Therefore, I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands...  1 Timothy 2:8

Prayer Challenges

 

April 2019

Call to Prayer, Part 1
Ashland Men's Mission
1 Timothy 2:1-2

Inspired to Challenge

When my good friend, Doug Yoho, began Ashland Men 15 years ago, his idea was to build a group of Christian men around Ashland County who committed themselves to the task of praying for the city and county.  The defining passage for the group became 1 Timothy 2:1-2, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” That mission statement has stayed at the forefront of Ashland Men’s thinking.  Once a month, a group of us meets to pray.  We come from different churches and backgrounds, but whenever we come together, our priority is common prayer.  Our first order of business is to pray for each other. Over the past couple of years, I have come to have deep respect for the men in the group.  These are men who stand on principle, who know and accept the need for sacrificial service, and who remain faithful to their wives and love their families.  For that reason, when they pray for me, I feel both honored and empowered.  In honor of the men whom I respect, this series will examine some of the meanings of a dedicated prayer life.

Supplications

Paul begins with four different words to describe our call to approach God—supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings.  Obviously, these distinctions mean something to Paul.  We will benefit from examining them.  Of all the terms Paul uses in the 1 Timothy passage, supplications are most directed toward pleading for someone’s welfare.  The word has to do with approaching God from a point of need.[1]  The context of this passage lies in salvation.  Immediately after the verses quoted above, Paul writes, “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:3-4).  Salvation is not for a deserving few.  It is for undeserving people everywhere.  The call to lift up supplications also implies discipline.  One of the most pointed uses of the term occurs in Ephesians 6:18, where Paul tells the believers to “keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.”The Ephesians verse appears at the end of the well-known call to put on the full armor of God.  Supplication, then, is associated directly with Christian warfare, and Christian warfare involves maintaining vigil.  It is to be a continual act of discipline for the believer.

 

Prayers

Prayer is a general term in the New Testament.  Again, it makes a clear connection to discipline.  Luke mentions that the early believers in Jerusalem “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42). In the book of Revelation, prayer plays a critical role in the fulfillment of history at the end of the age.  John writes, “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel” (Revelation 8:3-4). When the Lamb of God continues with his judgment of the world, those very prayers become the instrument by which he carries out his verdict (Revelation 8:5).

 

Intercessions

This word speaks of praying on behalf of others, or even against the onset of evil.  Regarding the latter meaning, Paul describes the prophet Elijah’s complaint, “Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel?  ‘Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life’” (Romans 11:2b-3, quoting 1 Kings 19:14).Intercession places us holy ground, because God himself intercedes for his people.  The author of Hebrews writes, “Consequently, he [Jesus] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).Paul describes the Holy Spirit’s work in the same way.  (Romans 8:26). When we intercede for others, we carry on some of God’s most precious work.

 

Thanksgiving and its Results

If thanksgiving does nothing else, it drives us to recognize God’s ultimate control over his creation.  When we give thanks, we recognize his hand in the most difficult situations. In the Bible college class that I teach, we recently discussed the early part of Exodus, where God’s people suffered under Egyptian slavery.  During their most difficult suffering, God appeared to have forgotten about them.  But the text is clear that he was always near. 

 

The Objectives of our Prayers

Having mentioned these four disciplines, Paul moves to the objectives of our prayers.  We are to pray “for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions.”  The original language suggests that rather than mentioning all people including kings and authorities, Paul has a more select group in mind.  A more accurate reading refers to “kings and all who are in positions of authority.”[2]  As we pray for those in authority over us, the result is that we are able to “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” This goal is especially timely in the contemporary political and moral atmosphere that has polarized our society in ways that were unthinkable even a few years ago. 

 

The Long Goal in our Prayers

As Christian men, we are called to stand in all situations.  In our explosive political atmosphere, our children and grandchildren’s moral futures lie in question.  We are responsible not just to pray, but to be ready to defend our beliefs.  The relationship between prayer and defense will be a topic of future columns. For now, let me say this.  One of the connecting points between prayer and defense lies in thanksgiving.  The Apostle Peter, for example, tells his readers that they are to regard Christ the Lord as holy, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).  Hope is rooted in thanksgiving. Peter’s letter is written to a group of believers who suffered persecution under Emperor Nero.  We probably do not have to face that level of persecution, at least yet.  But to the degree that we can maintain an attitude of thanksgiving, our prayers will become more balanced, and we will be able to present a stronger witness to the world.  

[1] William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary 46, Bruce M. Metzger, ed., (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 79. 

[2] Ibid., 80.

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Selected Passages in Revelation
Call to Prayer, Part 2

Prayer in the Book of Revelation

 

The Infinite Weight of Prayer

What is prayer?  Exactly? When we put our minds to this exercise, we begin to see how much bigger prayer is when compared to our efforts to define it.  As often as not, we end up with contradictory notions. 

  • We understand that prayer consists of petitions for the saints, but it is far more than a recitation of our daily laundry list. 
  • We realize that prayer involves adoration of God, but we run into situations when grief eclipses everything else. 
  • We know that prayer is a powerful tool to help accomplish God’s will in the world, but after all, I am only one man. 
  • We know that prayer involves self-examination and confession, but a regular practice of sin recognition is so hard. 
  • We understand that prayer is more than name-it-claim-it, but the qualifier, “according to your will,” sounds more like a copout for the difficult requests than recognition of God’s ultimate control over human affairs. 

From a practical standpoint, we often treat prayer as a dreaded duty.  We know that this is wrong, so in response, we try to divide prayer into bite-size segments—confession, adoration, worship, petition, praise.  These are all good practices, but I wonder if our efforts to subdivide them so cleanly amounts to a bottom-up effort to make our prayers more effective. Prayer calls for discipline, but it is more than a recitation of our list of requests.  It involves intimate communication with the God of the cosmos. In this challenge, I want to look at the way that God views our calls for help in our most desperate hours.  We will focus on the book of Revelation.  

 

Prayer in the Book of Revelation

Regardless of how we interpret the finer points of Revelation, we can agree that the book is God’s final word on his ownership of the affairs of mankind.  In fact, we can map the book through the grid of the saints’ prayers.  The book contains four key coordinates.  These are 1) prayers before the throne, 2) prayer during crisis, 3) prayer as God begins to answer, and 4) prayer as praise. At the beginning of the book, Jesus Christ calls his churches to maintain the faith till death.  While prayer does not enter the narrative directly in this section, it is implied.

 

One: Prayers before the Throne

In the letters to the churches at the beginning of Revelation, John is silent about prayer, despite the obvious difficulties that many of the churches faced.  Yet we know it is there, because the churches’ prayers surface when John takes us before the throne.  After he describes the glory in heaven, he reveals the cosmic drama. God holds up a seven-sealed scroll, which represents the right to bring human history to a close and fulfill God’s final redemptive purposes. 

No worthy contender can be found to open the scroll, and John weeps.  Then the Lion of the tribe of Judah steps forward as a slain Lamb. Notice what happens when the Lamb takes the scroll.  “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8, emphasis added). Our prayers have occupied the innermost circle of God’s presence from the beginning.  They are precious to him. 

 

Two: Prayer During Crisis

As the Lamb begins to break the seals on the scroll in Revelation 6, the judgments on the earth begin.  The first four mark the appearance of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Then we come the peculiar fifth seal. 

 

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.  They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” -- Revelation 6:9-10

 Why does John shift from the earth to heaven, and why are the saints in heaven in such dire straits?  I believe that the book shows us that until justice reigns on earth, heaven cannot rest. The words “O Sovereign Lord…how long…?” signify the language of lament in the Psalms, the saints’ cry to the Lord to intervene and bring justice.  In Revelation, this cry calls for the Lamb to rise and bring justice into a world that is bent on seeking its own interests rather than God’s.  The saints’ laments are the incense that fuels the Lamb’s passion.  This lament, then, becomes the pivot point for the entire book of Revelation. The cry in heaven is a cry for justice, but justice cannot be complete until all of God’s purposes come to pass.  Because of this, the saints are given white robes—a sign of great honor—and “told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (Revelation 6:11). 

 

Three: Prayer as God begins to Answer

Revelation 8 marks a major turning point in the book.  When the Lamb opens the seventh seal, he reveals the seven trumpet judgments that are to come.  John states that heaven goes silent for about half an hour.  The silence probably is shock over what is to come.  Before the next set of judgments begins, however, John writes this: 

 

And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.  Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. -- Revelation 8:3-5

When the angel casts the fire from the altar to the earth, the message is unmistakable.  The saints’ prayers become the instrument that God uses to judge the world. From this point, the prayers no longer involve pleading.  They take the form of worship for God’s judgment of world affairs. 

 

Four: Prayer Changing to Victorious Praise

In Revelation 18, Babylon the great, the vital force behind everything that stands against God’s people, falls.  When this is complete, the saints’ prayers turn to praise. 

 

After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” -- Revelation 19:1-2, emphasis added

 Revelation 19 is both brutal and unalterable.  And it signifies the answer to the prayer that the martyrs under the altar cried in chapter 6, “O Sovereign Lord…how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10). With Babylon’s judgment complete, the Lord proceeds to eliminate all evil from the earth (Revelation 20.  Prayer has completed its cycle.  Evil is eliminated, the new heavens and earth appear, and perfect peace reigns. 

 

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Call to Prayer, Part 3
The Ultimate Purpose of Prayer
Matthew 6:5-10

 

Jesus’ Teaching on Prayer

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, he teaches on prayer by giving us what has become known as the Lord’s Prayer.  Here is what he said at the beginning of this incredible model prayer.

 

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  Pray then like this:

 ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven….’”

-- Matthew 6:5-10

 

What Prayer is Not

In a culture that for centuries had stressed spirituality, certain practices had risen to the surface to distinguish the prayer warriors from those who merely pray.  The prayer warriors of Jesus’ day had become both visible and vocal.  Jesus’ opening comments teach us to avoid that kind of show.  He gives two broad guidelines. 

 

  • Don’t seek public audiences to prove your spirituality.  While you may impress others, the reward for showing off ends with the show.  God-honoring prayer seeks a private audience with God, and God remembers. 
  • Don’t think that repetition is a substitute for genuineness, or that those who are good at paraphrasing have a better handle on God’s attention.  God can see through repetition.  He knows what we need before we ask him. 

 

Jesus’ cautions speak to the substance of prayer rather than its style.  The difference between prayer for show and real petition has little to do with the way we dress our prayers.  Effective prayer goes to the question of how we approach God in the first place.  Jesus focusses on that question at the beginning of his model prayer. 

 

What Prayer Is

Our first call is for God to be holy.  When we say, “Hallowed be your name,” we call on God to make his reputation great. 

Calling on God to hallow his name almost sounds like an exercise in futility, because God is holy already.  For example, when the prophet Isaiah sees the vision of the LORD in the temple, the four seraphim (literally, “burning ones”) that surround him cry out,

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of his glory!” --Isaiah 6:3

 

How can we add to God’s glory?  The simple answer is that we cannot.  The Bible is clear that God will be glorified among both his friends and enemies. 

The plea for God to glorify his name shows our submission to him.  When we align ourselves with his will at the beginning of our prayers, we place ourselves among those who wait for him to bring the full manifestation of his kingdom to earth. This is evident from the second line in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

Prayer is Not Ultimately About Us

These two concepts—God’s glory and the fulfillment of his purpose in the world to establish his universal kingdom—underpin all meaningful prayer.  They form the foundation for prayer. The Old Testament praise psalms invite God’s people to rejoice when the LORD works to bring victory in the saints’ lives. By the same token, the laments, the pleas for help, often in the form, “How long, O LORD…,” are equally rooted in God’s ultimate purposes.  Both the personal laments and the laments of the people recognize that while evil flourishes, God’s purpose in the world remains unfulfilled.  Their prayers for God to remember their plight rest on the understanding, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”  The laments are passionate precisely because the LORD must be great among his people.  When evil reigns, it threatens God’s mastery of the cosmos.  The laments called for nothing less than for God to right history. 

 

An Example of God Bringing his Will to Earth

One of most dramatic examples of God bringing his will to earth came from an unexpected source.  My wife has a long-time friend who is a documentary film maker.  In 2016, she premiered Unseen, a film about the Anthony Sowell murders in East Cleveland.  Patty and I assisted in writing transcripts for several of the interviews, which gave us a deeper understanding of the events than what the documentary could show. The public history of the murders is well known.  In 2009, police discovered the bodies of eleven African-American young women in Sowell’s yard and house.  All the women were drug users whom Sowell had lured into his control. When a twelfth victim managed to escape by jumping out of his third-story window, police investigated and found the bodies of the other eleven. During the transcript writing, I learned about a deeper spiritual saga inside the story.  One of the interviewees for the film was a local pastor who had served the community for more than twenty-five years.  He described how the neighborhood had been a prosperous haven when he first arrived but had degenerated into a slum. By the time Sowell began his killing spree, the neighborhood was shot through with crime and drugs.  Since the victims were drug users, the murders went unnoticed for at least two years.  The women were inconsequential to the police. Around this time, the pastor organized a small group from his church to pray for the community.  They made T-shirts so that they would be recognizable as a peaceful gathering, and they picked a different corner on which to pray every week. One week, he said, they stood in front of Sowell’s house. They did not know him.   The murders were still a secret, and no one suspected anything.  They just happened to pick that place on that week to pray for God to bring healing.  Two weeks later, Sowell’s only surviving victim escaped, allowing police to discover the crime and bring Sowell to justice. 

 

“Your Kingdom Come…”

The pastor’s story gave me chills.  His group prayed for God’s kingdom to come, and it entered with justice.  The Lord revealed the wrongs when human authorities neither knew nor cared about the injustice around them. For me, at least, understanding prayer in this context brings a great deal more purpose to the exercise.  We can pray for  the particulars, but we must remember the bigger picture. Yes, we have the freedom to pray during sickness or other tragedy.  Yes, we can pray for justice when injustice reigns.  Yes, we can weep for ourselves and others.  Prayers during difficult times like these have meaning because the grand purpose for God’s kingdom is to rid the world of sickness, tragedy, injustice, and grief.  Genuine prayer brings God’s kingdom to earth, one step at a time. 

 

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Call to Prayer, Part 4
Our Daily Bread
Deuteronomy 8:1-3

The Importance of Knowing our God

The opening lines in what we know as the Lord’s Prayer call for God to make his name great in the earth. 

"Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. " --Matthew 9-10

 

These words set the foundation not just for the rest of the prayer, but also for life itself.  If God is to do his will on the earth, he certainly must perform it in his disciples. For that reason, we need to understand the next request in the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), as part of God’s grand plan for his will to be done throughout the earth. 

 

The Greatness of God is shown in Plentiful Supply

Jesus’ call for us to seek our daily bread from the Lord looks indirectly at Psalm 104, a praise hymn for God’s creation.  Part of the psalm reads,

"You cause the grass to grow for the livestock,and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earthand wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shineand bread to strengthen man’s heart." --Psalm 104:14-15

 

The thirty-five verses of Psalm 104 pulsate in their praise for God’s creative work.  The heavens and the earth show God’s splendor.  The order in the earth stands as testimony to God’s wisdom.  And the resources and finished products that come from the earth—the grass, the cultivated plants, wine, oil, and bread—stand as blessings from our Creator who gives us reward for our labor. 

 

The Moral Lessons in Daily Bread

Jesus has a more specific passage from Deuteronomy in mind when he teaches us to pray for our daily bread.  Moses tells the generation that is about to possess the Promised Land,

 

“The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers.  And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.  And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD." -- Deuteronomy 8:1-3

 

The older unbelieving generation has died, and their children stand ready for victory.  They still have certain things to learn, however. 

 

Three Things God seeks in Knowledge

Anyone familiar with the desert wanderings remembers that the first generation refused to believe that God could bring them into Canaan successfully (See Numbers 13:1-14:48).  For this reason, God doomed them to wander forty years until they all died. We tend to emphasize the first generation’s demise during the wandering, but God was busy with the second generation as well.  The forty years was not just a time of limbo while their parents died off.  The LORD used the time to teach them to trust.  That is the emphasis in this passage. For example, Moses makes use of the word know three times in this passage.  The first instance refers to what God himself wants to know.  He used the time “that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. This use of the word sounds strange to us who emphasize that God knows all things.  Knowing what we will do is one thing, however.  Knowing that we have chosen to obey in faith is something that he prizes far more deeply.  When God tests us to know what is in our hearts, he wishes to prove us and establish us in his relationship with us.

 

Supplies beyond the Threshold of Knowledge

Moses’ second use of the word know goes to an area where Israel remained ignorant.  “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know….”   Moses uses a play on words in this sentence.  When the manna first appeared in Exodus 16, Moses records this reaction.  “When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’  For they did not know what it was” (Exodus 16:15a).  The original language word for “What is it?” is mahn, meaning what.  This led to the word manna.  For the next forty years, the people would pick up the what-is-it from the ground.  Unlike the grass and plants of the creation from Psalm 104, which God gave mankind to cultivate, manna was just there.  It never had a name beyond what-is-it. 

 

What God has Given us to Know

The third use of the word know leads the people to the heart of an important moral lesson.  Moses told Israel that God “humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, that you might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” Part of Moses’ point is ironic.  The cultivated plants, grain, and bread in Psalm the quote from 104 are identifiable and knowable.  And they involve labor.  The psalmist calls them “the plants for man to cultivate.” Manna, on the other hand, was an unknown substance that did not involve cultivation.  It just appeared, ready to be baked, boiled, or eaten raw. There is another difference between manna and the plants of the field.  The plants of the field reproduce in abundance and bring joy.  Manna appeared in scarcity and often left the people hungry. The very scarcity of manna taught the people a moral lesson.  The need to trust their God for supply was more important than personal comfort. Jesus quoted this passage for this reason during his forty days of fasting when Satan tempted him to turn stones into bread. 

 

The Doxology of Daily Bread

The call for God to give us our daily bread, then, is far more than a call for provision.  It is a call for God to have the freedom to reign in our lives while we trust him for what we cannot know.  When we find the ability to value God’s wisdom more than immediate comfort, we begin to honor his kingdom’s appearance on the earth in this most practical way.

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Call to Prayer, Part 5
Forgiveness and Forgiving
Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness and the Kingdom of Heaven

When Jesus moves to the personal and spiritual request in the Disciples’ Prayer, “…and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12), does he stay on track with the original request for God’s glory, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”?  

I believe so, for two reasons.  First, a moment’s thought on forgiveness makes us realize that God’s will on earth is precisely to forgive sinners.  Therefore, a plea to the Father to forgive our debts moves straight to his revealed mission in the world. Second, Jesus himself equates forgiveness with the Father’s will.  In Matthew 18:15-20, he teaches about this issue.  In the church, if someone has a conflict with another, he is to go to the brother and attempt to resolve the conflict. If the brother refuses to listen to them, they are to take one or two witnesses in the hope of restoring the brother. If the witnesses fail to convince the brother of his sin, then they are to take the matter before the church.  If even this fails to persuade the brother to rectify, then the church is to conclude that this brother is not really a believer at all. 

 

Forgiveness as the Greater Goal

Jesus’ point is not for us to use conflict resolution as a device to weed out the undesirables from the church.  Instead, it is for us to make every possible effort to achieve restoration among the brothers and sisters in the church. Peter’s response to Jesus’ teaching goes to that end.  “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:22). Most of us are familiar with Jesus’ response to Peter’s question.  “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). Before we jump on Peter for what he missed, however, we need to recognize what he got right.  He understands that forgiveness lies at the heart of the issue.  Jesus corrects him only on the greatness of the task.

 

Forgiveness on Earth as it is in Heaven

A parable connects the earthly task of forgiveness to the Father’s will for his kingdom to come to completion on the earth.  “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants” (Matthew 18:23). Settling accounts means balancing the books, and one slave is caught holding a ten-thousand-talent debt.  This is a serious trespass, and the verdict is swift.  The man, his wife, and his children are to be sold into slavery in restitution for the debt (Matthew 18:25).

 

Foolhardy Forgiveness

As Jesus often does in his parables, he drives the situation to the realm of absurdity.  When the servant hears the verdict, he falls on his knees and begs, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything (Matthew 18:26).” Everything?  The debt has attained biblical proportions.  At a laborer’s wages, he would have to work two hundred thousand years to pay it. Upon hearing a plea this absurd plea, many kings would tell his servants, “Forget slavery for this guy.  Just have him executed.”  Jesus takes the story in yet another unexpected direction.  “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18:27). That was it.  The king let the man go on the spot.  The act is nothing short of foolhardy forgiveness.  But it represents the kind of forgiveness that the Father bestows to each one of us.

 

More than Foolishness

At this point, the parable is only half over.  The debt-free slave remains wholly ignorant of what he has received.  He leaves his master’s presence, goes out and finds a fellow servant who owes him a hundred denarii and chokes him in an effort to collect. A hundred denarii is about a third of a year’s wages, easy enough to arrange for payback.  The first slave wants none of that, however.  He throws his fellow worker in prison until he can pay the debt (Matthew 18:30).  The lesson—not to mention the irony—is obvious.  The first slave has received immunity from a world-class crime.  The least he can do is to extend the favor to his friend.  The point is clear enough to the first slave’s fellow servants.  When they see what has happened, they become “greatly distressed” (Matthew18:31).  When they report the matter to the king, the king summoned the slave. The king places the slave under his own system of justice.  Since he cannot forgive, he will not be forgiven.  The king sentences him to prison until he can pay.  

 

An Easy Parable with a Difficult Conclusion

The point of the parable is not that to place us under a threat to imitate God’s forgiveness or else.  It is to show that if we stand where the first servant stands at the beginning of the story.  We have experienced forgiveness of unimaginable proportions.  That should compel us to forgive in human proportions. The Father’s forgiveness is outrageous.  It requires no less than his Son’s death to relieve the guilty of their guilt.  But the act goes to the heart of his joy. The logical next step for us is to forgive those who harm us.  When we forgive, we begin to experience the Father’s outrageous joy .  Our forgiveness becomes a reflection of the Father’s grace. By the same token, if we let our reluctance to forgive fester, it signals something lacking in our understanding of what the Father has done for us. Counting robs us of the joy of watching restoration in action.  If we continue to count and never focus on pardon, our problems may be deeper.  We may need to take a serious look at our own relationship with our Father.  Is it even real? When Jesus likens “the kingdom of heaven” to earthly forgiveness, he brings the kingdom to earth.  God’s kingdom is built on forgiveness, because it is what allows sinners to enter heaven.  It is also what distinguishes the redeemed from the rest of the world.Forgiveness achieves the plea, “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” because it brings his kingdom to earth.

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