Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Cancelled Debt

“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 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. “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. (Mathew 18:23-27)

Cigarette prices in New Hampshire have really gotten out of hand, if Josh Muszynski's experience is any indication.

Josh swiped his debit card at a gas station last week to pay for a pack. When he checked his account balance online a few hours later, he was shocked to see just how much of an expense his habit had become. There in his account was a debit for $23,148,855,308,184,500.00.

That's twenty-three quadrillion, one hundred forty-eight trillion, eight hundred fifty-five billion, three hundred eight million, one hundred eighty-four thousand, five hundred dollars, if you're scoring at home. To put it in perspective, can't really put that in perspective. Bill Gates, J.K. Rowling, and the Queen of England couldn't go in together and buy cigarettes at that price. All the nations of the UN combined couldn't afford them. You'd need, if I'm doing my math correctly, more than twenty-three thousand people with $1 billion each to buy that pack of cigarettes.

Remember the good old days, when cigarettes would only run you three quadrillion?

Needless to say, Josh called his bank and, after a couple of hours on the phone, managed to clear things up. His bank corrected the error the next day, and even removed the $15 overdraft fee they charged him. I think that's my favorite part of the story: you overdraw your account to the tune of 23 quadrillion dollars, and all the bank does is charge you a $15 penalty.

Imagine for a minute how you'd feel if you looked at your bank balance and saw 17 digits in the debit column. I mean, I'm pretty sure I'm safe in saying that few of us can get our minds around 23 quadrillion dollars. And paying it off? Forget it, no chance. Not in this lifetime. Not in a hundred lifetimes. All Josh could do was hope that the bank would see the problem and forgive his debt. Of course, he had reason to hope. He didn't really owe that much money. It was obviously a mistake, and the bank straightened it out quickly and easily.

Would that all our debts were that easy to take care of.

Forgiveness in real life, though, is a little bit harder. How do you forgive the harm done by an abusive teacher, for instance? Or a cheating spouse? How do you forgive wrongs committed by an envious colleague or a bitter friend? How do you forgive a thieving employee, or the drunk driver that killed your friends' child? And should you? Or does forgiveness imply that actions that are hurtful, sometimes horrifically so, aren't that big a deal after all?

“How many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me,” Peter once asked Jesus. “Up to seven times?” Peter probably felt like he was being pretty magnanimous to offer seven times; after all, if someone continues to hurt you, over and over, they probably aren't worthy of forgiveness. You can probably relate to Peter's question. Usually, a question like that isn't hypothetical. It might sound something like this, for you: “Lord, do I really have to forgive this person who continually abuses and belittles me?” Or maybe it's more a question of whether an injury could be so severe that forgiveness isn't even an option. It's a very honest question, isn't it? And Jesus doesn't directly rebuke Peter for asking it. He tells him a story instead to show that, honest or not, asking “how often” and “how much” in relation to forgiveness are the wrong questions to ask.

“It's like this in God's kingdom,” Jesus explains. He tells about a king who got out his ledgers to settle his accounts, and noticed that one of his debtors owed “ten thousand talents” – of gold, probably. A talent was a unit of weight, and an average wage-earner could expect to make the equivalent of one talent in about twenty years of work. Ten thousand talents is a ridiculous amount, an individual debt that no one could possibly accumulate. He owes this king something like twenty-three quadrillion dollars.

Well, the king demands repayment, or as close to repayment as is possible: everything he has will be sold, and his family sold into slavery. The debtor begs, pleads, and makes silly promises about repaying this ridiculous amount. But the king, Jesus says, took pity on the man and cancelled the debt. No payment plan. No bankruptcy proceeding. The king just crosses out that line on his ledger, and the man is freed from his debt entirely.

Jesus tells the story, of course, to say something about God and how his kingdom runs. The parable reminds us that God chooses forgiveness over strict accounting. It reminds us that, in spite of the staggering deficit our sins put us in relative to God – a deficit that, unlike Josh, we actually owe -- God chooses to blot that debt out of his ledger. And it reminds us to be thankful that God chooses to do so, because there's truly no way for us to pay the debt ourselves.

What Peter wouldn't have known then – but likely remembered later – is that God brings about this forgiveness through Jesus. Jesus, in effect, pays the debt that we owe. Much later, he'd reflect on this by writing that we have all been “redeemed” by “the precious blood of Christ.” (1 Peter 1:18-19) When Jesus prayed on the cross for the Father to forgive those who had put him there, the Father answered that prayer through Jesus' suffering. Our debt has been forgiven, but it was neither quick nor easy. It was the result of God's compassion for us, as shown through Jesus.

Of course, you might remember that the parable doesn't end there. The forgiven debtor loses his forgiveness just as quickly as he received it. Remember why? Sure you do. Because he wouldn't forgive his debtor, another servant who owed him a comparatively small amount. When the king hears about this servant's lack of mercy, he isn't happy. “Shouldn't you have had mercy...just as I had on you?” he asks. And he sends him to prison, where he'll be worked and, apparently, tortured until he can pay back the original debt.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive a brother or sister from the heart.” (Matthew 18:35, TNIV) Tough to hear, but it's fitting, isn't it? If we who have received God's extravagant mercy can't find a way to at least begin to offer forgiveness to our fellow servants, then we deserve to fall under his judgment, don't we? God looks for reasons to forgive, not condemn, so he knows when forgiveness is maybe just a little slow to come while we work out the hurt we've received. That's not what Jesus is talking about here. He's talking about a willful holding on to bitterness. But despite the harsh ending, the parable's full of hope: there is forgiveness from God for the worst of our debts, and in receiving that forgiveness we find the way to extend it to those in debt to us.

So receive God's forgiveness. Know that you'll never pay off or work off what you owe, and instead just accept his gracious forgiveness offered to you in Jesus Christ. And then spread a little of that forgiveness around to those who are in your debt. How can you not, knowing how much God has forgiven you?

A 23 quadrillion dollar debt. Up in smoke. Sound familiar?

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 20, 2009


The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. (1 Peter 4:7)

Alexa Longueira, a 15-year-old from Staten Island, New York, was out for a stroll a couple of weeks ago. As she walked, she was doing something that millions of people do every day: exchanging text messages with her friends. I don't mean to pick on Alexa. I'm sure it's something she does often, and I'm sure she's had very few mishaps as a result of it. And what happened isn't completely her fault, either. But something did happen, and it might serve as a morality tale for incessant texters.

As Alexa ambled along, texting her little thumbs off, she happened upon a very normal-appearing manhole. Normal-appearing in all respects, that is, except in the fact that it was uncovered. I said what happened wasn't all her fault: New York's Department of Environmental Protection has issued an official apology for their being no tape or warning signs around the open manhole. But the apology was a little late, I guess, coming as it did after Alexa had already stepped into the open manhole.

Fortunately, Alexa's injuries were moderate and she is expected to recover completely. Physically, at least. Manholes, you understand, don't access magical underground fairy kingdoms flowing with rivers of milk and honey. There is water, along with some other stuff. I think it was the other stuff Alexa objected to. “Really gross...shocking and scary” is how she described her impromptu bath in the sewer. She lost a shoe while she was down there, before a DEP worker helped her out.

Apparently, though, she did manage to hold on to her cell phone.

Wonder if she sent a text while she was down there?

I don't like to send text messages. I'm apparently not smart or coordinated enough to do it quickly, and I happen to think that a phone has a pretty good secondary interface: you can talk to someone through it, if you weren't aware of that. Not being a texter, I haven't been in imminent danger of stepping into open manholes on city streets. (I did once step in wet concrete up to about my knee, but that's another story....)

All the same, I could probably stand to be a little more alert. How about you?

Alexa's experience illustrates the danger of all our technology, all our busy-ness, all the demands we have to meet and the stuff we have to buy. We're too easily distracted from paying attention to spiritual realities, and how those spiritual realities interact with and intersect the other realities of our lives. We're too easily convinced that God's claim on our lives will remain in our attics and storage rooms, or that he'll wait patiently for us in our pew at church until next Sunday. We go on our way, frantically banging away at the keys, trying to keep up with everything we need to keep up with, dangerously unaware that others are at work around us, opening up holes in our spiritual lives that we might not even see.

Peter in the garden. Adam and Eve in that other garden. David, spying on Bathsheeba. You get the picture, right? They all fell in to hazards that they should have been able to see and avoid. Peter feels threatened and afraid, and he pretends not to know Jesus. Adam and Eve couldn't see a lie, even when it contradicted what God told them. David knew he had no right to Bathsheeba, but he wandered right into adultery and murder anyway.

Chances are, you can think of a similar experience or two. Maybe you've just chalked them up to “human weakness.” If you've repented and received God's forgiveness, I have no interest in reopening old guilt. But sometimes our past mistakes can help us to be a little more alert in the future. I imagine Alexa will be looking for open manholes from now on.

Think back to times you've wandered into sin, times you've found yourself floundering and sputtering at the bottom of a foul pit that you didn't even see in front of you. Don't you honestly have to say that there are reasons that you were taken by surprise? Maybe you were stressed at work, or worried about problems with you kids, or things weren't so great in your marriage, or money was tight. Maybe it was something else, but the point is, you were distracted. Preoccupied. And because you were, you didn't take spiritual realities into account. By not attending to your relationship with God in prayer, worship, thanksgiving, service, and so on, you gave yourself no chance of seeing the spiritual dangers in your path.

That's why Peter reminds us to “be alert and of sober mind.” He'll warn later in the same book that we have to be alert because the devil runs around like a lion hunting prey. “The end of all things is near,” he warns. All those things that can be so distracting to us will be passing away, leaving us with only the eternal realities to deal with. If we're distracted by those things that are coming to an end, we might not be able to give our attention to the things that will remain. If our minds are always working overtime on problems and obsessions and worries and enchantments that will pass away, we won't have much energy left to spend on thoughts of things that are permanent. Things of God, and his kingdom, and our relationship to him.

Christianity isn't just about agreeing to certain propositions. Neither is it about frenetic activity. Jesus renews our minds through the Holy Spirit, and he asks that we discipline our thought-lives. As our lives swirl around us, he reminds us to do the counter-intuitive thing and choose to place our attention on him. If we do that, we'll be able to pray when we need to. We'll be able to maintain our faith and our focus when things seem to fly off the rails. We'll remember his promises when our security is shaken, and trust his love when we seem surrounded by enemies. And when Satan opens those pits in our way, we'll be able to see them far in advance and nimbly step around them.

I know a teenager in Staten Island who I'm guessing won't make the same mistake twice.

Go and do likewise.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 13, 2009


But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house....” (Luke 19:8-9)

Adrian and Tiffany McKinnon returned from a vacation to their home near Montgomery, Alabama, to find that someone had been there in their absence. A burglar had broken into the house, and the McKinnons were shocked to discover that he had looted the place. Almost everything was gone, and trash and debris were scattered all around. The place was a shambles. The McKinnons were devastated.

And then the burglar walked in. Wearing Adrian's hat.

He had made one more trip to the house to pick up a few remaining items. (Would-be burglars, let this be a lesson. Don't ever come back to the scene of the crime.) One thing the burglar hadn't taken was the gun Adrian kept in the house; he spent the next few minutes examining it closely, however; while Adrian held the thief at gunpoint, Tiffany called the police. Then, looking at all the damage the thief had done to their house, Adrian and Tiffany had an idea: Why should they clean up someone else's mess?

When the police arrived, Adrian and Tiffany were watching the thief picking up trash, replacing broken and discarded items, and generally cleaning up the house he had wrecked. He amused the officers for a few minutes by complaining about being forced at gunpoint to clean up the mess he had made. The police told him he was lucky; someone else might have made him a part of the mess.

It's a dicey business to pull a gun on someone, but I have to say I like the way the McKinnons handled the situation. I appreciate the justice and symmetry of having someone make restitution in kind with the crime that they've committed against someone. Our legal system, in general, seems to emphasize punishment. Restitution seems to be considered a matter for the civil courts. But the police could have carried that burglar off to jail, some judge could have imposed a maximum sentence, and the McKinnons would still have been left with a ransacked house. No amount of punishment would have given them restitution.

Restitution. That's not a word we hear much in courtrooms, or in church either, for that matter. It comes from a Latin word that means “to restore,” and that's what restitution seeks to do. When we make restitution, we try to restore what a person we've injured has lost because of our actions. It's a very Christian-sounding idea, or at least a very ethical-sounding one. There are all kinds of biblical texts that bear witness to the necessity of restitution. But it just doesn't usually come up much in our thinking. I think that might be because of grace. Or, more accurately, because of our misunderstanding of grace.

Most of us would agree with some form of the following sentence: “I'm saved by God's grace, not because of my good deeds.” What we mean by that is that our salvation has come about because God in his kindness has sent Jesus to forgive our sins. Our good deeds don't have to outweigh our bad ones, and there's nothing we can do to earn our salvation. As far as it goes, that's of course a biblical statement. But do you see what it assumes? It assumes that my sins are only between God and me. But in the course of sinning against God, we almost always involve someone else. Ask yourself if that isn't true: can't you almost always think of ways in which your sins have affected the people around you?

You could trace the effect of Zaccheus' sins pretty easily. His problems were greed and corruption. As a tax collector, he made his money by adding a fee to the taxes that Rome said he had to collect from the Israelites. The higher the fee, the higher his profit; and there was no one to tell him how much he could take. The people of his town despised him because he took food out of their children's mouths. So imagine their surprise when Jesus ate with him.

It was during their dinner that Zaccheus made his shocking announcement: “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Notice here that Zaccheus doesn't make this gesture to impress Jesus or to win him over. As far as we know, Jesus never said anything to Zaccheus about the way he made his living. Jesus has already invited himself to eat with Zaccheus, which in his culture signified acceptance. Zaccheus isn't trying to gain Jesus' favor. He's responding to the favor that Jesus has already shown. When Jesus announces that “salvation has come to this house,” Zaccheus' announcement isn't the cause. It's his response to the grace Jesus has already shown by sitting down at Zaccheus' table.

Still, Zaccheus feels the need to make restitution. I wonder how much money he gave away that day? Again, Zaccheus isn't making a desperate bid for salvation here. The Lord has seen him for who he is and still come to his house and received his hospitality. Zaccheus is already accepted. The restitution he offers to those he's cheated is the outworking of the salvation Zaccheus has already received. The salvation he receives is between him and Jesus. He doesn't need the crowd's acceptance or approval. But the salvation he receives doesn't remain between him and Jesus. It works its way out into Zaccheus' relationships.

And when we receive God's salvation through Jesus, it's not just between us and God, a matter of the forgiveness of our personal sins. Our sins touch others, and so the heart that has received God's grace turns outward, to try to bring his grace into relationships previously poisoned and broken by sin. Making restitution is one of the ways we bear witness to the genuine nature of the transformation that we're undergoing in Jesus.

So, in whatever way our sins have touched others, let us consider how to make restitution. Sometimes restitution is easier than at other times. Some damage can't be undone, some losses can't be restored. But if we've stolen, we give back or replace what we've taken. If we've injured or manipulated with words, we do what we can to speak words of healing and righteousness. If we've treated someone unjustly, we should act in ways that bring justice to that person. If our neglect has caused someone pain, the love we've received from the Lord should make itself known in our restorative deeds toward that person.

In respect to our feelings of guilt and regret, God wants us to know that in Christ our sins are forgotten. But in respect to how our sins affect those we touch, we must not forget. We must do what we can to clean up the trash and damage our sins have caused in the lives of others.

Sometimes, I guess, it's good to go back to the scene of the crime.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;

I will give you as a covenant for the people,

a light for the nations,

to open the eyes that are blind,

to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,

from the prison those who sit in darkness. -Isaiah 42:6-7 (English Standard Version)

At a Louisville, Kentucky church last week, attendees had to put a lot of thought into what they wore. But not about which
jacket and tie would look good together, or whether to wear a dress or pants. Congregants at this service had to ask other questions before they left the house. Browning, Smith and Wesson, or Colt? .45 caliber, or .380? Shoulder holster, or hip?

The event in question was the church's first annual “open-carry service.” Those who attended were invited to bring their guns along with their Bibles as “a show of support for the Second and First Amendments.” All guns were to be unloaded, of course; I mean, church is just no place for a loaded .357 Magnum.

The program revolved around three “hymns”: “America, the Beautiful,” “My Country 'Tis of Thee,” and “God Bless America.” The pastor then interspersed several videos supporting the Second Amendment with talking points: pacifism is optional for Christians, society faces more danger from texting drivers than guns, and carrying a gun isn't illegal (at least not in Louisville), unconstitutional, or immoral, so why apologize?

There was a raffle; prizes included a free NRA membership, time on a gun range, and a pistol. After a video of Lee Greenwood's “God Bless the USA,” the service ended with hot dogs and chips.

The church was careful to say that the event wasn't a worship service. Good thing, because if it was and I was a member of that church I'd have to wonder what or who we were worshipping. Even without calling it a worship service, if I were a member of that congregation I'd have had to consider what an event like that says about how we identified ourselves and where our loyalties lay. God bless America – not, “God, may America serve your purposes in the world?” God bless the USA – even if it's at the expense of other countries and other believers who live there? Carrying guns in support of the right to bear arms – among a people who claim to follow the one who said “Do not resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:39) and “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52) and who prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him?

I guess my problem, in twenty-five words or less, is that in this case, I think that church might have been a little too American and not quite enough church.

I know, this is the worst possible time of year for me to say something like that. Please understand, I do appreciate the freedom and the opportunity we have in America. I'm very grateful for people who have sacrificed and worked and even died for that. I take off my hat for the National Anthem and say the Pledge of Allegiance and would never, ever, burn a flag. I try not to take my country for granted, and I pray for her leaders, and I do my best to be a good citizen.

But I also belong to a church that doesn't flank the communion table with an American flag, and that's a conscious decision. See, when American Christians watch the news and cheer an American bomb falling somewhere else in the world, we're cheering the deaths of people God created and loves. Sometimes even our brothers and sisters in Christ. And when we advocate closing our borders to immigration largely because we're concerned about maintaining our lifestyles, then we're turning away the “aliens and strangers” that God commanded his people Israel to care for and about – and who I'm assuming God's people are still supposed to care about. When we become citizens of God's kingdom, you see, we become citizens of the world our God made. Not just of one country on it.

At its best, America isn't about individual rights. It's about the things that God has always called his people to be about: righteousness, peace, truth, equality. As God's people living in America, we have a great responsibility to use what we've received as Americans, not primarily to ensure our own personal rights, but to bring God's righteousness, peace, truth and equality to others. The freedoms and prosperity with which God has blessed us as a nation is a calling to the task of lighting the darkness in our world. America is not God's covenant nation, but his church certainly is, and the American church in particular should take seriously our responsibility to channel his grace outward to his world. We should be about the task of opening the eyes of the blind and bringing the prisoners out of their dungeons.

We can't do that, though, if we fill our time with safeguarding our personal rights and “protecting” ourselves from the very people God would have us serve and bless.

Know how I'd love to see us – the church in America – celebrate the Fourth of July this week? By embracing the people who have come to our shores from far away. By praying for those suffering hardship and tyranny around the world and offering sight to the blind and freedom for the prisoners as God enables us. By supporting leaders who offer solutions to the world's problems formed from compassion, justice, and a desire for peace instead of partisan loyalty. And by resolving to be known among our neighbors, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances as people of faith, love, grace, forgiveness, and hope. Being proud to be an American is not nearly enough for the church of Jesus Christ. We're called to be his body in the larger world around us, his presence even when being his presence might conflict with purely American interests.

May he give us the grace to be good citizens of God's kingdom first, and let that citizenship tell us what it should mean to be good American citizens. May he give us the grace to invoke him, not just to bless America, but to bless the world through America – and especially through the American church. May we be lights in our world as bright as the fireworks we'll enjoy this weekend – but may our glow last.

Let's get locked and loaded. It's time for church.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.