As Jesus and disciples journeyed across the Galilean countryside towards Jerusalem, there was much time for thinking and discussion. In the last story (110), we learned that the disciples had started a discussion about which one of them would be greatest in God’s Kingdom. As their excitement was building about what they thought Christ was going to do, some of them began to look sideways at each other and wonder who would come out in front. They started talking about it, which got everyone else thinking about it, and so the toxic poison of selfish ambition spread. Through the impulses of their own sin, a few of the disciples were spreading it to others. They were leading them into temptation.
Jesus knew exactly what was going on. Instead of talking about who would be first, he turned the discussion upside down.
Jesus started by explaining the extreme offense it is to God when one believer draws another believer into sin. Then He explained the tender mercy of God the Father towards those who have fallen into sin. They are like a lost sheep that a good shepherd will search high and low to find. And just as when the shepherd rejoices at finding his lost sheep, God the Father rejoices when a believer who has been lost is safely brought back into the fold. Then Jesus explained what to do when another follower of Christ has sinned against you. Rather than allowing him to pull you into their sinful choices, you come to him in mercy and remind him of the good ways of God:
“‘If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
“‘I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
“‘Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.’”
Notice how Jesus used the term “brother”? He thought of the Christian church as a family. He gave the relationships we have with each other the titles we use for family. In Jewish culture, being a part of a family meant there was a tightly, deeply committed bond for which you would sacrifice everything.
The Lord Jesus gave the disciples (and us!) a very clear, compassionate way to go to our brothers and sisters in Christ when we are concerned about sin. We all live in this cursed world, and every Christian is vulnerable to poor choices. The role of the family members of the Church is to act as guards for each other by gently helping and strengthening each other when one of us has crossed the line by doing wrong.
Notice that the first time we are to go to someone, it is in private. No gossip. No discussing with a thousand others to verify how wrong they are. It is the quiet, loving work of going directly to the person you are concerned about and having a discussion face to face. They can hear the love in your voice and see it on your face. They won’t feel exposed and humiliated by the fact that everyone else knows your concern.
If there is no love on your face, if your voice does not speak with gentleness and kindness, then pray for the person until the Lord has given you that love. Ask Him to do the transformation in their heart so that they need no correction from a brother or sister. Let the Lord correct your pride, critical spirit, or personal agenda. Pray until the words you have for the other person are genuinely filled with the grace and mercy of Christ. That work of prayer is one the most important works of the Church. Imagine what would happen if we did it well.
Do you remember what Jesus said about how glad God is when the one sheep that strays is brought back to the fold? The Lord wants for us to be a part of that. We can bring each other back. As we go through life together in the Church, we are meant to watch out for each other and help each other stay close to God. It gives the Lord great delight when we love and serve each other this way. Far from viewing each other as competition and seeking to be the greatest, we are meant to be on each other’s side, compassionate and supportive, as we all face the challenges of our world and seek victories for the Lord.
It is interesting what happened next. Peter asked, “‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’” Peter was the leader of the disciples. The problem of the story was that they were in competition with each other over who would be greater. What might that have been like for Peter? What was happening among the disciples that provoked Peter to ask that very question at that very moment? Perhaps he was growing weary of being challenged as the leader. Perhaps the competition was getting to him. Selfish ambition takes a toll on everyone, just as sin always does. Peter was asking about the task of forgiveness for a reason.
With his question, Peter was trying to be very generous. In the Jewish faith at the time, they believed they only had to forgive someone three times. Forgiving someone seven times was more than double what was normally required. But the disciples were not preparing to live for the kingdom of this world, with the its limitations. They were learning to live for the Kingdom of Heaven, and they had the power of God on their side! Jesus was going to set a heavenly goal. He said:
“‘I tell you not seven times, but seventy-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 his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“‘The servant fell on his face before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.’”
Wow. That was a very generous master! Ten thousand talents was worth millions of dollars. When the master forgave him, he lost all of that money in order to set him free. That was a great cost to the master, and was a lavishly generous thing to do. Can you imagine the freedom the servant felt after carrying that impossible burden? But the story isn’t over. Jesus went on:
“‘…when the 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 canceled 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.’”
When we read this story about the wicked servant, it is easy to get good and mad at him. What a terrible man! His master had forgiven millions of dollars of debt, but he wasn’t even willing to forgive his fellow servant a few bucks! He was willing to ruin the other man’s life! Why didn’t the goodness of the master show him a better way? Why didn’t his own experience of relief and freedom give him more compassion?
Jesus was an excellent storyteller. He knew that those who really listened to the story would feel very powerfully…even angrily…about how terrible that servant was. He knew it would help us understand how wrong it is when we don’t forgive someone after God has forgiven each of us of so many sins.
We each have a choice. Do we want to be like the wicked servant who selfishly held onto grudges and sought vengeance? Or do we want to have a different story? A story where the servant’s heart is made to be as kind and generous as the master, who spreads the goodness of the master to everyone we meet?
This story started with a problem. The disciples were competing over who would be the greatest. The sin of the few spread to others and was in danger of tainting the relationships within the group with the toxic poison of selfish ambition. But Jesus showed another way. Through the route of love, we do not seek to be great. We seek to deal with own our sin and serve and protect others when they are overcome by sin. We forgive each other over and over again as that battle is being waged. Rather than carrying the subtly malicious attitude towards others of being “better than,” we seek, pray, and work to have to the fierce, loyal love of a good brother or sister.
And wow…can you imagine what would happen if we did this well? If the watching world looked on the Body of Christ and saw us serving one another with His love, what a testimony that would be.