THE FAIRYTALE GOSPEL
Over the last seven or eight weeks, we’ve been exploring what exactly we mean when we say “the gospel.”
That word gets thrown around a lot, but what exactly does it mean?
For a lot of us, we grew up understanding “the gospel” as something proclaimed with fervor and intensity at the end of a Sunday gathering.
“The gospel—the “good news”—is that Jesus died for you.
God loves you so much that he made a way for you to be with him forever.
And Jesus had to die to take care of your sins that separated you from him.
“But you need to respond to this good news.
So pray “the sinners prayer.” Ask Jesus into your heart.
It’s OK—we can wait, because we can just keep singing “Just As I Am.”
Respond to the gospel. Become a Christian.”
And that’s just it, isn’t it? Many of us grew up understanding “the gospel” (the good news) as primarily how we become a Christian. So that means many of us grew up understanding the gospel primarily as a starter pistol.
It’s something that starts us but eventually fades away.
Over the past weeks, we’ve been trying to recognize that the gospel isn’t like that.
The gospel continues with us, it grows, it swells,
The gospel is what moves us, it’s what animates us.
So the gospel is less like starter pistol and more like a song.
The gospel doesn’t just start us—it shapes us.
The gospel is what transforms our lives, what teaches us how to dance.
And for the earliest Christians, the gospel was something that stayed with us and transformed us because—for them—the good news wasn’t an idea or a concept or a password prayer you learn to get you into heaven when you die.
No, the early church proclaimed the good news of a person.
They were announcing the rule and reign of divine king over the entire world.
They were proclaiming to the ancient Mediterranean world that
the good news, the euangelion, the gospel
is not that an Italian caesar rules from Rome and has secured universal peace and prosperity through economic and military power,
but that a Jewish carpenter rules from heaven and has secured universal peace and prosperity through his body broken and his blood poured out.
And he had secured a deeper peace and prosperity than anything Rome could offer.
This king who reigns on high has dealt with the deepest problems of the world:
with the wickedness that has deeply corrupted our bodies and our world,
with the rebellion that twists and distorts humanity from the personal to the political,
and with death—that seems deepest of all—
since all justice, meaning, beauty and truth
ultimately mean nothing if the universe (and everything in it)
will one day be as empty, cold and dead as a corpse.
whom the earliest Christians believed had long been foretold
through the psalms (Ps 2, 72, 89)
and the prophets (2 Sam 7:11-16, Isa 52:7-10)
of ancient Israel
had rooted out the deep cancer and curse of creation by taking it on himself.
They proclaimed that the Creator of the world had become part of his creation and—in the words of C.S. Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia—had flooded the entire world with a “deeper magic.”
The gospel is the good news that the king’s deeper magic recreates all of creation:
reversing all wickedness
reconciling rebels with God
and resurrecting the dead.
And here’s the kicker—this king wants his life to invade us.
He wants to give us his life.
Some people may be uncomfortable with Lewis’ language of “deeper magic,” but I don’t know what else to call something like this:
Mystical. Spiritual. Supernatural.
Whatever we call it, it’s mysterious.
The king wants to be our music.
Wants his spirit to make us dance.
He will have us live lives of deeper life, of deeper purpose, of deeper meaning.
Of deeper magic.
The early Christians recognized that the story of the universe is the story of a fairytale.
The true fairytale.
The king has come,
the enemy has been defeated,
and life and spring eternal awaits us (yes—us!)
when we trust this king,
give him our loyalty
and allow him to flood us with his life.
The early church could say all of this in three words:
they proclaimed “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9, 1 Cor 12:3, cf. Acts 2:36).
So all of this has been a way of saying, during this series,
we’ve been trying to hear this good news (this gospel)
that “Jesus is Lord”
and learn what it looks like to begin to live under his reign
what it looks like to allow his life to invade us.
A FRIGHTENING STORY
So this week, we’re going to let Jesus himself tell us a story—tell us a parable—about the world we live in. In Matthew 18:23-35, he says that his rule and reign—that the kingdom of heaven—is like this story. Once upon a time, a king…
(v23) …wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since 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. At this the servant fell on his knees before him.
‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’
The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him:
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
So a servant is summoned before the king.
He owes something absolutely ridiculous—ten thousand bags of gold.
Some translations say ten thousand “talents.”
A talent is measure of weight—kind of like a ton.
A ton is about 2000 pounds, and a talent is something like a 60-90 pounds.
So this guy owes the king ten thousand 60-90 pound bags of gold.
These are the kinds of crazy stories Jesus likes to tell.
It’s almost impossible to imagine someone owing a king this kind of money.
If you work through how much this was worth, you’re getting into numbers about as crazy as our the U.S. national debt.
No one could ever pay this. So debtor’s prison looms over this guy and slavery looms over his family. Both of which were common, everyday solutions for a situation like this.
He can’t pay? Well, then we know exactly what he and those connected with him deserve. In that culture, it was the totally reasonable response.
And then the king is moved with compassion. In the greek, it says he was moved to his bowels. It’s the greek way of expressing that he was moved to his very depths with mercy and compassion for this guy. And so he lets him off—scott free.
The guy doesn’t ask for forgiveness of the debt.
He says he’ll pay it back. (v26)
The guy doesn’t have to ask for forgiveness of the debt.
The king just forgives.
That’s the way the king is—full of mercy and compassion.
And then the story continues with this guy sauntering out of the royal court, totally liberated from certain-doom, and finding someone who owes him something like the value of car.
And what does this guy do?
According to verse 29, he “pnigos” him.
He throttles him.
Think Homer Simpson grabbing Bart by the throat.
That’s the picture. That’s pnigo.
His fellow servant manages to choke out the same plea the king had just heard:
“Wait. Be patient. I’ll pay.”
But instead of being moved with compassion, instead of having mercy, this guy throws his fellow servant into debtor’s prison.
When this gets back to the king, he’s furious. He’s full of wrath, full of orge. And so the king (v34) hands over—in the greek the word is “paredoken”—this servant to (literally) “torturers” until he can pay what he owes.
And they all lived happily ever after?
And so we all start scratching our heads about what this story means and then Jesus, in his helpful way, adds verse 35:
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
MATTHEW’S DEEPER MAGIC
How many of you find this parable somewhat troubling? Me too.
I want to explore this a little.
And to explore this parable, I think we need to explore the gospel according to Matthew. Because this parable only shows up here in Matthew.
The gospel according to Matthew is probably our most Jewish flavored gospel.
That’s painting with a broad brush, since
Jesus was a first-century Jew
who called Jewish disciples
and spoke primarily to a Jewish audience (cf. 15:24)
about the history the Jewish people coming to its climax in him (5:17, cf. Rom 10:4).
But when I say Matthew is the most Jewish-flavored, I mean it’s the gospel that seems like it was originally written for a Jewish community of disciples trying to sort out Jewish sorts of questions. And one of the biggest questions was this:
How does following Jesus relate to obedience to the Jewish law—to Torah?
If I start obeying Jesus, how does “the law” fit into the picture?
You know those early books of the Bible that sound so strict and harsh and say seemingly impossible things like:
“Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev 19:1).
But what do we find Jesus doing at the beginning of Matthew? He’s teaching his disciples how to live—in a little something called The Sermon on the Mount—and he’s saying stuff like:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (5:48)
Jesus sounds pretty legalistic right here, doesn’t he?
I think we immediately kind of write off this legal sounding Jesus because we’ve already decided somewhere in us that the law is irrelevant to us.
We’ve come to think that the gospel as something that frees us from “the law.”
The law is something that makes us despair.
The law makes us look for grace. Right?
That’s been a popular way to understand the law for about the last 500 years.
Maybe the law isn’t irrelevant.
But Jesus certainly seemed to abolish it with grace.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (5:17)
Well, darn. That doesn’t quite work either.
Maybe he means that he fulfilled the law so that we don’t have to.
I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (5:20)
Maybe we’re thinking about the law wrongly.
I think sometimes think among ourselves as ourselves as Christian, “Isn’t it great that we live in the grace of the New Testament and not under the awful Old Testament law?”
First-century (and even modern) Judaism is often caricatured as a sort legalistic, life-crushing system—a system that was using the law to try win God’s favor.
A few ancient Jews may have slipped into thinking that way—just like some ancient and modern Christians have slipped into thinking that way. There were people who dramatically misunderstood the law in Jesus’ own age. They had made the law into a system for securing God’s blessing for themselves at the expense of other people. The law became a way to judge their fellow Israelites, a way to condemn the world and a way to justify themselves.
And that’s exactly why Jesus says the kind of things that he does to them. Things like:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (23:13)
Woe to you… You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. (23:15)
Woe to you… You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. (23:23)
That last one is really interesting.
The had become expert law-keepers.
So when they heard the Old Testament telling them to tithe, then—by george, they were going to learn to tithe. And they weren’t just giving 10% of their money or livestock. They were obeying in the smallest of ways. Measuring out little ten-percent-piles of mint, dill, cinnamon, chili powder and sassafras.
Obedience had made it all the way into their spice racks.
And yet Jesus is saying that obedience really hadn’t made it into their hearts.
They had missed the more important matters of the law. The deeper meaning of the law. The deeper magic of the law.
There’s a way of obeying God’s instruction that makes it bad news.
But that’s definitely not Judaism at it’s core.
In Psalm 19, for example, David talks about the law of God as something
that makes wise,
that gives joy,
that sheds light (v7-8).
At its core, Judaism celebrated (and still celebrates) the law as grace.
It’s a gift that teaches us what it means to live as God designed us to live.
What it means live as human beings—to reflect the image of God.
So when did the law become bad news?
For Jesus, it didn’t.
For Jesus, the law is still good new because it still reflects the heart of God.
And so it still reflects what we were made for.
Two times in the middle of Matthew—evidently he doesn’t want you to miss it—Jesus quotes from the Old Testament to help people understand what the law really means. He quotes from the prophet Hosea and says,
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6, cf. Matt 9:12-13, 12:6-7)
Matthew is the only person who records these words of Jesus.
I think they stood out him because got at the deeper meaning of Jewish law.
They point to the deeper magic of the world. They point to the very heart of God.
Let’s read that “legalistic” sounding language of Jesus again with a little context and see if it becomes clearer:
You have heard that it was said “Love you neighbor and hate your enemy” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you maybe children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5:43-48)
What’s he saying?
Be like your Father.
He sends rain and sun for crops of the righteous and the unrighteous.
He loves without distinction. He is merciful. He is perfect.
Be like your Father.
That’s what the law was always pointing toward. And it’s really good news when you decide to receive mercy from Him and when you extend that mercy to others.
You begin to become what you were meant to be.
The world begins to become what it was meant to be.
OBEDIENT TO MERCY
Well that’s great Brett. Now we’ve spent 15 minutes talking about the law but I’m still interested in the parable. What does all of that have to do with this?
I think everything.
The first half of the parable (v21-27) reinforces what Jesus has already been saying God is like—Our Father in heaven is merciful. He pardons freely.
God has mercy on us. All of us.
The king in this parable even pardons someone who wasn’t asking.
This mercy is fulfilled and made known most fully in Jesus on the cross
where God reverses our wickedness, deals with our rebellion and takes on our death.
That is the place where God forgives sins.
Where he doesn’t demand what is rightfully owed him.
Instead he absorbs the pain and cost of the debt.
And then the second half (v28-34) is almost like dark comedy
showing the absurdity and tragedy of us
who have been forgiven everything and been given our lives back
refusing to forgive others.
God expects us to give others the mercy we’ve received. (18:33, cf. Eph 4:32).
He expects us to be obedient—obedient to mercy.
Obedience here is really important because we were made to reflect God’s image.
We were made to be like him.
We were made for mercy.
Wow. Suddenly we’re confronted with the reality that
the people of God must look like God.
That we’ve got to be the people who are merciful.
The people who don’t hold debts and trespasses and wrongs against people
but who forgive.
I’m not sure about you, but I’m not always the most merciful person.
I’m not always the quickest to forgive.
A lot of times I find hard to give grace
to trivial, everyday, relatively small things offenses.
Doesn’t she know how she comes across?
I think she’s trying to hurt me at this point.
Doesn’t he know how obnoxious that is?
And he does it all the time!
And before I’m even realizing it,
I’m keeping score,
making lists of ways that I’ve been wronged,
rehearsing what it would be like to tell them off,
and ready to throttle them.
If I could throw them into a room until they could paid me back whatever I think they owe me, I’m sometimes afraid I would.
And yet the good news is that God is patient and merciful with me
in the uncountable ways that I rebel against humility,
that I posture out of pride,
that I quietly betray,
that I play dumb—
the uncountable ways that I wrong people and dishonor him ever day.
God is merciful. And God calls me to be obedient to mercy.
Because God is calling me to be like him.
He’s inviting me to keep in step with his spirit—to join the eternal dance of love.
And so I’m called to cancel the debts that are owed to me.
And that hurts, because that means I’ve got absorb a debt.
I’ve got to forfeit my rights. I’m owed something—really.
Now let’s be clear, forgiveness doesn’t mean that we pretend like someone hasn’t wronged us. In fact, forgiveness can ONLY take place when someone has ACTUALLY wronged us.
If someone didn’t mean to wrong us—if it was a mistake or a misunderstanding or miscommunication—it wouldn’t need to be forgiven. It could be excused. In the words of one pastor, “it’s precisely when something becomes inexcusable that it becomes forgivable.”
Only the inexcusable is forgivable.
Some of us are grappling with way bigger offenses—with way bigger debts—than mere day-to-day annoyances. Many of us have had deep and truly inexcusable wrongs done to us.
Something done to you that
She betrayed you.
They abandoned you.
He wouldn’t stop abusing you.
The hearts in this room have been through a lot.
Some of you are in the middle of it right now.
You don’t even know where to begin—the idea of forgiving makes you furious.
You just don’t feel like you can do that.
The beauty of the God’s call is it meets us where we are. Sometimes obedience to mercy may just mean confessing that we don’t want to forgive.
That we don’t want to forgive him.
Don’t want to forgive her.
Don’t want to forgive ourselves.
And sometimes obedience to mercy just means praying for a desire to forgive.
I don’t want to forgive yet. But maybe I want to want to forgive.
Some of you are in abusive and destructive relationships right now. You are called to forgive, but—in the words of one Christian therapist—you don’t need to lend “new money until repentance occurs.”
You can begin to forgive, but you don’t need to keep putting yourself back in that situation. Absorbing the debt doesn’t mean signing them up for unlimited credit.
The danger doesn’t come when we have no idea how we can forgive.
The danger comes when we begin to say—no, I will not forgive.
I refuse forgive. Not only can I not extend mercy to this person but I will never extend it.
According to Jesus in this parable, that attitude is incredibly dangerous.
When we refuse to forgive others, does that somehow make God “unforgive” us?
That doesn’t sound quite like forgiveness, does it?
No. I don’t think this parable means that God “unforgives” anyone.
In his death, Jesus took care of
every sin of everyone everywhere (1 Jn 2:2)
once and for all (Heb 7:27)
while we were still dead-to-rights in our sins (Rom 5:8, Eph 2:4-5).
You are forgiven.
After all, the king pardons without the guy asking.
So how are we to understand the king’s reaction in this story?
What’s he doing?
What’s the danger of not forgiving?
I think the danger is that God will do something very similar to what Paul writes about in the first chapter of Romans. He describes that people are aching and longing for and desiring things that run counter to God’s purposes—things that will ultimately result in us experiencing less than our full humanity (Rom 1:22-23).
These people are aching for these things, and you do you know what Paul says God does? In anger (orge), he gives them over (paradoken) to their desires. The Greek wording is exactly the same as verse 34 here in Matthew.
Their punishment is that they get exactly what they want.
The unforgiving servant in this parable is handed over to debtor’s prison until he can pay the debt he owes. Since his first debt was already forgiven, I’m not 100% sure what debt Matthew has in mind. But if we take another clue from Romans, maybe the only debt he owes is the debt of love:
Let no debt remain outstanding, expect the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. (Rom 13:8)
Perhaps the thing torturing the servant is his own desires.
Because if you really want build a world where scorecards are kept,
where the only thing pardoned is the excusable,
and where judgment triumphs over mercy—be careful.
You’ll may get exactly what you want.
You’ll build your own prison.
And those who embody a world where scorecards are nailed to a cross (Col 2:14),
where the only people pardoned are those without excuse,
and where mercy triumphs over judgment (Ja 2:13),
well you’re in luck—that’s the deeper magic of the world you’re longing for.
And you won’t be disappointed.
Or in the words of Jesus:
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Matt 5:7)
So as we come to the table today, have you heard the good news?
The king has come, died and been raised again never to die.
Jesus is Lord. And he wants his life to invade yours.
He wants to teach us obedience—obedience to mercy.
He wants to teach us to dance.
Perhaps even more as we approach the table, are we obeying the good news?
Perhaps there are people in your life that you need pardon—that you need to forgive.
If Jesus’ story today teaches us anything it’s
that we’re all both the offender and the offended.
We all owe debts and we’re all owed debts.
We’re all forgiven and we all need to forgive.
The question is whether we’re going to children of our Father—whether we’re going to forgive as we’ve been forgiven.
As we come to the body broken and the blood poured out,
as we come to the place where God forgave us,
may we all pray that we may be forgive as our Father forgives,
and may we all pray that God work his deeper magic of mercy
in us and through us for the sake of the world.