#4 in the Series “All I have Commanded You”
Primary Text, Matthew 18:15-35 (NIV)
15"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18"I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
19"Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."
21Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"
22Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times
23"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25Since 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.
26"The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' 27The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii.[g] He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.
29"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'
30"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32"Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' 34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
In this series of messages my objective is to describe a mental picture that will summarize all the teaching of the Lord Jesus in an attempt to be faithful to the Great Commission: Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you. The image I am working with is a wagon wheel (upon which we are riding to heaven). The rim of the wagon wheel is Jesus’s command: Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; our priority is to live in willing submission to God’s best desires for us and our world. The first spoke of the wheel is You must be born again; by submitting our lives to the will of God in Jesus Christ we are transformed and enter an ongoing process of continuing transformational experiences. The second spoke of the wheel is Be ye perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect; God centers His perfection on his compassion rather than his being the judge of the world, and our becoming perfect entails our being transformed into God’s perfectly compassionate children.
The third spoke of the wheel, the highest expression of that transformation into compassion, are the words Forgive your brother from your heart. It seems to me that this is a very difficult commandment.
Consider Ruby Session in relation to her son Timothy Cole. In 1985 Timothy, a young African American student at Texas Tech in Lubbock was arrested, tried, and convicted for the rape of white co-ed who was convinced that he did it. There were holes in the evidence, however. Timothy claimed to be studying in his apartment, a claim that was backed up by his brother and several friends who were there playing cards at the time. More importantly, however, Timothy was an athsmatic and the young woman’s attacker had been smoking the whole time he drove her into the country. Finally, Timothy was a slight man, and the attacker had overcome the very athletic young woman with brute strength. The man who actually committed the rape was a chain rapist who was arrested for a separate offense at the same time Timothy was convicted (this man’s name happened to come up at Timothy’s trial, but no one paid attention to it). This man was actually in a cell adjoining Timothy’s and heard him weeping and proclaiming his innocence over and over. The rapist waited ten years for the statute of limitations on the crime to run out, and then wrote to Timothy, to the Lubbock District Attorney, and to the trial judge in the case to confess to the crime for the purpose of exonerating Timothy. For several years the criminal justice system would not respond, Timothy was just one more young Black thug to them. Finally, the original victim joined the family in asking a review of the case, and a test of the DNA evidence proved conclusively that Timothy was innocent. On February 7, 2009 Timothy was cleared of the conviction by a state judge, more than 23 years after his arrest. The exoneration came too late for his mother Ruby to celebrate, however. In 1999 Timothy suffered the third of three serious athsma attacks while in prison. This one took his life. Who should Ruby forgive? Should Ruby forgive?
Every Christian has the right to appeal their cases of injustice to God. The Old Testament, and particularly the Psalms, shows God’s people exercising this right, calling upon God to arise and judge the unrighteous. When Jesus tells Christians that whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, He declares that this right is very much still ours in him. As Christians we can cry out to God for justice and He has placed himself under obligation to render judgment.
Consider, however, that Christians are not the only ones who can ask God to be Judge. Satan himself is continually asking God to judge. That is precisely why Satan is called the Accuser. When Satan entered the garden to tempt Eve, it was for the express purpose of placing Adam and Eve under God’s judgment. After they fell into disobedience and God found them hiding in the garden, their response to His inquiry was to ask him to place the other under judgment (“The woman you gave me . . .” “The snake . . .”). For this reason one can say that sin itself is the choice humans make to relate to God as judge instead of as Father.
Any sinful person (including Satan) can accuse any one of us, and God must answer that accusation if it is factual. This is why Jesus’s sacrifice for us is so important. Picture it this way. Satan, the accuser of our souls and the rightful representative of all those who disobey God, was before God presenting the case against us. The only possible verdict for our selfish actions and attitudes was “guilty.” God then presented Satan, the prosecutor, with a choice—the punishment could either fall upon the guilty ones or God would let Satan punish Jesus instead, make Jesus pay our fine for us. The opportunity was too good for Satan to pass up and he took it. Satan eagerly invited humanity to carry out God’s just verdict upon sin upon the person of Jesus at the cross.
What Satan didn’t forsee, however, is that when one of us surrenders our life to God by accepting Jesus’s lordship in our lives, any further demand on justice is met. When Satan (or anyone else) tries to accuse us before God, Jesus immediately responds to the guilty verdict that He has paid the penalty for us. The New Testament is clear that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Jesus, then, teaches that our spiritual health depends on our knowing God as Father rather than as judge. This is why forgiveness is so important in the life of a Christian. If one of us is so hurt by someone else that we refuse forgiveness and cry out to God for justice, we obligate God to not only judge the offender but also the offended. God cannot judge someone who has hurt me without judging between us. If I ask God to judge someone else, I am also asking God to judge me, a judgment from which I cannot emerge vindicated. This is why Jesus teaches “Judge not, lest you be judged.” It is why the Lord’s Prayer ends with the exhortation “for if you do not forgive others their sins, neither will my Heavenly Father forgive your sins.” Even if we could be absolutely pure and innocent, our choice to relate to God as judge rather than as Father places God at a distance from us. This is precisely the message of the book of Job. It is spiritually more harmful to feel that one is in the right in any given situation, than to hurt someone else and know that I am in the wrong. When I bring suit in God’s court I place myself under his examination as well as the person I bring suit against. If I also prove to be guilty, negligent or merely selfish—I also have to pay!
Notice the emphasis that Jesus places in Matthew 18 on the need for our brother to hear us. When a brother or sister in the church has hurt me, what is vitally important is not first that they say they are sorry. What is most important is that they hear me—that they make the effort to understand my hurt and that I make the necessary effort to communicate it to them. In other words, after someone hurts me, it is more important for my spiritual wellbeing that they hear me me offer them forgiveness than it is for them to ask my forgiveness in return. Of course, both are important, but we have been conditioned since Kindergarten (“say you’re sorry!”) to believe that asking forgiveness is more important than offering forgiveness and that the person who has hurt another must seek them out to offer that forgiveness first. Jesus says no—it is the responsibility of the Christian who has been hurt to seek out the person who hurt us (with witnesses or before the whole church if necessary) to ensure that they hear: 1. exactly how we were hurt 2. our words of forgiveness. If they will simply not hear us out, no matter what, then we are to declare both our hurt and our forgiveness before the church, which can come to consider them as outsiders, not because of how horrible their sin was, but because they were unwilling to be confronted with it. The gospel has no message for those who would prefer to keep themselves under judgment.
It is spiritually essential to me that I forgive my brother (or sister) from the heart. I take this to mean that I am to forgive not only in my mind before God (“O Lord, please help me to forgive this scumbag.”) but with my mouth before the person who hurt me. This is what initiates true reconciliation. The power of this reconciliation is evident in the story of Timothy Cole. From Wikipedia:
On February 6, 2009, a Texas district court judge announced "to a 100 percent moral, factual and legal certainty" that Timothy Cole did not commit the rape. The judge, Charlie Baird, reversed the conviction and ordered Cole's record expunged. It was the first posthumous DNA exoneration in the history of the state of Texas. Cole's exoneration led to numerous changes in Texas law.
The Texas Senate passed legislation to exonerate Cole. The Texas House of Representatives bill passed through committee and then the full house. After that, it went to Governor Rick Perry to be signed into law. Another bill, named after Cole, was passed by the legislature and sent to the governor on May 11, 2009. It made those who are falsely convicted of a crime eligible for $160,000 for each year of incarceration—half paid as a lump sum, and half paid out over the claimant’s lifetime as an annuity—and provide them with free college tuition. Texas law firm Glasheen, Valles & Inderman also worked with Texas Senator John Cornyn to convince the United States Internal Revenue Service that compensation for incarceration stemming from a wrongful conviction should not be treated as taxable income, that instead it should be treated the same as compensation for personal injuries which is not taxable income. This ultimately led to the passing of the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015.
The bill also established the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions. A panel set up to study the causes of wrongful convictions and to devise ways of preventing them is to report to the Texas governor no later than 2011. While Perry stated he wanted to issue a pardon, he felt that he was not legally able to do so. However, on January 7, 2010, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion which cleared the way for the governor to pardon Cole. On March 2, 2010, Governor Perry granted Timothy Cole the state's first posthumous pardon. On May 19, 2015 Governor Greg Abbott signed the Tim Cole Exoneration Review Commission into law. The Tim Cole Commission will review past exonerations and make recommendations to the Texas Legislature regarding criminal justice reform.
Ruby’s son did not die in vain, and the care with which Ruby, her family, and the Innocence Project had in telling Tim's story have helped to make repentance real and meaningful.