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Friday, January 23, 2015

Debt-Free


When you were dead in your sins  and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you  alive  with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness,  which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.   
-Colossians 2:13-14 (NIV)


A father from Cornwall, in England, just received a bill he wasn’t expecting, for something his son didn’t even do.
     Derek Nash says that the £15.95 invoice, dated December 20 of last year, is serious, and that the person who sent it, Julie Lawrence, is threatening to take him to small-claims court if he doesn’t pay. I imagine he believes her, too, given what the invoice is for.
     Derek’s being charged a “Party No Show Fee” because his 5-year-old son, Alex, failed to show up for a skiing party celebrating the birthday of Ms. Lawrence’s daughter.
      Mr. Nash said that he and his wife accepted the party invitation on Alex’s behalf, and then remembered that Alex was supposed to spend time with his grandparents on that day. Ms. Lawrence says her contact information was on the party invitation, and that the Nashes should have let her know that Alex wouldn’t be there. Presumably, she wasn’t able to recover the money she paid the Ski Centre for Alex. The centre said that they have nothing to do with the invoice, and that on the occasions when parents pay for children that end up not attending a party, the parent is usually offered an extra activity as compensation for the lost money.
     Derek implies that he would have given Ms. Lawrence the money if she had just asked, but resents the invoice.
     Legal authorities don’t think Ms. Lawrence would have much luck in small-claims court. 
     As a parent who has planned parties for my child, I think Mr. Nash should probably pay the £15.95. But I’ve also been the debtor before, so I know what that’s like. I understand how no one likes the thought of being invoiced for our offenses. No one wants to be reminded of their offenses that way. Even if they’re relatively minor, even if it’s a debt we can easily pay, it’s embarrassing to see your debts in writing. 
     Even more so if it’s a debt that’s not so easy to pay off.
     One of the ways the Bible speaks of our problem with God is through the language of debt. It’s not the only way the Bible pictures our sin, and it can be pushed too far, but it’s a pretty good analogy. Debt is something we understand. Human beings, from the earliest forms of written language, have kept records of debt. We care who owes whom, and how much. And so it’s an easy comparison to think of the sins we’ve committed against God and one another as accumulated debt. And our debt before God is unpayable.
     Jesus addresses that in the parable of the servant forgiven a huge debt. In the story, a man owes a king an impossible sum of money, probably more money than was actually in circulation in the Roman empire in those days. You might as well call it eleventy zillion dollars. The king represents God, of course, and the parable reminds us that our problem is not that it’s really hard to make up for our sins. Our problem is that we can’t make up for them. There’s no way. 
     Again, the analogy of debt has its limitations, as all analogies do. But it’s particularly good for pointing out the impossibility of our situation. How do we make up for the offense our sins have given a holy God who only wants what’s best for us, and only does good to us? Do we do good deeds? How many, and for how long? Go to church? Read our Bibles? Make converts? Get baptized? Deny ourselves? How does any of that begin to make up for the fact that we have chosen in innumerable, unique ways to cut God out of our lives and go our own ways?
     In the parable, of course, the servant doesn’t have to pay that ridiculous debt. The king forgives it. Just forgives it. The man begs for mercy, and the king feels compassion for him and tears up the invoice. The servant had walked into that meeting trying to figure out how to assure the king he was good for the money. He walks out lightheaded with the compassion he’s received. 
     What his disciples later discovered is that it’s in the work of Jesus that forgiveness like that happens.
     Paul, who in another place called himself “the worst of sinners,” alludes to this when he talks about the “written code” or “charge of legal indebtedness” that “stood against us and condemned us.” He’s using the language of debt, as Jesus did, to talk about the problem of our sin. Our sins “condemned us.” Our debt was not only unpayable, but also fatal. 
     But God, in Christ, “made us alive.” He took that IOU, that legal charge of indebtedness, and “nailed it to the cross.” In Jesus’ sacrifice, our sins are forgiven. Our debt is erased. The invoice is destroyed, not because we’re basically good people or because the debt was really no big deal, but because God is a God of grace and compassion, and because Jesus was faithful. We are forgiven only because God chose in Jesus to forgive us.
     A couple of things to make sure we have straight. This doesn’t mean that we now have a chance to work off our debt, that in Jesus God was promising to make up the difference when our best efforts to save ourselves fall short. It means that for those who have put their trust in Jesus, there is no more debt. Our sins do not doom us before God, because God won’t have that. We are free from sin, blameless before God, and even though our lives don’t always look that way, it is always true.
     Neither does it mean that we now have a magic bullet, a get-out-of-jail free card. The kind of grace and compassion we’ve experienced is life-transforming. It won’t allow us to plunge headlong again into a life of sin. A chronic gambler whose gambling debts are forgiven would be foolish to go back to his old ways. Grace is transforming, and calls us to actually be the blameless people that God through Jesus says we are.
     Finally, this grace we’ve received is to be shared. In the parable, the forgiven servant runs afoul of the king again by demanding payment from his fellow servant of an almost inconsequential debt. Paul says it more prosaically: “forgive as the Lord forgave you.” If you are a believer in Jesus, if you understand how much grace and compassion God as shown you, then no one in your life should know a more compassionate, forgiving person than you.
     May our lives be a celebration of the compassion and forgiveness we’ve received from God. May our words and actions routinely invite others to celebrate his compassion and forgiveness as well.

     And if someone decides not to come to the party? Well, try not to hold it against him. 

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