Guilt, Grace, and Debt-Collecting: The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant by Nikola Saric
Parable of the Unforgiving Servant by Serbian German painter Nikola Saric

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “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 bags of gold 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.

“At this the servant fell on his knees 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.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. 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 it 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 outraged 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 handed 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 or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35, NIV)

It is unfortunate that one of the few guarantees in life is that someone will hurt you, and that hurt will tear a hole in your heart and last a long time.

When the hurt comes, we all must decide how to handle the issue of forgiveness. Oh, it’s easy to talk about forgiveness when you are doing fine – its another thing when you are hurt. One man, during a conversation with his Pastor, had this story:

“Nineteen years ago, this guy stole my wife away from me. They got married and moved to Florida while my life unraveled.  After I was arrested for assaulting a police officer, this guy smirked through the entire hearing.  When I was convicted, he flipped me the finger. I’ve hated him for nineteen years. He’s coming up here next week. I have a thirty-two-caliber pistol strapped around my ankle, and when I see him, I will kill him. I’ve thought about it. I’m sixty-three years old. I’ll get a life sentence, but I’ll also get free medical, a warm bed, and three meals a day.  I’m ready to end my life this way.”

We may wonder: “Why even bother to forgive?  Why even care about that person?” Emotional pain and angry hurt can be so deep that we see no need for forgiveness. “After all,” we might reason, “look at what that person has done to me!”

Jesus does not want bitterness to be the last word; he wants it to be forgiveness. The parable of the unmerciful servant is a piece of Christ’s teaching concerning “little people,” that is, people who are, by status, lowly and unimportant to others. The heavenly Father’s heart is one that cares deeply for them. They are lost, lonely, and languishing in pain. They need help. Jesus clearly explained what to do, giving a three-step process to privately go to others who have hurt us and win them back through reconciliation (Matthew 18:15).

The disciple Peter, ever the wondering, if not wandering disciple knows that if a person hurts someone, they might do it again. So, if a lost sheep is brought back to the fold, and then is offensive again-and-again, at what point do we say enough-is-enough and stop forgiving?

We as people can often feel a keen sense of “ought to.” We feel we ought to pay the debt we owe to others, and that others must pay us the debt they owe. This works on the emotional level just as much or more than any other arena of life. If we offend someone and they become angry, we believe we ought to make them feel better.  If someone angers us, we expect them to make it right and make us feel better.

The late Methodist scholar and author, Dr. David Seamands, said the two major causes of most emotional problems among Christians are: 1) The failure to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and, 2) The failure to give that grace and forgiveness to other people. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Seamands.

We have grace available to us in Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection. We cannot earn forgiveness.  Grace is free.  Equally true is the fact that no one owes us anything.  Grace is free for others, as well.

The Failure to Receive Forgiveness

In the end, was the unmerciful man in Christ’s parable forgiven?… No…. Why not?… Because he failed to understand forgiveness and receive it.  It was not the master’s fault; it was the man’s own fault. So, why did he react so mercilessly to a fellow person in debt? (The man’s debt was in the billions and could not be paid off, but the other man’s debt was just a few dollars). The unmerciful guy failed to grasp the master’s grace; he didn’t get it.  He thought he could work it off, and when the debt was canceled, he could not wrap his heart around such mercy. None of us can repay grace – it is free.

The inability to know and receive grace drives many Christians to the tragic treadmill of constant striving for perfection, achievement, and recognition from others. Many people refuse grace and instead try to get rid of their guilt through endless work – fueling the workaholic, motivating the addict, and animating much of the service done in the church and the world. The problem is not a lack of understanding sin or acknowledging personal sinful actions among Christians; the problem is what to do about it. Too many believers are trying to work-off their debt.

The Unforgiving Servant by American artist James B. Jangknegt

Here is a little test: Why do you do what you do? Why do you do good and right things?  Be honest.  Is it to truly worship and celebrate the Lord who has erased such a great debt of sin in our lives? Or, are we working to pay off a debt to God?  Am I striving to assuage my guilt? Are we searching to feel better through our service to others?

We can be so accustomed to operating according to guilt instead of grace that we don’t know what to with the absence of guilt – so we just go back to guilt as our default setting, like a dog returning to its vomit. Furthermore, the tragedy is compounded by insisting that others operate out of guilt, too.

Another little test: Are we content to simply ask people to help or to serve, or do we believe that there must be arm-twisting with some guilt to motivate them? Guilt and arm-twisting are inconsistent with the gospel of grace.  If we believe we must guilt our kids, family, co-workers, neighbors, or anyone else before they will do anything, then it is us who have a spiritual problem.

Ideally, we live and work out of a sense of gratitude toward God and not by guilt. Yet, there are always folks who continue to work out their unhappiness on other people by insisting they get on the guilt train along with them. We are unable to forgive ourselves, so we live with the guilt and try to pay off our debt, making ourselves and everyone else miserable in the process.

The Failure to Give Forgiveness

The unforgiven are the unforgiving. The reason the guy in the story responded so violently to a person who only owes him a few bucks is because he never really believed he was forgiven by the master in the first place. He could not envision a world in which his debt was paid. The unmerciful man was still operating as though life were a matter of collecting debts.

At the heart of many broken relationships and emotional conflicts is an insistence on debt-collecting. We want from others something they cannot give us. God in Christ erases the great debt we have, not some other person.  Yet, we go out and seek from others what only God provides. People are good at being people – but they make lousy gods. It is God who meets the deepest needs of our hearts – your spouse, children, friends, church, and community cannot do it. That is a job for Jesus. The watershed issue is grace – whether we can receive it, or not.  We cannot give something we have not first received.

It would be weird if a marriage vow went something like this: “I have a lot of terrific inner needs and inner emptiness and debts to pay, and I’m going to give you a marvelous opportunity to fill my Grand Canyon of insecurity and take care of me!”

Sometimes people have a nasty tendency to make idols of other people and look at them as though they owe us a debt of happiness, joy, and peace. For example, the weird marriage vow, if followed through with, inevitably will result in debt-collecting. A few years down the road the spouse says, “This is not what you were like when I married you… You owe me!” Our insecurity comes from the inability to receive grace. It is all about grace. Everything is about grace, not guilt and not debt-collecting because the debt has already been paid and the guilt has been erased.

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled (with the blood of Christ) to cleanse us from a guilty conscience. (Hebrews 10:22)

Conclusion

You and I are forgiven. There is no need to collect a debt which is already paid. The cross of Jesus Christ has taken care of the sin issue once for all, and not one person reading this is an exception to grace. Here is a final exam, to determine if there is someone we need to forgive:

  1. The Resentment Test: Is there someone you resent? Is there someone who has wronged you?  When you see them or think about them, do you have resentment in your heart?
  2. The Responsibility Test: You say to yourself, “I wouldn’t have this problem if it wasn’t for ________.”  This is passing the buck and believing that my happiness is dependent on another person. The truth is that no one is responsible for your emotional well-being and happiness except you.
  3. The Reminder and Reaction Test: Is there someone who “presses your buttons?” This is when we see or talk to a person who reminds us of someone else who hurt us, and we react to that person by transferring our anger and/or pain onto them.

The Pastor responded to the man mentioned earlier who had lost his wife to another man by saying, “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter if you go to jail because you’re already in jail.  The guy who stole your wife and smirked at your hearing isn’t in jail. You are. You are a prisoner of your own hate, and you are slowly killing yourself.”  A week after that conversation the man called the Pastor and said, “You know, I get your point.  I put the gun away.  I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in jail – and I want to get rid of this bitterness.”

The way to do deal with bitterness is through forgiveness. To forgive involves a long journey, just like every other aspect of following Jesus. Hopefully, by retelling the gospel of grace to one another week after week our hearts will be soft.  We will want to begin the journey to forgive others, stumbling forward with hearts torn by hurts, yet set free by grace.

May it be so to the glory of God.

Tractor Time with Pastor Tim

Steel Mule tractor

A tractor is an engineering vehicle specifically designed to deliver at a high tractive effort (torque) at slow speeds for the purposes of hauling mechanized implements used in agriculture.  The word “tractor” comes from a Latin word, trahere, which means “to pull.”  Tractors, like people, come in all sizes, shapes, and colors – exuding both resilience and strength in their existence.

The Bates Steel Mule tractor was one of the most unique and oddest-looking farm machines ever built.  First built in 1913, it was like a cross between a steam boiler, a garden tractor and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  Bates Machine Company had the following advertisement for their Steel Mule tractor: “The only machine in the world which you can hitch up to any horse-drawn implement you now have and operate it from the same position you would your horses.”  In other words, you could operate the tractor by sitting in the implement seat, not the tractor seat.  The Steel Mule survived until they became one of the many victims of the Great Depression in 1937.

My grandfather (whom I never knew – he died when I was a year old) owned and operated a Steel Mule tractor (not the particular model shown above).  There was once a picture of him in the local paper using his tractor (I have it packed away somewhere and am still looking for it).  Grandpa was known for being the guy who would try new things and buy unique machinery – all in the quest for better farming methods.

The Steel Mule seems to represent my current state of ministry.  Like Grandpa, I have a drive and a desire for improving my pastoral craft.  I am open to trying new things and entering into a new way of being with the hospital patients I serve as a chaplain, as well as my peers, other staff, and really everyone I encounter throughout a day.  Yet, at the same time, I stubbornly hold to the past – sitting on the implement and not quite ready to fully embrace the new era of machinery instead of horses.  Which brings me to the whole point of this circuitous rambling of Tim’s Tractor Time:  What holds me back?  And, in so asking this question of myself, I also as it of you: What holds you back?

Yes, what does hold you and I back from taking the initiative to be vulnerable and open with our lives, instead of fearful, anxious, and hesitant?  What holds us back from collaborating with others?  Consulting before acting?  Consulting after acting?  Divulging our emotions and not just our thoughts? Speaking without always measuring and analyzing each word before we say it (or write it)?  As a seasoned minister, I can plow deep furrows with my Steel Mule into others’ lives – so, why not let others do the same in my field?  What is it I’m really pulling in that field?

Perhaps it is fear.  When Charlie Brown came to Lucy for a bit of practical psychosocial help, Lucy spouted a litany of various fears which she wondered Charlie Brown might possess.  Finally, she expressed that maybe he has “pantophobia.”  “What is ‘pantophobia’?” Charlie Brown asks.  Lucy responds, “The fear of everything.”  To which Charlie Brown demonstratively pronounces, “That’s it!”

A-Charlie-Brown-Christmas-image

Could be.  Could also be anger.  After all, anger often lurks in the shadows our hearts with a combination of it getting expressed in an unhealthy way or becoming twisted into depression.  There’s plenty of anger under the surface of the topsoil ready to get turned over and exposed.  Too much of it turned inward.  Certainly, it needs some plowing and cultivating, that is, processing outwardly with others… maybe… if we’re brave enough.

Then there’s this thing called liminal space – the space in-between where we can’t go back to the way things were ever again, yet, we aren’t quite where we want/need to be. It’s awkward being caught in the nexus between the past and the future.  Does this hold us back?  Or maybe it’s the fear of imperfection, of not doing something with utmost excellence?  Are we apprehensive about opening up because we don’t understand ourselves fully, so, therefore, I won’t (like a stubborn old Steel Mule) utter half-baked ideas or fragments of thoughts or, God forbid, emotional musings?  Like the Steel Mule, perhaps we are crossing over into a new era with the past very much there with it.

So, perhaps the greater question is: What are you and I really feeling, in this moment?  Figures it would take me all this thinking type verbiage to get to the emotional universe of feelings.  If we’re honest, we all are a diverse jumble of emotions – presently feeling overwhelmed; sad; happy; angry; hopeful; confident; scared; hungry; tired….  Oh, well, let’s just say we’re feeling everything.

Like the interlocutor in the book of Ecclesiastes, the conclusion of the matter is this: “Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is whole duty of everyone.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).  I hold back because of me.  You are hesitant because of you.  Nobody is twisting my arm.  That old enemy of our souls, the Adversary, would like nothing more than to keep us feeling weak and insecure so that he can keep us under his evil thumb.

No one is forcing you to use the Steel Mule tractor.  Quite the opposite.  In truth, there is nothing holding us back.  Nothing is stopping us from pulling our emotions out and discovering new ways to express them with confidence in healthy redemptive ways.  Nothing outside of our power to act is preventing us from the courage to do what we already know deep in our hearts we need to do…. Nothing.  So, then, I’ll look for you in the next tractor advertisement doing your unique, wonderful, and amazing work which comes from the depths of your love for God and others.

The Seven Deadly Vices (Sins)

            Being aware of both vice and virtue in our personal lives, in the workplace, in our neighborhoods, families, and churches can create an environment of trust, love, fellowship, and enjoyment.  Intentionally cultivating virtue, while identifying and forsaking vice, allow for a thriving community who attends to the common good of all.
            It’s likely that you have heard of “the seven deadly sins.”  In medieval Christianity, these were vices to avoid at all costs because they eroded personal integrity and poisoned the social community.  A “vice” is a bad habit which corrupts character and debases society.  Today we rarely, if ever, use the word “vice.”  City police departments still have “Vice Squads” which investigate illegal gambling rings and try to deal with prostitution.
            The early church eventually formed a short list of the most corrosive vices, the seven deadly sins, which were considered the most heinous desires/actions of all.  They are:
Lust
 
Lust is an intense desire, coupled with lack of mental self-control, which is manifested in pursuing that desire in the heart.  It is, especially, to have a passion for someone that is not meant for you, i.e. another person’s spouse.  Lust is mental adultery.  Lust leers at and indulges daydreams of another person, with only selfish ideas and no real concern for the other.
“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28, NIV)
 
“Run away from adolescent cravings. Instead, pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace together with those who confess the Lord with a clean heart.” (2 Timothy 2:22, CEB)
 
Gluttony
 
Whereas lust is mostly lack of mental self-control, gluttony is the lack of bodily self-control. Gluttony doesn’t stop eating, buying, talking, drinking, or binging.  It only excessively indulges to the point of physical and/or relational sickness.  Addiction is the modern-day gluttony – it consumes to the point where it cannot control the consumption any more.  The thing desired and indulged becomes the master.
“When you sit down to dine with a ruler, carefully consider what is in front of you.  Place a knife at your throat to control your appetite.  Don’t long for the ruler’s delicacies; the food misleads.” (Proverbs 23:1-3, CEB)
 
“So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, you should do it all for God’s glory.” (1 Corinthians 10:31, CEB)
 
Greed
 
Money. Money. More money – is the mantra of the greedy person.  It is to have an inordinate desire and pursuit of wealth.  Just as sex and food are good, but have their proper boundaries, so money is both good and necessary.  But money is powerful in more ways than one.  It can take over a person’s life in such a way that charging exorbitant interest, rent, or price gouging is justified by satisfying the greed.  The greedy person lives every waking moment for leveraging wealth to get more wealth.
“People who want to be rich fall into all sorts of temptations and traps. They are caught by foolish and harmful desires that drag them down and destroy them. The love of money causes all kinds of trouble. Some people want money so much that they have given up their faith and caused themselves a lot of pain.” (1 Timothy 6:9-10, CEV)
 
“Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5, NASB)
 
Sloth
 
Sloth is more than laziness.  It is failing to do good when it is in your power and ability to do so.  To be slothful is to be indifferent to the great need of the world.  Whereas the previous sins are more active in the pursuit of some desire, sloth is passive, not wanting to get involved in making a difference.  The slothful always have an excuse why they can’t participate; they expect everyone else to do the work.  The irony is that for all of Ebenezer Scrooge’s hard work and thrift, he was really a sloth who had no intention of improving the condition of humanity, depending on poor houses and work farms to do all the work.  It took supernatural means to get him to think differently.
Don’t be lazy in showing your devotion. Use your energy to serve the Lord. Be happy in your confidence, be patient in trouble, and pray continually. Share what you have with God’s people who are in need. Be hospitable.” (Romans 12:11-13, GWT)
 
“Do your work willingly, as though you were serving the Lord himself, and not just your earthly master.” (Colossians 3:23, CEV)
 
Anger
 
As with most things in life, anger has its proper place.  We ought to be angry in the face of evil perpetrators.  Anger motivates us to not be slothful, but helpful.  But excessive selfish anger is a vice.  Whereas righteous anger seeks to help a victimized person or group, sinful anger is fueled by hatred for another.  Whether it is a violent verbal decapitation of another, or a deep smoldering feeling which only seethes with hatred, anger destroys relationships.
“Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, ‘I will take revenge; I will pay them back,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19, NLT)
 
“Stop being angry!  Turn from your rage!  Do not lose your temper— it only leads to harm.” (Psalm 37:8, NLT)
 
Envy
 
Envy and lust are kissing cousins.  They both traffic in excessive desire for what they don’t possess.  The subtle difference has more to do with the object of the affection.  Lust leers at longs for a person who belongs to someone else.  Envy fixes its gaze on a material possession or a respected position which someone else has.  It is to have a passionate pursuit of taking over someone else’s job or keeping up with Jones’s.
“Envy rots the bones.” (Proverbs 14:30, NIV)
 
“For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” (James 3:16, NRSV)
 
Pride
 
Many people consider pride as the original sin which gave birth to all other vices.  Pride is to have an over-inflated view of one’s opinions, thoughts, and self.  Pride has an excessive understanding of itself.  The proud person truly believes that if only other people believed what they believed, did what they told them to do, and followed their advice and strategy that the world and the church would be a better place to live.  Every antagonist in the movies, comics, and classic literature are full of themselves.  They justify stepping on others to achieve what they think is the greater good of imposing their agenda in the situation.  Its no wonder that in the Bible Satan is the ultimate antagonist.
“If you respect the Lord, you will also hate evil.  I hate pride and bragging, evil ways and lies.” (Proverbs 8:13, NCV)
 
“For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (Galatians 6:3, ESV)
 
“Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.” (Romans 12:16, MSG)
 
            The seven deadly sins mostly live in the shadows, in the secrecy and darkness of one’s own heart.  Yet, they do come out and manifest themselves in bad behavior.  Long before an a hurtful action of sin is committed, it has spent time incubating in the darkness waiting for its chance to make the desire real.
            We cannot hold one another accountable if we do not share the things which are in our hearts.  None of these vices can exist when exposed to the light of confession.  That is why it is so very important to have safe places within the church in which people can share all their desires and their struggles.
How will you respond to the seven deadly sins?
Are there safe places and people for you to talk about your inner struggles?
In what ways and/or behaviors do you see these vices being manifested in the church?

 

What do you think can be done about it?

The Perpetually Upset Person

“Angry people must pay the penalty; if you rescue them, then you will have to do it again.”  –Proverbs 19:19

always upset

Dealing with upset people is a drag.  But there is such a simple solution to it that you might not even believe it.  If you learn to practice the one simple solution to dealing with angry people, your time will open much wider; your own emotions will calm down a great deal; and, you may find the kind of peace and settled conviction that you long for.

You know the type.  We have all dealt with them.  That chronically upset relative or in-law who demands your time and attention; the insecure co-worker who is constantly chirping about something he does not like in the company; or, the cranky neighbor who only talks to you when something infringes on his person or property.  These scenarios, and many more, you and I either have or will face.

I once was in a wedding in which a bridesmaid was constantly upset about something all throughout the rehearsal and into the wedding day.  It got so bad that, just as we were about to walk down the aisle, she became agitated about something she did not like, and angrily stormed away.

What would you do in such a situation?  What did I do?  Absolutely nothing.  I ignored her, told the rest of the wedding party to not follow her, and went about the ceremony.  When she saw no one was going to rescue her, she was in line at the last minute to participate.

If there is a person in your life who has frequent emotional meltdowns about most anything, here is a wisdom principle that can change your life:

Angry people get upset because it works – they get their way.  Someone will come to their rescue and fix their anger.  But if you will practice the simple solution of letting them just be upset and stew in their own juices without coming to their aid to make it all better, they will eventually stop sucking your time and energy into their angry vortex.

The angry person is typically one with some sort of entitlement mentality.  The bridesmaid didn’t like the way things were being done, and she felt “entitled” to have things go her way.  She wasn’t used to accepting “no” like most other people have to do.  She believed everyone else ought to adjust for her behavior.

The important point to note here is that it is not your job to fix their emotions; it isn’t your responsibility to smooth everything out so that everyone feels just fine and are calmed down.  Instead, it is my job and your job to practice self-control and be responsible for our own emotional well-being.  If you keep trying to calm an angry person and assuage their emotions to an even keel, you will have to do it again, and again, and again…. Until they figure out their anger doesn’t work, it just does not pay to be upset.

This means that, deep within your soul, you must move from the fear of negative emotions in others to positive possibilities in the right direction.  Not everyone is going to like you, no matter how hard you try.  Please understand that this does not mean we avoid helping others.  It just means we don’t enable their bad behavior by solving their problems for them.  We can walk beside them, encourage them, and teach them, but all without doing it for them.

Think about some ways you might deal with an angry person.  What can you say to them that will be positive and helpful, yet not take ownership of their problem?  Are you willing to be bold and tell them when they need to leave your office, home, etc.?  Can you live with their negative response to you for having firm boundaries in your own life?  How will you take charge of your own time without letting an angry person dictate how to use it?