September 17, 2017 “Family” – Matthew 18:21-35
September 17, 2017 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
How many of you have been deeply hurt by another member of your family? By a brother, sister, father, mother? Maybe a husband or wife? Some other extended family? My guess before I stood up here was that there would be a lot of hands raised this morning in response to that question. It’s a strange but real part of our humanity that the very relationships we value so much are also the ones which cause us the greatest pain.
It may surprise you that until “A River Runs Through It” came along, I would always say my favorite movie was the incredibly silly, immoral and irreverent film of Lerner and Loewe’s musical “Paint Your Wagon.” I think I was most attracted to the high Sierra scenery and the silly highjinks, but Clint Eastwood singing the sappy love song, “I Talk to the Trees” is so pathetic it’s funny.
Another number from “Paint Your Wagon” that got burned into my fifteen-year-old brain was Lee Marvin slogging along in mud and rain while singing, very badly in a gravelly voice, “I Was Born under a Wandering Star.” It’s a rumination on the life of a restless drifter. One verse goes:
Mud can make you prisoner,
And the plains can bake you dry,
Snow can burn your eyes,
But only people make you cry.
It’s not quite literally true. Many things make us cry, and as we’ve experienced recently, weather is not the least of these. But I felt then and still feel that there’s something right about those words, “only people make you cry.” Nothing brings tears to our eyes quite like people in our lives. And no people hurt us quite like family members do.
So why on earth, we might ask, does Valley Covenant Church want to identify itself as and proclaim its vision to be… a family? Our text for today, translated properly, uses that language. In verse 21 Peter asked Jesus how many times he needed to forgive a brother. And Jesus closed His parable about an unforgiving servant by declaring in verse 35 that His listeners were to “forgive your brother from your heart.”
We might just say that our vision to be a family is biblical. Family language is all over the New Testament. God is our Father and we are His children, which makes us His family, which makes us brothers and sisters. I grew up in a church where people regularly addressed each other in that way. Our pastor was “Brother Monty” and the music director was “Brother Sam.” My mother was “Sister Margaret.” This was not a monastery or convent, just a little Baptist church taking seriously that idea of being a family.
They addressed each other as family, but they also sometimes fought as bitterly as any family. That may be one reason Lee Marvin’s song impressed me so much at age fifteen. I had already witnessed several ugly church business meetings from which my mother and others walked away in tears. “Sisters” and “brothers” in the Lord did as a good a job of wounding each other as any blood relatives ever did.
So let me ask again. Why is it our vision to be family? Why would we ever want to build and nurture relationships with each other that are so full of the possibility of pain? Why not keep ourselves at a distance? Maybe it would be better to be more like the Rotary Club or the Opera Guild. We could just get together, engage in activities we mutually enjoy, but keep each other at enough distance that we won’t get hurt. Why get anywhere near that messy, complicated, possibly hurtful idea of being a family?
The simple answer is that we were created to be a family. In the conclusion to the parable in verse 35 of our text, Jesus calls God “your heavenly Father.” If we have one Father, then it follows quite clearly that we are sisters and brothers in His family. That’s the basic starting point which Peter assumes when he asks his question about forgiveness and which Jesus confirmed with His parable.
A couple weeks ago we heard from the apostle Paul on Mars Hill in Acts 17 that same basic idea that God is the Father of one human family. The Church was formed by our Lord to make that family into a living, breathing reality here on earth. So in our call to worship this morning from Romans 8:16, we quoted Paul again saying that the Holy Spirit Himself tells us that we are children of God. By the declaration of the Lord Himself and His Word in the Bible, we the Church are a family.
We still might ask “Why?” If families are so often full of pain and hurt, why duplicate and perpetuate that in what should be the perfect society of Christian community? Why not find some other model for Christian life together? Why stick with an image for our relationships that is so fraught with possibilities for harm and misunderstanding?
As you probably know, Scripture does use other images for how we relate to each other in Christ. Paul says we are members of His body. As the men read Friday from James chapter 2, starting with Abraham the people of God have been known as His friends and thus friends of each other. More abstractly, Paul and Peter both suggest we are stones in a building. There are many other biblical ways to look at relationships in the Church, but we keep circling back around to this basic idea that we are a family.
Why? Perhaps because God means for us to enjoy together those blessings we still perceive in our merely human families. Despite all the pain family causes us, we keep on desiring it, sticking with it, going back to it. In our age, depictions of family on television and in movies have grown awfully cynical and dark, but it’s still a subject that draws us in. The animated family comedy, “The Simpsons” is the longest running scripted television series in history. It starts its 29th season on October 1. It’s about a totally dysfunctional family, but it’s a family that sticks together and often shows love to each other despite their ridiculous failings and weaknesses.
The Simpsons’ view of Christianity, particularly in the form of their fundamentalist neighbor, is not too complimentary. But as one of my pastor friends mentioned to me a long time ago, they’ve been one of the few television families who are regularly shown going to church. And their cohesion and persistence in spite of all their failings makes them a not-too-bad picture of what the church itself can and should be like.
The Simpsons stay together regardless of their faults because it sells television programming. How do regular families and how do churches stay together in the face of all the shortcomings and hurts which drive them apart? This text today offers the key to that cohesion. The slogan “Families that play together stay together,” rhymes, but the truth is much closer to this: “Families that forgive each other stay together.”
Forgiveness is the key to keeping ordinary human families together and saving them from all the pain and hurt they can cause. We saw a brilliant picture of that this morning in the story of Joseph and his brothers. His brothers sold him into slavery and told their father he was dead. But when he finally had absolute power over his brothers in Egypt Joseph’s heart was filled not with a thirst for revenge but with a tearful compassion to forgive.
That kind of forgiving compassion for family, especially for the family of God, is what Jesus asked of us in our text this morning. It’s the only way family can possibly work. My wedding present to every couple whose marriage I serve at is Walter Wangerin’s book, As for Me and My House. In it he tells deeply personal stories of the hurts and arguments of the early years of his own marriage and how he and his wife learned to forgive each other, especially how she forgave him, over and over, just like Jesus told Peter to do.
There’s some question whether Jesus told Peter to forgive seventy-seven times or seventy times seven, 490 times. But, either way, the point is that giving of forgiveness goes beyond any reasonable counting. As I shared with the children, the whole point is to quit keeping score, to quit counting the times you’ve been wronged.
If anything, that parable Jesus told about the unforgiving slave teaches us that the one who should be counting is the one forgiven. That huge debt, which amounted to more than fifteen years wages for a laborer, was probably amassed bit by bit over time. For you and I, it’s like millions of dollars. But the forgiven slave forgot to truly count how much he had been forgiven, let it slip from his mind when he confronted his fellow slave who owed him the equivalent of a few months’ salary.
Marriage, family, and church relationships only work when we quit keeping score of how often we’ve been wronged and make it a point to remember how often and how much we have been forgiven. In other words, our life together as a family, whether in our home or in our church is founded on the very most basic truth of our faith. Jesus Christ God’s Son gave Himself up to death and rose again so that we ourselves might be forgiven, over and over and over, amassing a huge debt of forgiveness which we must not forget to count whenever forgiveness is asked of us.
We also need to get straight on what forgiveness is. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend Wangerin’s book on marriage. He says exactly what my friend Robert Roberts says in a book on Christians and psychotherapy. Forgiveness is not a matter of pretending nothing happened, that no wrong was done. If you try to forgive by simply ignoring what a person did, it’s not real forgiveness. The king in the story cancelled the debt, but he didn’t forget it. He reminded the servant again of what had been forgiven in verse 32, “I forgave you all that debt…” Forgiving begins with the fact that a real wrong has happened.
In Roberts’ terms, you can’t simply exonerate an offender or it’s not forgiveness. You can’t just give her excuses, say she couldn’t help what she did, or pin it on her upbringing, or find some other way to remove her blame. Forgiving means a person really is to blame. Otherwise there’s no point, nothing to forgive.
In much the same way, forgiving does not condone a wrong done to you. It’s not just saying, “That’s O.K., it doesn’t matter. No harm, no foul.” To let a person off the hook by pretending what was wrong and cruel is somehow morally acceptable is not forgiveness. Forgiveness begins as it did for the king, with an accounting which shows there is a real debt, a true wrong demanding payment. Only then can forgiveness be considered.
The secular world, the world of psychology and mental therapy, has its own reason for forgiveness. We’re told to forgive because it’s good for us. To forgive is to let go of the anger you have toward someone. That’s true. But secular therapy focuses on the fact that’s it’s healing and therapeutic for the one forgiving. Anger is destructive to ourselves. So forgiveness is good for the forgiver.
Yet Christian forgiveness, according to Roberts, is aimed the other way. In the parable the king forgives not for his own sake, but for the debtor’s sake. If anything, the king loses by forgiving. Jesus didn’t teach me to forgive because it’s good for me. He told me to forgive because it’s good for the one forgiven.
That’s why Christians forgive when there is repentance. The servant in the story got down on his knees to signal he was sorry, that he was repentant. At least he said that he would mend his ways and try to make things right. Forgiveness offers a chance for the repentance to become real, for there to be a true change in the other person’s life. It’s for their sake, not for ours.
There is not always repentance. The person who hurt you may not apologize, may not even think any wrong was done. You can still forgive for the other’s sake. Verse 27 says the servant’s master had pity, had compassion on him. Maybe he got to thinking about the wife and the children and all they would suffer. Maybe his heart softened and he simply felt sorry for this poor clod who had gotten himself in such a mess. We can forgive each other out of compassion, even when there is no repentance.
We also forgive for the sake of relationship. In verse 35, Jesus talked about forgiving our brothers. It means our sisters too. It’s that relationship we share with each other as children of God as part of the church family. We value those relationships so much that we forgive so the relationship can continue. Even without repentance, we forgive a person so that we can remain connected, remain friends, siblings, spouses or fellow church members. You forgive your child just because he’s your son, or because she’s your daughter. Those relationships are more important than the wrong that has been done.
This may also be a good point at which to say that forgiveness may not mean a complete restoration of relationship. You may forgive, but you don’t have to trust someone who has lied to you. You don’t have to move back in with person who abused you. You don’t have to keep getting hit or deceived or robbed. The king forgave that slave a huge debt, but he probably didn’t put him in charge of the royal bank accounts. Forgiveness can help make it possible for the wrongdoer to change, but it doesn’t assume that change has already happened or even ever will. We don’t change a person’s heart when we forgive, but we join God in giving that person an opportunity to become someone new and different.
The heart of it all is in the parable. We must learn to forgive because we have been forgiven. That king who forgave a huge debt is a picture of our God. He knows every instance of our lying, our cheating, our lust, our laziness, our greed, our hurtful thoughts and actions toward each other. And by the marvelous grace of Jesus Christ, He keeps on forgiving us. Christ died for us and forgave us before we ever repented, before we were even born. And because we are forgiven sinners, we can be a family. We offer that same sort of grace to each other, whether in our human families or in the family of God.
One of the benefits of understanding ourselves in the church to be a family is to offer people around us something they may find missing in today’s world. Only a few people in most cities today have deep family roots around them. Our own daughters live far away from us in other cities. Many of us here in Eugene and Springfield have come from other places leaving family behind.
Church community can step up to be family for ever-growing generations of transient people. When our young family came out to Oregon 24 years ago, our daughters left biological grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins far away in California and Missouri and Arizona. But our little girls had no lack of people here in this church who played those roles for them, who loved them and got to know them and became like family to them and who still care and ask about them. Thank you for that.
Why do you think our friends in Manantial de Vida gather to worship here in their own first language instead of just learning to worship in English at some existing church? At least part of it is a Christian and biblical desire to be family for each other. Far from their original home, they get together to love and care for each other with familiar culture and food and music that unites them like the extended families they had to leave behind.
It can’t happen without forgiveness, though. We can’t offer a new kind of family to people who desperately need love and family unless we learn to live and exist together as people who forgive. Even if you have a wonderful and solid human family, you know that it is not all warm hugs and bright happy holiday meals together. To be a family means doing the deep, careful, and often hard work of recognizing each other’s faults and failings and then extending a lasting, loving forgiveness to each other for all of it.
My prayer today is that, whether this is your first Sunday at Valley Covenant or you’ve been here for years, you will feel yourself part of the family. It’s really God’s family, not ours. It’s not about being alike or having the same taste in music. It’s not about sharing a culture or even a language. It’s not about sharing political views or even theological views. It’s about being people who have received a precious gift of forgiveness through the priceless gift of God’s own Son. And because we have received that gift, because we have been forgiven completely and beautifully, we are learning to offer it to each other. That’s what it means to be a family.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj
 Robert Roberts, Taking the Word to Heart: Self and Other in an Age of Therapies (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), pp. 189-204.