Ever strangled someone? No? Ever tried to choke someone? You’d know if you had, right? It would be a shocking thing to do. Unless you’re a psychopath – the Boston Strangler springs to mind – you’d pretty much be distraught by it. Not something that would fade from your memory that quickly.
Ever tried to choke a fellow Christian? Probably felt like it on occasions, but you’d know if you did that too.
Yet Jesus uses that exact action to describe what happen when a Christian will not forgive a fellow Christian.
Here’s the context. It’s Matthew 18 and Jesus starts talking about the issue of forgiveness in the church. And if you’ve ever had a dispute in church then you know full well how this thing should play out. It should play out like this:
“If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)
Done it. Doing it. Doing it tomorrow.
I reckon a whole load of church leaders in conflict with each other have been able to use that to justify a whole lot of schism.
“Went to that brother/sister”. Check.
“Pointed out their faults (and how!).” Check.
“Dragged others with me cos they dug their heels in.” Check.
“They refused to listen to me/us.” Check.
Treatin’ ’em like the filthy pagan they are?”. Check.
Yep, in my experience there are a whole lot of people who can check all those boxes and walk away from a brother or sister, dust down their hands, snipe “pagan/tax collector” over their shoulder and get on with the busy work of ministry the way it should be done.
And as long as you can view what that other person did as sin (sometimes a grey area) then you are perfectly self-justified. Onya Jesus – that’s given us the out-clause we needed.
Except of course, for pesky old Peter, who, whilst listening to Jesus wants to push things a bit further, possibly to justify himself (never a good idea by the way, when hanging around Jesus, who tends to point it out). Matthew 18 goes on:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22).
Jesus then hits Peter with his rightly famous story about the servant who is forgiven a huge debt by his master that he cannot pay. The master is settling accounts and someone’s been a very naughty boy. The master demands payment:
“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. (vv26-27)
And after that it’s all flowers, trees and bunny rabbits, with Bambi drinking from a brook in the glade. That servant goes on to live a joyous, forgiven and forgiving life, displaying radical grace to all and sundry. Not.
“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. (V28)
He goes out released from the pressure of his huge debt, then uses his new found freedom to exert pressure on his fellow servant’s neck in order to extract a micro-debt.
The difference between Aesop’s fables and Jesus’ parables is that Jesus is not subtle. Jesus is the “log in your eye” guy. Aesop is the splinter in the lion’s foot guy. Aesop would go on to say this, if it were in his fable: “Now some time after that when the servant had forgotten that he had been forgiven he met a fellow servant who owed him money…”.
Not Jesus. No. Jesus has the servant in the act of leaving the presence of the master, and in a matter of minutes bumping into a fellow servant and starting to choke him for repayment. Right there and then.
I dunno what that would be like. Perhaps it would be like leaving church on a Sunday after hearing the gospel preached, taking communion and going out to talk bitterly about a fellow Christian, or refusing to attend an event they were going to be at because you considered yourself out of fellowship with them.
We like to think we’re Aesop’s fables types – letting the afterglow of the gospel fade away over time, forgetting about forgiveness. Jesus thinks otherwise. He knows at heart we are self justifiers. He knows that we can very easily step out of meeting with the king and get straight to strangling. Strangling is in our blood. Strangling is us.
And strangling someone with unforgiveness chokes the life out of the gospel. It chokes the life out of working in fellowship with other Christians despite our differences. It chokes the life out of our witness and our joy and our evangelism. And could I be so bold as to say it so grieves the Holy Spirit that we can line up all our theological ducks in a row, but be viewed by God as a complete heretic for our refusal to forgive.
I’ve written a lot recently about how the church needs to engage with the culture, and find a way to demonstrate its radical difference to the watching world. Stopping our propensity to strangle other Christians might be a good place to start. And we’ll only give that up the more we recognise just how big a debt we have been forgiven by Christ.
Planning on strangling anyone soon? Go to the Master first and thank him for forgiving you the huge debt that was choking you.