Last Sunday, Devin Kelley walked into the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX and proceeded to shoot forty six people. Twenty six of them died. Kelley himself also died. It was a horrific act produced by a hate filled and twisted mind.
No doubt First Baptist doesn’t use a lectionary that provides the assigned Scripture readings, much less the one that we use here at Good Shepherd. But if they did, and today’s Gospel lesson was the portion of God’s Word that was before them, what would the Lord Jesus be saying to them about how they are to respond to Devin Kelley?
We know how the world has responded to Kelley. There has been disbelief and disgust. The murder of people – including children - in a church on Sunday morning seems impossible to fathom. Naturally he has been condemned as a wicked person – sick and twisted. News reports have filled in the details, and it is clear that he was a very disturbed individual.
Allow me now to modify my original question: What is Jesus saying in our Gospel lesson today about how a Christian is to respond to the Devin Kelley’s of the world? You may not like the answer. We want to think that when a person harms us in a profound way, that we have the right to be angry at them – even to hate them. But Jesus says this morning that instead … we are to forgive them.
Just before our text, Jesus had said, “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
Jesus has described how Christians are to seek out those who have gone astray. We are to do this because it is an action rooted in how greatly God the Father values them. Then in the next verses our Lord describes how this is done. He says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” No doubt you remember from catechesis that Jesus goes on to describe how a person is then to take two or three to talk to that individual. If he won’t listen to them, then the matter goes to the church, and if he won’t listen to the Church then ultimately he is excommunicated – removed from the fellowship of the Church. Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This loosing is forgiveness – it is absolution. The Lord had spoken about forgiveness, so in our text Peter approached with a question that he thought made him look pretty good. He asked, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Seven, as you may be aware, is an important number in the Bible. It has the connotation of completeness. Forgiving up to seven times – now that was impressive.
And yet … Jesus didn’t view it that way. For he replied, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” There is a question as to whether the Greek here means “seventy seven” or “seventy times seven.” It’s unclear, and actually if you ask the question about which one is meant you’ve missed Jesus’ point altogether.
Our Lord went on to explain what he meant through a parable. He said, “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.” The amount described here is absurd. By one calculation, it would have taken the man a thousand years to pay it off. I would be like saying you owed one hundred trillion dollars.
Of course the man couldn’t pay it, so the king ordered that the man and his family be sold as slaves, along with selling all his possessions, so that this could be applied to the debt. In response, the servant fell on his knees and implored the king: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” The servant’s statement was absurd – laughable, really. But then, the king did something unbelievable. We learn that, “Because the master had compassion on that servant, he released him and forgave him the debt.”
This is what God has done for you in Jesus Christ. He has had compassion on you. He knows your every sin – even the ones you yourself don’t recognize. And the thing to remember is that every one of those sins is committed against God. They are all violations of his command to love him with all that you are. They are all violations of his command to love your neighbor as yourself. Every one of them rejects God’s ordering of this world and is an offense to the Creator of the cosmos.
What you deserve is the full blast of God’s wrath and judgment. There’s nothing you can possibly do to make it up to the holy God. But instead, God placed your sin upon his incarnate Son and directed that wrath against him. The Father condemned Jesus in your place. And in doing so he redeemed you. He freed you from sin. He forgave you.
We hear in the parable that the servant went out and found a fellow servant who owed him one hundred denarii – a hundred day’s wages. This was a sizeable debt, but one that certainly could be repaid over time. However, he seized the man and began to choke him as he demanded, “Pay what you owe.” The servant fell down before him and spoke the exact same word that the man had just spoken to the king: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”
But the man would not have compassion on his fellow servant. He had the servant thrown into prison until he paid the debt. Their fellow servants heard about what had happened, and were greatly distressed. They reported the news to the king. So he summoned the man and said, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” In anger the master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. And then Jesus added, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Jesus teaches us this morning that the forgiveness we have received from God because of his death and resurrection surpasses anything we will ever be asked to forgive in another person. It’s not even close. So what is the response that Christians are to give to the Devin Kelley’s of the world? Forgiveness. What is the response that Christians are to give toward those who harm Christians? Forgiveness. What is the response that you are to give toward those who wrong and harm you? Forgiveness.
Lest you think that I am exaggerating, remember Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”
The forgiveness you have received in Christ, becomes the forgiveness that you share with others. Our Lord tells us today that the forgiveness you refuse to share is the forgiveness you do not get to keep. Jesus taught us to prayer in the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Then immediately after the Lord’s Prayer he added, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,
but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Apparently, he really does mean it.
Now if you are thinking, “I can’t do that.” I can only say that you are absolutely right. You can’t. It is only the Spirit of Christ who can make this possible. Only the Holy Spirit, through whom you received forgiveness in the first place, can enable you to share this forgiveness with others.
And here it is important to recognize what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is the recognition that I cannot choose to hold something against another person. I can’t keep mentioning the offense, and throwing it in the other person’s face.
This is not to be confused with the emotions that we feel. The feelings of being hurt and upset often linger. We may not feel at peace with the other person that we have forgiven. The first step is simply that we have forgiven them and we know that we want to feel that way. As people for whom the old Adam is still present, sometimes it takes time for our emotions to catch up with what our will has done in forgiveness. This sense of peace is something for which we begin to ask God in prayer. And in seeking this goal of feeling at peace with the individual, I cannot give you any better advice than that you begin to pray daily for that person. It may begin as what seems like nothing more than a rote exercise. But it is difficult for those feelings to continue unabated when we are praying daily for that individual.
God has given you forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Like the king who forgave the debt that could never possibly be repaid, your heavenly Father has acted in his Son Jesus Christ to forgive your sin. Freed from sin, you are free to forgive others. But this is not a matter of your own choice or discretion. It is inherent to the forgiven life you have received in Christ.