Moving from Romans 7 to John 4

One of the more encouraging conversations I have had recently began with a torrential downpour of confession and ended with what amounted to a benediction. The blessing caught me entirely by surprise since the seriousness of the sins I had committed was not inconsequential. So this was not “cheap” encouragement. In fact, there was a great deal of emotion bound up in the weight and severity of my sins; it very clearly cost the other person quite a lot to cheerfully offer me this forgiveness. How does something like that happen?

Every semester for the past five years or so, my wife and I have facilitated a DivorceCare recovery group at The Crossing. This Wednesday, we are planning to close out our ninth session. Every time we have offered this class, Crossing pastor Dave Cover has agreed to join us as our guest speaker during the session where we discuss the topic of forgiveness. In that context, Dave delivers a short homily entitled, “Every Christian Practices Forgiveness.”

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
by Barent Fabritius, 1780-1790.

As one of the facilitators of DivorceCare, then, this means I have had the distinct good fortune to hear Dave speak on nine different occasions to The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-35). Nine times in five years. And if I am honest, I admit that I still don’t quite “get” it. The best way to explain that would be to say that while my heart is drawing near, it has yet to enter fully through the gate. It is this singular issue – the willingness to forgive – that keeps me bound up in Romans 7, where the Apostle Paul mercifully shares with the rest of us how he, too, hates his sin but cannot always seem to hit the EJECT button. It’s maddening.

I won’t spend any time trying to explain how Dave is able to do such a great job of speaking to a roomful of people – most of whom have been horribly wronged – about their need to reckon with their own sin and offer amnesty to all who have deeply hurt and offended them. What I can tell you is that the key, for me, has been to meditate long and hard on Jesus’ use of the terms “ten thousand bags of gold” and “a hundred silver coins.”

As Dave explains it, “ten thousand bags of gold” is intentional hyperbole on the part of Jesus. This sum, in the ancient Near East, was absolutely ridiculous. Jesus’ point is that the debt incurred by the unmerciful servant is absolutely beyond paying back. Every character in the parable is fully aware that there is just no way for the person to ever do so. Nevertheless, the gracious king – a stand-in for God the Father, of course – chooses to be merciful and cancel the debt. The formerly-enslaved servant walks out of the king’s palace a debt-free man.

But then this same servant meets a fellow servant who owes him “a hundred silver coins.” Again, with the ancient Near East as a backdrop, the relative worth of this sum equals out to roughly three months wages. Certainly nothing to sneeze at! Three month’s pay is not an insignificant amount of money. Not at all. All of us would go to considerable bother, I imagine, to retrieve three months’ worth of wages gone missing.

And therein lies the trap. Precisely because the debt owed by the fellow servant is not insignificant, the unmerciful servant begins to choke and threaten the other, ultimately handing him over to the jailer. Jesus’ point, of course, is that we are exactly like this whenever we hold “a hundred silver coins” against anyone else. In that moment of unforgiveness toward our fellow man, we have failed to understand, appreciate and show gratitude for all that we have been forgiven in Christ.

Which brings me back to the recent conversation and its undeserved benediction.

Never have I felt more power to lead a changed life than I have under the care and instruction of those who really, truly understand the gospel and offer both forgiveness and acceptance, much as Jesus did when he met the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar (John 4).

Many of us, myself included, make the mistake of fearing that if we offer forgiveness all the time without exacting some sort of punishment, we are “enabling” bad behavior (or worse). We can even twist the words of Jesus to suit the sinfulness of our own hearts, coming away from situations having convinced ourselves that it is our “duty” not to forgive someone, lest they keep incurring the same injury over and over again.

Ironically, by failing to appreciate all that God has done for us in Christ, we tend to want to be God in the lives of others, the one ultimately in control of deciding whether or not they “deserve” grace and mercy…or punishment.

For those of us who do want to grow in our Christian faith and yet are really struggling with pernicious, besetting sin, there is nothing more liberating than having someone say to us, “Yes, you really messed up again. You seem to do the same thing over and over again. But I forgive you, and even if you never make much progress, I will always love you.” Of course, it is understood that a lifelong inability to conquer a specific sin may negatively change a relationship or cause some new boundaries to go up, and that distinction typically takes a great deal of wisdom and counsel to navigate well.

For those who have ears to hear, though, and a desire to imitate Christ, we are called to stay in wise relationship with our brothers and sisters trapped in Romans 7, all the while offering them the grace and mercy shown by Jesus in John 4. As someone who understands the despair of feeling trapped in sin, I can very honestly attest to the power that is unleashed whenever someone chooses to step outside the all-too-human House of Judgment and give me over to God, with their blessing and ongoing encouragement.

I have to think it’s very freeing for the person who refuses to judge or condemn and simply “allows” God to be God.

Romans 7:14-20 (ESV)
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

John 4:19-24 (ESV)
The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

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