August 17, 2015

August 16, 2015 - Matthew 18:23-35

Theme: Are you a Sponge or an Octopus?

Matthew 18:23-35 For this reason, the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began to settle accounts, one who owed 10,000 talents was brought before him. 25 Since he had no way to pay it back, his master commanded that he, his wife, his children, and everything he had be sold to pay the debt. 26 "At this, the slave fell facedown before him and said, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you everything!' 27 Then the master of that slave had compassion, released him, and forgave him the loan. 28 "But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him 100 denarii. He grabbed him, started choking him, and said, 'Pay what you owe! ' 29 "At this, his fellow slave fell down and began begging him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' 30 But he wasn't willing. On the contrary, he went and threw him into prison until he could pay what was owed. 31 When the other slaves saw what had taken place, they were deeply distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had happened. 32 "Then, after he had summoned him, his master said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Shouldn't you also have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you? ' 34 And his master got angry and handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he could pay everything that was owed. 35 So My heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from his heart."

One of the great features of the Pacific Northwest is the diversity in wildlife. This is especially true with the marine biology in the Puget Sound area. You don’t have to go far to see whales or orcas. Just last week, we were at the beach, only 15 minutes from here, and we could see dolphins off the coast. We’ve seen seals a couple of times as well.

To emphasize the Holy Spirit’s lesson from our text this morning, I’d like to highlight two marine animals in particular – the sponge and the octopus. At first you might think, “Okay, pastor, how much coffee have you had this morning?” But bear with me a moment and I think you’ll see something that helps you remember what Jesus is saying in these words. There really isn’t much of a connection between the sponge and the octopus, but that’s the entire point.

When we think of a sponge, we don’t typically think of the animal. What usually comes to mind first is the household cleaning item. Sponges of that variety are commonplace in all homes. We’ve all had to use a sponge before to clean up a mess and we know that it works well to absorb things. The items we use at home share a common name with the marine animal because they both feature this unique characteristic. A living sponge in the ocean survives by allowing water to pass through its body. When this happens, the sponge absorbs tiny organisms as food. In this way it’s kind of an underwater filtration device. The sponges we use in our homes are based on the same properties. In this way, a sponge can’t avoid things, it simply absorbs them when they come.

The octopus is an animal with much different qualities. It is a master of stealth and diversion in the ocean. In contrast to the sponge, the octopus relies on its ability to dodge and escape for survival. Upon seeing a live octopus for the first time at the Seattle Aquarium, I learned a simply fascinated fact that shows these escape qualities, many of you have probably seen this too. An adult octopus, weighing up to 90 pounds, can fit through a 3 inch diameter hole. That means that an octopus can find just about any nook and cranny in the ocean to help conceal itself. It can shrink into areas where predators cannot. And of course, an octopus has another unique escape tactic which it is well known for, the ability to spray ink as it darts away. 

Do you see the contrast? A sponge is built to withstand and absorb. An octopus is built to divert and escape. Now here’s the comparison: Which one are you like when it comes to dealing with the sins of others? Are you willing to withstand and absorb your fellow brother or sister’s shortcomings by offering mercy and forgiveness? Or do you dodge and deflect the issue by holding onto hard feelings and grudges? There’s only one way to truly solve sin, and Jesus gives us the answer in our text, through forgiveness. Forgiveness is the only way to fully absorb sin and be done with it – the only way to truly get rid of it. And forgiveness works because there was One who started it all. There was One who took the first step, who stopped the pattern of deflecting and ignoring sin and of casting blame on others, and simply forgave. That person was Jesus and we learn to forgive from Him.

Jesus taught the true meaning of forgiveness through the simple parable before us today. Sometimes, His parables take great time and study to fully understand. This one, however, is one of the easiest to grasp. Both young and old, new to the Bible and experienced Christian, can readily interpret the underlying meaning of these words. Jesus speaks of a simple scenario, a servant who owes his master money. And the debt is great. A talent was a rudimentary unit of measurement in ancient times. It wasn’t very precise but it was equivalent to about 60 pounds of material. In most cases, a talent was used to measure gold, and this thought fits well in our text as we consider this debt. When you think of one talent being 60 pounds of gold, you see quickly the great debt this servant owed.

But the importance here is not the exact value of the debt, but what it represents. Essentially, a 10,000 talent debt represents something that can never be paid back. One scholar commented that this value is symbolic, simply meaning in our terms, “millions of dollars.” In contrast to this is the second servant’s debt of 100 denarii. One denarius was equivalent to a single day’s wage, regardless of occupation or amount. This debt was about 3 months of wages, not insignificant by any means, but also not even comparable to the 10,000 talents. One pastor I recently spoke to put it this way. The second servant would need 3 months of wages to pay back his debt. The first servant would need about 80,000 months. With this insurmountable figure in mind, Jesus emphasizes two things. First, the servant’s unworthiness. The first servant had no ground to stand on to defend himself. He deserved nothing. The implication of this insane debt points to the likely fact that he had foolishly squandered his resources and could thank only himself for being in that situation.

But closely behind this thought is the second point of emphasis, the master’s mercy. In a state of such unworthiness, the servant was at the mercy of his master. He would never be able to pay back his debt on his own.  The remainder of his life would in large effect be controlled solely by the master’s decision. He was at risk of losing his freedom, his family, and all of his possessions. There was nothing the servant could do or say to prove himself worthy of anything.

The spiritual connection of this parable, both to those who first heard Jesus say it and for us today, is abundantly clear. We owe God a massive debt, much larger than any amount of gold. We owe Him absolute holiness, and now that we’ve fallen short of that goal we also owe Him the payment of our sins. Not only does God require us to be righteous like He is, He also demands that something be done to get rid of all the sins we’ve committed. Faced with this debt on our own there is nothing we can do. We can’t even begin to promise as the servant did that we will pay it all if God just gives us time. Given all of eternity, we would never find an adequate way to pay for our sins and achieve God’s perfect standard on our own. We are at His mercy.

But thank the Lord that we are at His mercy because it’s out only hope! God comes to each of us and says, as He did to the paralyzed man, “Be cheerful, your sins are forgiven!” Isaiah pictured this forgiveness under the context of a purchase being made, much like the thoughts of the parable. “Come, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters; and you without money, come, buy, and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost! 2 Why do you spend money on what is not food, and your wages on what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and you will enjoy the choicest of foods. 3 Pay attention and come to Me; listen, so that you will live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, the promises assured to David (Isaiah 55:1-3).”

God allows us to receive the gifts and blessings of faith that we could not attain by our own works. It is solely an act of His mercy. Without that mercy in our lives we would have no hope, instead our debt of sin would continually hang over our heads. The transformative power of God’s mercy is the theme of this parable. But it applies to more than just your relationship with God. There’s also a part of the message that points to your relationship with others. God’s mercy is not only the controlling authority in your heart of faith, but also in your interactions with other people.

As Jesus said in another parable (and one that happened to be about servants also), “To whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48).” We have been given the life-changing gift of God’s mercy; something that transforms our lives from gloom to hope. But that gift is not reserved only for us, all people have access to it. Therefore, those who have received it, the ones whose light of faith has been turned on, have the task of bringing that came mercy to others.

Here’s where we get back to our question for today. Are you a sponge or are you an octopus? Are you able to absorb your fellow Christian’s shortcomings and respond with mercy and forgiveness? Or do you dodge and run away from what you know you should do so that you can hang on to your anger? When it comes to life’s troubles and mistakes, we’re all skilled at the escape methods of our sinful flesh. Resisting forgiveness is easy because it comes naturally to us and it often makes us feel better in the moment. But when sin is not absorbed, it simply moves on to someone else. We may convince ourselves that we can isolate sin and keep it contained but that’s impossible. Sin grows by being practiced. When you give into it and allow it in your life, it doesn’t stay contained, it spreads.

Only when you resist the urge to hang on to sin and respond instead with mercy and forgiveness, does that sin die. The power goes back to the unique gift of God’s mercy. Not only has Christ absorbed all of your sins, He’s done the same for the entire world. He didn’t react with hostility. He didn’t hold grudges. He didn’t perpetuate the atrocity. He didn’t hide from the problem that existed. He absorbed it. He took it away. Sin is now defeated. Part of the gift is that you can follow His lead. Like our Scripture reading from Ephesians says: And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ.

God’s mercy can be used by you to get past the indiscretions of others. But, sometimes those sins are so big and so bad that we could never forgive. Isn’t that what we typically hear? Isn’t that what we typically think? That debt that they owe me is too big. Instead of forgiving them, I’m going to hold them hostage and make them feel my pain for life. Who are we to say mercy wouldn’t work, or that others don’t deserve it? Mercy if the very thing Christ used to get past your sins against Him. Truly, what unfaithful servants we are if we refuse to exercise this same mercy for others; when some minor debt clouds our hearts and minds so that we forget the enormous wage Christ freely paid for us. This is why we emphasize the Gospel in everything we do and say. It’s the Gospel alone that absorbs and disposes of sin. The Law of God show us where that sin is at but it doesn’t help us get rid of it. The Law doesn’t help me get past the hard feelings and grudges that I hold against others. The Law doesn’t pay the debt that I owe or the debt that others owe me. Sometimes I like to use the Law too much because it makes me feel better. It makes me feel like I’m a more worthy or more deserving Christian than others when I follow it better than others. But that doesn’t absorb sin, it tries to hide from the truth. Only the free, flowing from God’s mercy to us, Gospel can absorb sin.

Dear friends, remember the lesson of this parable and apply it in your life. You can be a spiritual sponge. You can let go of the hard feelings. You can let the hurt and the anger flow through your soul like water. You don’t have to try to hide and escape from sin like Adam and Eve first did. Be an agent of mercy, not of deception. You can absorb sin and let it end there. Christ gives you that power, that responsibility, and that command. It’s always easier to seek escape than to face reality. It’s always feels better in earthly ways to hold on to grudges and ignore the wrongdoer, rather than seek restoration. But that’s not the way you have learned Christ. He paid your debt. You are a faithful servant, be faithful in the task of helping others come to the same mercy. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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