The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid.
I sat down with my cup of coffee, journal, pens, and laptop, ready to begin the day with a little reading and response. I use them all in the mornings – the coffee offered in communion with Jesus like bread and wine, the journal and pens catching the thoughts that spring from time reading scripture. Yes, even the laptop has its purpose. It’s where I look at things from a multiple of positions, dig through commentaries, find the words that bring greater meaning to the words in this storyline of mine. Opening the computer, I caught the reflection of my t-shirt – a gift from my friend Sarah years ago.
I remembered back to a sermon I had preached on a misfit Sunday morning at an apartment complex where some of the most genuine and fragile folks I know live. They don’t seem to mind at all that a middle-aged woman from the suburbs with no lofty seminary degree or grand title comes to share what God is teaching her. They are open and honest, often interrupting the message to dig a little deeper or ask for prayer because the words found a home in their heart. I wonder sometimes what might happen if we were given that liberty in a traditional worship setting. Some say things might turn all sorts of cattywampus. I think we might see lives come to life.
Outside of two close friends, I’ve not shared this with anyone beyond the folks at Lakeside; I think it’s because I feel my voice in it is a bit different, if that makes sense. Or to be perfectly honest, I think it’s because I don’t know if the words will matter to anyone other than the misfit Sunday bunch. But there’s a fine line between tucking something away for another day and hoarding it – so I’m choosing to take a risk.
Maybe it’s the grapefruit – ready to be picked, but trapped within the branches of its tree beside me and unable to be retrieved – that’s moving me to share a message that feels a little bit like a warning. Maybe it’s because I’m nearing the end of a week with my littles, and I want more than anything for them to be people who know how to love well, even when hard things happen. Or maybe it’s just the times we’re living in that are making me more hungry than ever for us to embrace restoration. On that misfit Sunday morning, we did something at the end of the message. It’s something I’m doing again now as I share it with you. After you read, I pray you do the same.
And so, here’s the message. A message about the prisons we build.
At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?” Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.
“The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.
“The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.
“The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’
“The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. (Matthew 18:28-31)
So, I’ve read this parable time and time again, about God’s grace and our responsibility to be kind and forbearing. This time, my eyes kept staring at the words. “He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid.” I’ve heard the stories about debtor’s prison – stories of prisoners offering their family members up as slaves for payment, or of laboring hard behind bars to eke out any form of restitution. The task was close to impossible. Starvation and disease and abuse were rampant. Few prisoners ever tasted freedom again.
I read the words again. “He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid.” The “he” is a fellow servant, a coworker, a friend, a neighbor, maybe a family member. The “he” could be you and me on any given day. The “him” is us too – the “him” who finds himself locked away because of a mistake, a misstep, a misdeed.
The words keep repeating themselves in my mind. “How in the world can a prisoner pay a debt? How can someone locked behind bars be expected to make things right and whole again?”
And yet, we do.
It’s all around, threatening lives and relationships and legacies. It stands at our doors and encourages us to take its weapons by keeping account of weapons used against us. The weight of the heavy chains feels good to hold.
The begrudging is such a twisted thing. There is irony in the unforgiving.
With one hand, we strike the gavel that sentences the ones we begrudge, while we hold out the other hand to say, “You must repay me for all you have taken.” We act as judge and jury and God. We imprison with our own hurt and hatred, while demanding that the prisoner show us great love. We demand gifts of kindness from the ones we condemn.
We are all guilty. We, the ones who walk stooped with the weight of the chips we carry toward those we believe have done some sort of wrong to us. Hurting, we forget to extend the very forgiveness and grace we demand. We shackle the innocent along with the guilty. We blame all for the misdeeds of one. And we cry out, “I owe you nothing – and you owe me everything.” We of differences of opinion. We of misunderstanding. We of troubled lives. We of misperception. We of hurtful past. We of weak teaching. We of wishes unfulfilled. We of bad theology. We of painful moments.
Our souls are as loud as the chains we use. They scream out our indictments, blind others with our floodlight glares, build the fortress walls and place our oppressors on display. Even our innuendoed silence speaks its judgment. One wall, and then another grows as we discover new enemies. Another and then another as we craft more and more storylines of wrongs against us, or against what we believe is ours to claim. Every wall is a new weapon used to protect us.
Or so we think.
And when the last brick is laid, we find that we have closed ourselves in.
The irony of begrudging is this – we become the real prisoners when we imprison others. We strip away mercy and diminish grace and rob reconciliation. In our hellbent determination to have others pay, we all grow weak, we all starve, we all force those around us to pay over and over again.
We shackle ourselves with the very ball and chain we believe deserves to be
on the one who inflicted pain
on the one who let us down
on the one who walked away
on the one who was afraid
on the one who was too little
on the one who didn’t match up
one the one who disappointed
on the one who didn’t know.
This is to the ones sentenced, the ones shackled. The ones who bear the weight of the begrudging.
And this is for the ones who hand down the sentence.
The ones who have imprisoned us. And the ones we’ve imprisoned by word or thought or deed. We’ve known better, and yet we’ve allowed the chains. We’ve built the walls. We’ve held the floodlights.
I am “he.” And I am “him.” And so are you, love. I’ll be honest – I have bragged about myself as a caring person who doesn’t hold harm against anyone, and yet as I really dig down inside my own heart, I find bricks and mortar patterns around those who have rubbed me the wrong way or been hurtful to people I love. And as much as I say I trust God, I see trowels and buckets and blocks at the ready, just in case He lets me down.
It is OK to feel. It is OK to work through pain. It is OK to want to be safe from harm. It is OK to learn. But it is not OK to begrudge. It is not OK to build prisons. It is time for forgiveness to set prisoners free. It is time for merciful justice to humbly rule. It is time for a new weapon. And it is time for us to use it. It’s time for me to use it. It’s time for you too.
…And then take on an entirely new way of life—a God-fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his character in you.
What this adds up to, then, is this: no more lies, no more pretense. Tell your neighbor the truth. In Christ’s body we’re all connected to each other, after all. When you lie to others, you end up lying to yourself.
Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry—but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the Devil that kind of foothold in your life.
Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:24-27, 31-32)
It’s time for real Love.
We are set free.
Read that out loud.
“We are set free.”
Let mercy reign. Let grace cover. Let reconciliation find us all.
We are set free.
And we set others free.
Walls come down.
Love is our greatest weapon.
Real Love. A love that restores. A love that gives life.
We are set free.
And we set others free.
At the end of the message on that Sunday morning, we confessed our prisons to each other, and we prayed to set our prisoners free. Even now, I am doing that – again. I don’t want to be the one who holds someone captive. I want to be a chain breaker. I want to be the one who forgives. Will you do the same today? What are your prisons? Who are your prisoners? What does real love need to set free in your life?