How good is “good enough?”
How good do you have to be to get into Heaven? What’s the bare minimum we have to do to sneak into the pearly gates? Because we believe in a good God, its easy for us to believe in the Good Person Theory – that all you have to do to make it in the afterlife is BE a good person. But as we’ve come to discover, there are some serious problems with that theory. There isn’t a standard or rubric God has given us to know how good you have to be or how we can calculate how good we are. Our internal barometer of good and bad isn’t reliable and changes from culture-to-culture and from time-to-time. And the only standard we DO have is to be perfect as Christ is perfect, which is too high a bar for any human being. But Andy Stanley shared something interesting in his book about this topic. He said, “Good people don’t go to heaven. Forgiven people do.”
What does it mean to be a forgiven people?
To showcase this standard of forgiveness and to give us some understanding of the forgiveness of God, we’re going to read a passage from Matthew’s account of the gospel. Right before our passage, Matthew recounts Jesus telling the disciples about resolving conflict with one another. He talks about how important it is to heal those relationships and Jesus gives a step-by-step guideline for how to do that – confront one another personally, bring a friend to help resolve the conflict, bring the matter before the church. Jesus says we must do what we can to bring healing to our relationships. But this gets Peter thinking. And that’s always trouble. He asks Jesus, “Seriously, though. How often do I need to forgive someone? I mean, isn’t there a limit when we just write the guy off?” And that’s where we pick up Matthew’s account of what happened between the disciples and Jesus next.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents 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.
“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 denarii. 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 you 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 greatly distressed 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 turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” – Matthew 18:21-35
Forgiveness is powerful.
Think about a time when you’ve been forgiven when you didn’t deserve it, when a simple, “I’m sorry” was able to mend a relationship. More than anything, you probably remember the feeling of gratitude you had when it happened. Because forgiveness is powerful. It can change your life. When I was young, we used to go to Shi’s Fish Market every week right after Japanese school. My parents would go to shop for Japanese groceries and to talk to friends, but I was in it for the Star Wars cards behind the counter. I would spend my chore money every week filling up on those treasured pieces of cardboard and then would borrow money from my mom to get extra packs, $1.00 here and there. As I got older, my allowance grew bigger but so did the cost of everything else. By then I was collecting comic books, going out with friends to the football game, playing arcade games at the bowling alley, and over and over again I’d “borrow” from my parents. By the time I graduated from high school, I had amassed a debt of about $700 dollars. $700 dollars. My first summer job at Disneyland would mean I was basically working for free to pay back my mom. Which meant the big end of summer trip my friends had planned was something I wasn’t going to be able to join. I was pretty bummed, but I didn’t see any way out. I had after all, promised my mom to pay her back and I hadn’t for way too long. Then one day, my mom calls me over to her desk and asks me when she’s going to see the money I owe her. I tell her I’m working on it but only have about half so far. She looks up at me and says, “That’s okay. You keep it. Consider it a graduation gift from me and dad.” I was SO grateful! By every measure, my mom deserved to get that money. She had every reason to ask for me to repay it. And there was no way I could argue. But she forgave my debt anyway. As a kid, $700 seemed like a vast fortune of money, especially for me. But that debt was gone in an instant. I’m still grateful to her for that tremendous gift.
Naturally, when I read this parable from Jesus, it struck a chord with me.
How similar Jesus’ message was for the disciples as was my mother’s act of forgiveness for me. Peter starts off by asking how many times are we to forgive someone? Seven times? He must be thinking, “Seven? That’s pretty generous.” You can imagine Peter was pretty surprised at Jesus’ answer, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” Not seven times but seventy-seven times! In fact, some translations say “seventy TIMES seven times.” (For you math whizzes, that’s 490 times – way more than 77). And then Jesus tells them the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant where God is like a king who forgives his servant’s debt of 10,000 talents. But instead of being grateful, instead of being merciful and forgiving like the king was to him, the servant goes out and squeezes someone else who owes him a pittance in comparison and ends up throwing the other guy in jail. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it gets worse when you consider what a “talent” is worth. The king had forgiven the servant the equivalent of $9 BILLION dollars today. Imagine that. Nine BILLION dollars. Forgiven. Just like that. The king knows, as God knows, the servant could NEVER pay back that money and in an act of kindness forgives him his debt, as God forgives us our sins. But instead of remembering the mercy and forgiveness the king just showed him, the servant instead goes out and immediately pesters a fellow servant for what amounts to $40,000. Compare that. Nine BILLION. $40,000. And that’s why God is so angered at the servant. Was the man owed that money? Sure. But given the debt he had just been forgiven, the king was angered the servant couldn’t show the same mercy to a fellow human being. That’s what it looks like to God when we can’t forgive those around us. We look like this unmerciful servant who quickly forgets how much we have been forgiven and we fail to forgive those who need it.
We don’t “deserve” to go to Heaven.
That would be saying somehow we can earn it. But as this parable points out, we have done more to separate ourselves from God than we can ever make up. Like the $9 billion dollars the king forgave the servant, it is really because of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness we are able to repair that broken relationship. Without it, we would be lost. We tend to think as long as we aren’t doing anything TOO bad, it’s not a big deal, but we nickel and dime our sins and rack up an unpayable debt sooner than we realize. And we know when we are doing something wrong because we sit there and justify our actions to anyone who will listen. With my mom, that debt hung over me like a weight. I knew I had not done right by her. Whenever the issue of money was brought up, even if it wasn’t about the debt I owed, there was this pang of guilt I felt each and every time. It felt uncomfortable and made me anxious. I needed her forgiveness to make it right. And that’s what happens to us when we turn toward God and ask for forgiveness. God repairs that broken relationship and makes it right so that we can be close to him again. And God calls on us to do the same thing with others. We need to forgive those around us. Whether it’s something small and insignificant or large and difficult, God calls on us to be a forgiving people in the way he has been forgiving toward us. The challenge for us this week is to forgive someone who does something against us. To really let it go. Maybe it’s something small like when your kids forget to put their clothes in the hamper. Maybe it’s something you’ve complained about over and over again like leaving the toilet seat down in the bathroom. Or maybe it’s something big. An argument you had with a sister or brother. A fight you had with a close friend that left you not talking to each other. This week I want to challenge you to let go of the small stuff and forgive all of these minor transgressions like socks and toilets. And I want you to pray about forgiving the big stuff. Because when we fail to forgive, we harbor bitterness, and bitterness grows like a disease. And the longer it grows the harder it is to let go of, and none of us need that in our lives. When we wonder if we have the strength to do that, to forgive as God has forgiven us, remember this story Jesus told us about the unmerciful servant and be reminded of the grace and goodness of a God who has already forgiven you. Because remember, “Good people don’t go to Heaven, forgiven people do.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.