Doing Away with Debts

One fine day, the king of beasts was surveying his kingdom. He visited a courthouse and met with the judge- a weary gorilla who was being worn out by his workload. So the king volunteered to relieve th judge. The gallery quickly became packed. Everyone was curious to see what kind of justice the king would dispense.

First to trial was a frail-looking coyote. She had been caught stealing a loaf of bread to feed her starving orphaned grandpups.

"You realize what you did was wrong." said the king. "You know I have to punish you."

"Yes." answered the grandmother with her ears back and her tail between her legs.

"Ten days in jail or ten shiny rocks." said the king. He then placed ten shiny rocks in a basket, paying the fine himself.

"It is an attrocity that this is a land wherein a grandmother has to steal to feed her grandchildren." said the king. He then proceeded to fine everyone in the courtroom one shiny rock for said attrocity. The coyote left that court with her offenses forgiven and a purse full of shiny rocks.

This story isn't entirely fiction. It is based on the true story of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1935.

Forgiveness. You'd think that this idea would be a fairly universal idea in religion, wouldn't you? As I was researching for this sermon, I had a surprise or two in this. I'm going to quote from Dr. Davidson Loehr, here. He's not a Christian, but he has some interesting things to say about forgiveness.

"There are a lot of other places that you donít find the word forgiveness and some of these are very surprising to me as I was doing my homework for this sermon. If you look in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, you wonít find an entry for forgiveness. Seems odd. If you look in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, you wonít find an entry for forgiveness. Seems odd, thatís been an idea for a long time, I think. Even if you look in the Encyclopedia of Religions, the sixteen volume encyclopedia thatís sort of the standard work for all world religions, you donít find and entry for forgiveness. You find and entry for fetish, and for all kinds of animal sacrifices bizarre practices, but not forgiveness."
Forgiveness, interestingly enough, is not a universal concept. In fact, in another part of the same sermon, he says "The notion in Buddhism that you need to be forgiven shows that youíre suffering under an illusion that you need to be freed from."

Why is forgiveness such an unpopular concept? Perhaps it is because people don't want to forgive. It seems that there's an almost ubiquitous belief that if you forgive someone, you're losing something. But is this really true? What does one lose when one forgives?

Ulcers, for one. I'll tell you that right now. You lose anxiety. You lose sleepless nights where you lie awake wondering what you should say if you ever meet this verminous son-of-a-gun again. You might even lose an enemy.

In the town of Julesburg, where I live, there is a man named Jim Kontny who once a year pays for all the men in Julesburg to get screened for prostate cancer. Yet there are those who refuse to get screened not because they aren't worried about cancer but because they hate Jim Kontny. Where is the logic in this?

When you hold a grudge against someone, what you do is you become their partner. Oh, yes. That person, however they wronged you, has planted a seed of hurt. It may be a very BIG seed. But when you hold a grudge, you hold onto that hurt and nurse it. You feed it with hate and water it with anger and it grows. Now you have a great big pain bush growing in your heart. And who suffers from it? Not the guy who wronged you. You're the one who'll be sipping maalox smoothies for the next few years.

And now I'm about to contradict myself. Or it least it might seem that way. It's a seeming paradox. Nobody wants to forgive when they've been wronged, but everyone WANTS to be forgiven when they've DONE wrong. Here's a story which I'm lifting from Ernest Hemmingway via Dr. Ronald W. scates...

"There is a universal longing, a hunger in every human soul for forgiveness; both to be able to give it, and to receive it. In one of his stories, Ernest Hemingway tells about a young man who wrongs his father and he runs away from home to the city of Madrid. Out of great love for his son, the father takes out an ad in the Madrid newspaper, 'Paco, meet me Hotel Montana, 12 noon Tuesday. All is forgiven. Papa.' Now Paco is a rather common name in Spain, and so when the father gets to the hotel, he finds eight hundred young men waiting for their fathers. "
If we all want to BE forgiven, why is it so hard to forgive someone else? Even the apostles had a hard time with it back before they received the Holy Spirit. Take a look at the story from our scripture reading. Peter asks Jesus how many times a person should forgive their brother for a repeated offense. Now the religious leaders of the time were saying three. Peter must have felt really magnanimous saying seven.

Jesus replies with "seventy times seven". We can interperet this as 490 if we want to, but then we miss the point. Jesus is talking about living a lifestyle of forgiveness. He's not talking about a quantifiable number. I think that may be a stumbling block for many people.

You can't look at forgiveness in a clinical way, to paraphrase Dr. Scates. If you try to pin it down by disecting the law, you're going to miss it. Forgiveness is based on grace, and grace is not explainable in scientific or legal terms. It's something that you just can't pin down to a set of rules because it's not about rules. This is why Jesus launches into his story. He gives us a very clear understanding of what it is to forgive in a very short time.

But as much as I love the bible, I have to admit that the story of LaGuardia is my favorite. The mayor (Or the king in my version) provides a perfect example of how God forgives.

God is just. He can't simply drop all charges when someone has sinned. Neither could the mayor in his role as judge. So he sentenced the poor grandmother, who did in fact deserve to be punished, but he then took that punishment on himself. That's just what Jesus did when He died on the cross. He took our punishment on Himself because not one of us could ever atone for our own sins any more than that poor grandmother could pay her fine. For her, taking her own punishment meant jail time. For us, the jail we've gotten out of is Hell. But LaGuardia didn't JUST pay the woman's fine. He became her advocate. He fought on her behalf and sent her away with her pockets full of cash.

That's how God forgives. He doesn't just say "you're good to go." and then dump us out on the street. He looks after us. He even adopts us as his own sons! Yes, even the ladies. In ancient Israel, daughters didn't get an inherritance. Men and women alike, we get to be sons and share in God's bounty, in His work, in His very nature.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint and level of growth, that means we have to forgive others because He forgave us. God is very clear on this point. Imagine if the grandmother who'd been caught stealing bread had caught someone else stealing food and proceeded to beat them about the head and shoulders with a stout cane? I think that is very unlikely, of course. This woman learned the value of forgiveness. How COULD she withhold it from others? It would have been like spitting in the judge's face and calling him a sucker. When we refuse to forgive someone, that's exactly what we do to God. We also lose the right to claim that we are his children. Children follow the nature and teaching of their father. It is only by reflecting God's forgiving nature that we can claim to share in His nature.

So to my fellow Christians, I encourage you to rejoice in the fact that you have been forgiven and strive to forgive others just as Christ forgave you.

To those who have not accepted Christ's offer of forgiveness, I implore you to consider that you have been placed in the position of the grandmother. As a sinner, you are guilty before God. Every one of us is. Your sentence has been passed. But the judge has paid your fine. Do you accept? Do you allow Him to grant you that grace which He so earnestly desires to give you?

If you want to accept this unearned pardon for yourself, Please come see me or one of the elders after the service.

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Pastor Oren Otter
May 20, 2006


Today's Reading: Matthew 18:21-35

21 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?"
22 Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 "Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.
24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.
25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 "The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.'
27 The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 "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.
29 "His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'
30 "But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 "Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.
33 Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?'
34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."