Matthew 18:23-35 and The Absolute Necessity of Forgiveness

PD-Gold-Bars-and-Coins17-300x199Most people who are at least a little familiar with Christianity will know that forgiveness is a necessity for us. We have all fallen short of who we were created to be, and therefore we all need forgiveness from God. This is a staple of Christian preaching, from the most gracious and positive preachers to the hellfire and brimstone preachers.

Jesus talks about our need for forgiveness, but he also places an equal emphasis on our need to forgive others. In fact, Jesus goes so far as to link the two together. Look at this parable:

23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29 Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt.31 When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

In this parable, Jesus uses money to illustrate how we are to forgive. We have an unpayable debt to God. In the parable Jesus uses theSilver-Morgan-Dollars-and-Walking-Liberty-Half-Dollars-300x208 amount of ten thousand talents. This amount, in today’s prices, would be $22,012,560,000. Twenty-two billion dollars! This is almost unimaginable to us today. In a world where most people lived on $1.68 per day this was an astronomical amount. Yet this is what God forgives us. Then, the one forgiven turns around and finds someone who owes him $168 and has him thrown into prison. Here is the amazing part of the parable when we apply it to God–because this man did not forgive the small debt (the sin against the other person), God took away his forgiveness and condemned the man he had forgiven!

Forgiveness is absolutely essential to the Christian life, and not just us being forgiven by God. If we truly want to experience God’s forgiveness, we have to extend the same grace to others who have sinned against us. If we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us no matter how many times we pray a sinner’s prayer, call out to God in repentance, serve the poor and needy, or do anything else in the name of Christ. If we harbor grudges and will not forgive others, we can never be expected to be forgiven by God.

That is straight from the mouth of Jesus.

Ezra 1:5-6 and Exodus Once Again

ezra_nehemiah3The Book of Ezra picks up the story of the Jewish people at the end of the Exile, and we see them preparing for an exodus once again. This time it is from Babylon and Persia to return to the Promised Land. They are not going to enter as conquerors this time, but as subjects of a foreign empire. Nevertheless, their deliverance  back home is divinely inspired and orchestrated. Here is an interesting portion of the return story:

Then the heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites—everyone whose spirit God had stirred up—got ready to go up and build God’s house in Jerusalem.  All their neighbors assisted them with silver equipment, with gold, with goods, livestock, and valuable gifts, in addition to all that was freely offered.

Just like when the Israelites plundered the Egyptians as they left under the leadership of Moses, so now the people living around those returning to the Promised Land are given monetary gifts, equipment, and livestock. When God works something out, he usually prompts people to give to that cause. This is because it is all the Lord’s wealth and he has entrusted it to us. When we follow his leading and do his will, he will provide us the wealth to accomplish the task.

Deuteronomy 26:12 and The Purpose of Tithing

tithing_comicWhy tithe and what is the purpose of tithing?  The general opinion in most of the churches I have ever been was that tithing was what you gave to God through the church in order for the church to continue to survive and function in the world.  This section in Deuteronomy gives a different picture of the purpose of tithing, though:

When you have finished paying the entire tenth part of your produce on the third year—that is the year for paying the tenth-part—you will give it to the Levites, the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows so they can eat in your cities until they are full.

Here the tithe doesn’t go to the tabernacle/temple at all.  When it is paid, every third year, it is given to those who cannot take care of themselves and have nothing.  In this way every three years the poor have their fill.  This actually goes beyond helping those who have fallen on hard times financially.  They are cared for every seven and fifty years in God’s economics.  Rather, this takes care of those who have no possibility of helping themselves.  Widows and orphans have no inheritance and no property.  Levites have no inheritance and no property.  Immigrants have no inheritance and no property.  These are people who most likely will be permanently destitute of provisions in life unless something radically unexpected happens.

So, every three years the tithe is paid.  Ten percent of what all of Israel earned is given in that third year to alleviate the needs of the destitute among them.  This is a wonderful image of the blessings of God being shared by the entire community.  I know many pastors and congregations who emphasize tithing as our response to the blessings of God in our lives, perhaps not with this exact reason in mind, but for the sake of ministering to, with, and for the poor as a part of it.

The interesting thing, though, is that the tithe is not a Christian concept.  This is one aspect of life that was not carried over from Judaism at first.  If you read through Acts, the first Christians (who were Jewish, keep in mind) did not give ten percent, but rather shared everything they had so that there would be no one destitute among them at all.  This goes well beyond a three-year tithe.  This gets to the heart of possessions and how we use what we have been given every day.

All that we have is God’s.  We are stewards of his creation.  And we have been entrusted with his possessions to use them on his behalf to fulfill his will in the world.  This is what our earliest ancestors in the faith understood.  When we reduce this concept to giving ten percent of our wealth (and I know many pastors who would be shocked and utterly amazed if people actually gave ten percent!), we claim ownership of something that is not ours and relegate the tithe to God almost as payment for our material blessings.

Perhaps it is time to see the true purpose of tithing once again, to alleviate the pain and suffering of the destitute among us, and how the Church elevated this far beyond the ten percent gift so that all benefited from all of God’s blessings.

Deuteronomy 15:1-2 and God’s Economics

debt-consolidation-1Every once in a while I am completely taken aback by such a different version of life that is portrayed in the Bible.  Take this passage concerning God’s economics:

Every seventh year you must cancel all debts.  This is how the cancellation is to be handled: Creditors will forgive the loans of their fellow Israelites. They won’t demand repayment from their neighbors or their relatives because the Lord’s year of debt cancellation has been announced.

Not only is this very explicit, it is reinforced a few verses later in 15:9

But watch yourself! Make sure no wicked thought crosses your mind, such as, The seventh year is coming—the year of debt cancellation—so that you resent your poor fellow Israelites and don’t give them anything. If you do that, they will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

Couple that with the Jubilee Year where all land reverts back to its original owner every fifty years, and this is a completely different understanding of economics, prosperity, ownership, and success.  This is a vision of stewardship rather than ownership.  It is a vision where God owns all things and we are entrusted with them for a time.

I have often wondered what it would look like if a community actually put this kind of economics into practice.  There is still the potential for financial gain–in fact God says as much in promising blessings if it is followed.  One consequence would be that the cycle of systemic generational poverty could potentially be broken.  If all debts were cancelled every seven years people would not remain in debt.  If all property were redeemed and returned every fifty years all families would have an opportunity to restart their lives every second generation.

I wonder if that would even be possible in the world as it is today.

Numbers 11:18-20 and God’s Response to an Unholy Desire

quailThere are many times in life when people wonder why things happen the way they do.  There are other times when the response seems perfectly correct.  And then there are other times when we don’t understand what is happening because we are in the middle of the situation.  In Numbers 11 the Israelites begin a long series of grumblings against God.  Specifically in this passage, they wanted to return to Egypt so they could have the food they were used to eating.  They had an unholy desire to return to the little that they knew rather than accept the abundant blessings promised in an unknown future.  God’s response is quick:

To the people you will say, ‘Make yourselves holy for tomorrow; then you will eat meat, for you’ve cried in the Lord’s hearing, “Who will give us meat to eat? It was better for us in Egypt.” The Lord will give you meat, and you will eat.  You won’t eat for just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days,  but for a whole month until it comes out of your nostrils and nauseates you. You’ve rejected the Lord who’s been with you and you have cried before him, saying, “Why did we leave Egypt?” ’”

God responds with a punishment that perfectly fit the offense.  They rejected God because of meat, therefore God will provide meat until they are sick of it.  Of course this is the nature of sin.  When we desire something other than God, or God’s good purposes in our lives, when we get what we desired it usually is not good and can cause us harm.

Nobody I know has ever had to eat meat until it came out of their noses, but I do see this very same unholy desire today.  Our Western Culture wants stuff–money, possessions, homes, land, cars, and all the supposed security that comes with them.  God has given us so much stuff that it comes out of our noses.  Many people in our culture desire stuff so much that they will buy things they do not want with money they do not have to keep up with people they do not know.  And it is destroying our families and our culture.  Debt is still beyond control and fear of an unknown without our stuff propels many to work harder to secure more stuff.

This attitude began in the US after World War I.  We had a corrective of the Great Depression, which took away most people’s stuff.  Families had to work hard, not to accumulate stuff, but to survive.  The children that grew up in this environment, though, went right back to the first mindset and decided that they would prove their love and support for their families by making sure their children had more stuff than they had growing up.  This attitude continued through the Baby Boomers and into the adults of today.  The Great Recession began to undo some of this attitude, but current polls and surveys show that adults in America today, for the most part, still are putting too much faith in their possessions and stuff than in God.

Our materialism is coming out of our noses, and we are exporting that attitude around the world.  I do not look forward to God’s response to this unholy desire.

Luke 20:20-26 and Caesar or God

11764378_1I love the story of the attempt to trap Jesus by talking about taxes.  It is so obvious that this would be a no-win scenario if Jesus were to answer the question in the yes/no way in which it was presented.  And it is wonderful how Jesus demonstrates that wise as serpents aspect to the faith in his response to the questioners.

The legal experts and chief priests were watching Jesus closely and sent spies who pretended to be sincere. They wanted to trap him in his words so they could hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor.  They asked him, “Teacher, we know that you are correct in what you say and teach. You don’t show favoritism but teach God’s way as it really is.   Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  Since Jesus recognized their deception, he said to them,  “Show me a coin.  Whose image and inscription does it have on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied.  He said to them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  They couldn’t trap him in his words in front of the people. Astonished by his answer, they were speechless.

This is a conundrum of a question.  If Jesus appeals to the Jewish identity and surging nationalism and says not to pay taxes, then the authorities can hand him to the Romans to be tried for treason.  If, on the other hand, Jesus says to pay taxes, then he would lose credibility with his Jewish hearers as they feel oppressed by Rome and do not like collaborators with the enemy.

Yet look at what Jesus says.  He does not say, as so many have interpreted this passage, that it is ok to have a division between our religious lives and our civic lives.  That would be contrary to the very heart of the Gospel message that, in Christ, we are new creations and now live in the kingdom of God (albeit not fully).  When we are in Christ, our ultimate allegiance is to God and we are held to God’s standard for all of our lives, civic and religious.

Rather, Jesus says that the coin was made in the image of Caesar and has Caesar’s name on it, therefore it should be given to Caesar.  The implication then is that we ought to give God what is made in the image of God and has God’s name on it: us.  Let the rulers of this world have all the rocks and hunks of metal they want, but give your very lives to God.

This is why the questioners were speechless.  How do you argue against such piercing logic?  And how do we defend ourselves before God for not completely obeying this statement?

I am speechless as well.

Matthew 25:14-30 and God’s Economics

PD-Gold-Bars-and-Coins17-300x199If you are following the Bible Reading Schedule I posted at the beginning of the year (see here), we finished Matthew today.  In the readings we covered the Parable of the Talents (or Parable of the Valuable Coins).  This is a story that many people who have been around churches for some time have heard.

Interestingly, the rich man (who represents God) does not give his servants (who represent us) equal amounts of money (which represent resources of money, time, talent, ability).  One servant receives 5 coins, another 2 coins, and the third only 1 coin.  Then there is verse 15, which specifically states, “He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability.”  Not all people are equal.  And God, having created us, knows this fact.

This idea does not sit well in Western American culture.  We are brought up with the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.”  The idea that some receive more than others by God based on ability rubs us wrong.

Yet it is true.  Not all people could become world famous musicians because not all of us have rhythm, and some of us are even tone deaf.  Not all people could become neurosurgeons  because not all of us have the steady hands to perform that kind of work, let alone the inherent ability to learn what is necessary to be that kind of doctor.  Not all people could become a choir director, or a movie star, or a football player, or fill in the blank.  We are all different and have different abilities.

But one of the surprising points is the result of the different levels of disbursements.  The one who received 5 coins was rewarded with the phrase, “Excellent!  You are a good and faithful servant.  You’ve been faithful over a little.  I’ll put you in charge of much.  Come, celebrate with me” (verse 21).  The one who received 2 coins was rewarded with the exact same phrase in verse 23.  And this is God’s economics.  It does not matter how much one is given.  If that person is faithful with what he or she has, God rewards the same.  Two, five, or one million coins–the point is not how much we receive, but whether or not we are faithful with what we have.

The only failure is not to obey God or to be faithful in how we use the resources God entrusts to us.  How are we using what we have to further the kingdom of God and fulfill God’s will in the world around us?  As long as we use the resources God has given us to to this, the reward will be the same–a well pleased God.