“Not seven times but seventy-seven times”

How many times must we forgive one another? Is there a limit? Jesus answers these questions in Matthew 18:21-35.

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive him?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
‘Pay back what you owe.’
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused.
Instead, he had him put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?’
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

This is another of my favorite passages from the Gospels. It’s the place where Peter tries to put a finite number on how many times we must forgive one another, and Jesus says, essentially, there is no finite number. Sure, he says seventy-seven times, but it’s not the number that counts but the broadness, the depth of the forgiveness.

Even in Jesus’ story of the king and the servants, the depth of the king’s pity on his lowly servant’s debt, which he forgives, provides the example. And extending that example, Jesus takes the story a step further, telling how that lowly servant showed no pity or forgiveness to one like himself who owed much less. It was the depth of the king’s pity and forgiveness that matches the Father’s expectations for how we must treat one another.

It’s very had to forgive someone who has sinned against us or who owes us in some way, especially if they have shown a lack of respect in paying back their debt. But Jesus teaches us we shouldn’t forgive them just the few times, but the many. Not seven times but seventy-seven times. In His example of the king, forgiving it altogether. And Jesus teaches us, as we do to others, so our Father in heaven will do to us.

It may not come easy. It may take some work, some prayer and reflection. But forgiveness comes out of love — love of God and love of one another. And those are the greatest commandments, says Jesus. Sometimes love just takes practice.

“Rise, and do not be afraid”

The Old Testament teaches us to fear God; the New Testament teaches to love Him, as we learn in Matthew 17:1-9.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him.”
When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
Rise, and do not be afraid.”
And when the disciples raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

As they were coming down from the mountain,
Jesus charged them,
“Do not tell the vision to anyone
until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

I remember some time ago X-Games fans carrying the product logo around with them, “Fear Nothing,” and conservative Christians responding with anger, “Fear God!” They preach from the Old Testament rather than from the Gospels of the New Testament. In today’s passage, Peter, James, and John are clearly before the Father and they fall prostrate in fear. But Jesus in His compassion and love says, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” That’s the message of the Gospels of the New Testament.

It’s not that we shouldn’t honor and glorify God. It’s not that we shouldn’t respect God. Here, Jesus calls on us to not be afraid of Him but love Him, for God loves us. And as Jesus, the Son of God, He walked among us, full of love, compassion, and mercy. He didn’t want our fear, he wanted our love, which we are to share with others. And Jesus tells us elsewhere, to know the Son is to know the Father, and to know the Father is to know the Son.

I’m not sure I would have done much different than Peter, James, and John under the same circumstances. But with Jesus’ assurances, I would certainly have gained a new understanding of my relationship with God afterwards.

God is approachable. God is reasonable. God is lovable. Rise, and do not be afraid.

“This is how you are to pray”

How are we to pray, and to what purpose? In Matthew 6:7-15, Jesus tells us.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“In praying, do not babble like the pagans,
who think that they will be heard because of their many words.
Do not be like them.
Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

This is how you are to pray:

Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy Kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

“If you forgive men their transgressions,
your heavenly Father will forgive you.
But if you do not forgive men,
neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”

How are we to pray? Jesus tells us we are to pray to our Father in heaven, the Holy One, the One whose kingdom is to come, Whose will is done on earth equally as it is in heaven. Then Jesus tells us, ask our Father in heaven to meet our daily needs, needs which Jesus has told us the Father already knows before we utter them. And then we are to ask our Father in heaven for forgiveness in the same measure as we have forgiven others. Finally, Jesus says, we should ask our heavenly Father to save us from temptation and to protect us from evil — not just the evil others may do to us, but the evil we may do to others.

In His preamble to this, the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father, Jesus tells us not to babble in prayer like the pagans. Not to go on and on in prayer with meaningless words. Jesus’ prayer is direct and, really, simple. It addresses the Father, it glorifies Him, it accepts His will over our own, it petitions Him for our needs, it asks forgiveness, then it recognizes our need to be merciful to others. Finally, it requests His help to be a better person and His protection from evil. It really puts a lot into a few words.

In His epilogue to the prayer, Jesus follows up with a reminder about forgiveness. It’s a kind of paraphrase of the Golden Rule. And it relates right back into the prayer: Forgive me as I have forgiven others. And when you think about it, His reminder relates right back into Jesus’ main message, which is about love, in particular about loving one another (your neighbor).  To be blunt about it, it says, if you don’t forgive others, our Father in heaven won’t forgive you; but if you do forgive others, our Father in heaven will forgive you. So maybe the prayer isn’t just about asking for forgiveness but asking for the wherewithal to forgive others that we may be forgiven.

In the Old Testament God continually calls us a stiff-necked people. Thus, He continually reminds us in the New Testament of the need to love and serve and forgive. And Jesus gives us this beautiful prayer to remind us of all these themes. So, this is how we are to pray: We are in prayer to love God, to love one another, to forgive one another, and to seek God’s forgiveness and aid. Jesus gave us this prayer that helps us do all that.

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for giving us this wonderful prayer. I love you. I love our heavenly Father. I love the Holy Spirit. I love my neighbor and I forgive him and her. Please take care of my daily needs – your will be done!

“Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me”

The least of our brothers (and sisters) need our care. In Matthew 25: 31-46, God commands it.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left,
‘Depart from me, you accursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.’
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life.”

There is no clearer call in the Gospels for caring for others, especially for the needy and the disenfrancised, than this passage. The hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the ill, the imprisoned. Jesus named them out, one by one, and said we must care for them and what will happen to us if we do not. Ignore or neglect the people in this passage at your peril. Come up with your excuses for not taking care of them now, but come judgment day, they will come to nothing, according to Jesus the Christ.

Man is ingenious for his ways to rationalize away this call to action by God. But God has an infinite memory. “What you do not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me,” He warns. And then Jesus foretells of those who do not pay attention to His warning, “These will go off to eternal punishment.” Those who do, He says, “The righteous to eternal life.” Note His use of the word “righteous” here. Not the pious and self-righteous. He calls those who care for other “the righteous.”

Write your government representatives who call themselves Christians of this passage of Matthew. Remind your family members, friends, and neighbors. Embrace God’s love of the least among us and His command to serve them. Whatever you do for these least of our brothers, you did for God. And whatever you did not do for them, you did not do for God. That’s a pretty clear command and contrast.

 

“Get away, Satan!”

During Lent, this story of temptation in Matthew 4: 1-11 may help strengthen our resolve.

At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert
to be tempted by the devil.
He fasted for forty days and forty nights,
and afterwards he was hungry.
The tempter approached and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command that these stones become loaves of bread.”
He said in reply,
“It is written:
One does not live on bread alone,
but on every word that comes forth
from the mouth of God
.”

Then the devil took him to the holy city,
and made him stand on the parapet of the temple,
and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.
For it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you
and with their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone
.”

Jesus answered him,
“Again it is written,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain,
and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence,
and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you,
if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”
At this, Jesus said to him,
Get away, Satan!
It is written:
The Lord, your God, shall you worship
and him alone shall you serve.”

Then the devil left him and, behold,
angels came and ministered to him.

How is your Lenten sacrifice going, not a week in?

Yesterday my wife and I were driving to the grocery store and she asked, “Can you eat muffins?” I thought about it. “No, it’s a sweet.” Then she asked, “What about food bars?” Again, I thought. “No, it’s a sweet. I want to give up sweets.” She turned to me with a frown. “Well, what is a sweet?” When I gave up sweets, I hadn’t decided in my mind what constituted sweets, but what I had in mind were all the fattening, sugary foods I eat after meals and in between meals that aren’t good for me. “Cakes, pies, cookies — desserts,” I said. “What about pudding? Jello — will you eat Jello?” she tried again.

Now, I in no way intend to compare my wife to Satan or my experience to what Jesus experienced. But imagine Jesus in the desert after forty days and nights of total fasting, when up walks Satan: arrogant, deceitful, looking for a way to make Jesus fail. I envision him saying those words with a cooing and comforting tone when he talked about turning stones into bread, perhaps a sneer and challenging tone in the middle, and finally, abject coercion and defiance at the end. And Jesus, bodily weak but spiritually strong as granite, said, “Get away, Satan!”

Satan tests us a thousand ways when we are weak. He knows what buttons to push, what weaknesses to explore, what sores to touch, what needs to tempt. And during Lent, when we are trying to deny ourselves something as a gift to God – deny ourselves something we are used to having, perhaps something we normally over indulge in or something that we have attached ourselves to – Satan knows when and how to try to make us mess up. Why? Because he doesn’t want us to please God. He wants us to please him. Satan is God’s opponent, and what pleases God displeases him. Satan works overtime tempting us to fail God.

What a triumph for the Father when Jesus bested Satan in the desert. After truly fasting for forty days and nights, nothing – nothing – could make Jesus favor Satan over the Father. So when you feel tempted to indulge against your Lenten sacrifice, think about Satan hoping you will fail, hoping you will give in. Think about how much greater Jesus’ sacrifice was over forty days and nights, yet still He said, “Get away, Satan!”  Think about how pleasing your success will be to the Father when you don’t give in and you deliver failure instead to Satan. “Get away, Satan!”

As my wife and I pulled into the grocery story, I finally made up my mind. I will eat foods that are better for me, like pies that have actual fresh fruit in them. And it’s OK to have a piece of dark chocolate, which researchers say is good for me. But I won’t eat muffins or cakes or cookies or sweet breads or sweet rolls or other baked goods that aren’t good for me (but we tend to eat a lot of). During Lent I will try to take better care of the body that God has given me that I may be a better image of God. And perhaps in that sacrifice I will learn to be a better reflection of God in other ways. When tempted to break that sacrifice, I will say, “Get away, Satan!” and then, “I am with you, Lord Jesus.”

“Do not blow a trumpet before you”

When do you want your reward, now or in heaven? In Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18, Jesus tells us to give humbly and quietly.

“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets
to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,
so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you pray,
do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

This was the reading for Ash Wednesday and it was so for obvious reasons. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, when Catholics and many other Christians deny themselves something in memory of Christ’s sacrifice for us. This passage of the Gospel of Matthew is meant to remind us to deny ourselves without attracting attention to it because it should be meant as a gift to God, not as a gift to ourselves.

Of course, when Jesus said these things, there was no Ash Wednesday and no Lent, so this is a lesson was meant to be applied beyond Lent. If we do something for someone, if we do it for accolades, it isn’t really a gift for others, it’s gift for ourselves. What is a righteous deed but a gift to God? Thus, when you give alms, when you pray, when you fast, do it from your heart to God, not from your face for others to see. And by extension, when you do something for others – those close to you, those near to you, even those who don’t know you – don’t do it to receive credit, do it to benefit them and let your goodness be its own reward and your reward in heaven.

You may recall that Jesus often told others whom he had cured or served in other ways not to tell others about it. That didn’t stop those others from proclaiming His miracles to everyone who would listen, but it is clear that Jesus didn’t seek acclamation but to do good for others.

I know; it’s nice to be thanked and to receive credit for doing a good deed. It’s always great to receive awards or your name on a plaque or to be singled out for doing good. It’s even nice to get a tax refund for giving. But as Jesus tells us, as such, you have already received your reward. Do your good works silently, unseen, and your Father you sees what is hidden will reward you. What’s better in the long run, the cheer of the crowd or eternal life in heaven?

This Lent, if you give up something, when you abstain from meat and fast, do it with a normal countenance or with a cheery face. And all other times, when you give alms, pray, and fast, and when you do good for others, be humble and quiet about it. Let it be hidden. Do not blow a trumpet before you that God may reward you instead.