what you owe.”
His fellow-servant pleads with him, begging for more time. “Have patience with me,” he says, “and I will pay you.”
But the first servant is having none of it. He calls the cops, and has the second man thrown into prison until he pays up. Now this is pure spite. How can anybody raise money from a prison cell?
Well, we know how the story plays out. The people who witness this heartless act go and tell the king about it—and he reverses his earlier merciful decision. Calling the heartless servant onto the carpet, he says: “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?”
Then he hands the guy over to be tortured until he comes up with that six billion dollars! And Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Gulp. Here’s hoping this story is hyperbole! However, Jesus’ point is crystal-clear: we are to forgive one another—forgive our fellow-servants—an infinite number of times. Just like the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
Yeah. Debts and debtors. That’s how Matthew frames the prayer back in chapter six. Sins and wrongdoings were considered as debts in Jewish society. And forgiveness was regarded as a paramount virtue.
Now, remember that Jesus was talking about how we are supposed to treat fellow believers. According to a footnote in my study Bible, “member of the church” can also be rendered as “brother or sister.”
“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Brother. Sister. Fellow servant. We who claim Jesus as Saviour and Lord are servants of the heavenly King. No matter how determined we are to rat one another out, God is the One who settles accounts, in the end. As the apostle Paul states the case: “[We] must not pass judgment on those … [whom] God has welcomed … Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (Romans 14:3-4).
“We will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make us stand.”
There’s the word of grace in all this, I think. However badly we mess up, somehow the Lord will sort us out. If we belong to Jesus, he will uphold us. However far we fall—however hard we fall—we can trust him to set us back on our feet.
I believe that—behind all the hyperbole—the truth remains the same: our salvation is not about having to live up to some unattainable standard of righteousness. No. It’s about being part of the family and household of God. As Paul says in his Letter to the Romans: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:7-8).
Jesus’ hyperbole challenges us to become better disciples. And the life of discipleship is challenging. At least here on earth, the challenges never cease. Someone has said that following Jesus is just like being in boot camp! Sometimes, it takes everything you’ve got. But it always makes you better. In fact, it challenges you to become the best that you can be.
Sometimes, we’ll succeed in that. Sometimes we won’t. But we have this promise from the One who goes before us: “Whoever comes to me, I will never cast out” (John 6:37).
Kind of like the United States Marine Corps (at least, in the movies) … Jesus will leave none of his comrades behind.
Jesus will leave none of his sisters or brothers behind. He came here on a rescue mission to break our chains and set us free. He ransomed us. And now, he will never abandon us. Let’s make sure we never abandon one another.