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Chains of Habit

Matthew 18:21-35

The Rev. Jon Roberts

13 September


Calvary Episcopal Church

Indian Rocks Beach, FL

21 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?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 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. 26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. 28 “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. 29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ 30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Chains of Habit

The Unmerciful Servant by Jan Van Hemessen, 1556

Chains of habit are too light to be felt
Until they are too heavy to be broken. [1]

An attorney, after meditating on several Scriptures, decided to cancel the debts of all his clients that had owed him money for more than a year. He drafted a letter explaining his decision and its Biblical basis and sent 7 debt canceling letters via certified mail. One by one, the letters were returned by the Postal Service, unsigned and undelivered. Perhaps a couple people had moved away though not likely. Seven letters came back to him because the clients refused to open the envelope and sign the letter, fearing that this attorney was suing them for their debts. The moral of this story is that we have created a habit of owing a debt for our sin. That’s not the problem. God is willing to cancel it, but too many people are too afraid to open the letter that explains how.

In the painting by Jan Van Hemessen, titled, “The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant” we see a King who cancels the debt of one of his subjects, or “slave.” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “A man in debt is so far a slave.”[2] In Proverbs it says, “Just as the rich rule the poor, so the borrower is servant to the lender.”[3] In this account of the king’s pardon, there are two types of habitual sins in the form of giving and receiving, and they may be too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

The first habitual sin is the one of the lender. What is their motive? Is it to help the one less fortunate; to help them get back on their feet? You have so much and they have so little, so charity should be in your heart. Instead, too often the relationship of showing compassion and mercy is broken. There are too many Mr. Potters and not enough George Baileys to go around. The lender would rather not see the faces of their borrowers, who may never be able to pay them back. Paying perpetual interest is the norm for them. Many say their debts feel like chains, but they cannot be broken. Shame on the lender for this money was not earned, only demanded, and this type of greed is sinful when it imposes slavery.

The second habitual sin is the one of the borrower. What is their motive? Is it to make a better way of life, putting food on the table, affording a house or car; putting their kids in good schools so they can have a brighter future? The money seems easy to borrow. All you have to do is set up a payment plan and within 5 to 30 years, you can have that car or that house, with interest of course. Your other option is to rent or lease. Same thing, unless you have cash in hand. But what if you did have, say, cash saved up to pay everything off, and all you have to worry about is food and play money? What would you do? Better yet, what would you do if someone less fortunate came to you, asking for a loan? Would you give it to them? Would you have strings attached?

Here is an interesting statistic provided by the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE).[4] They state that 70% of all lottery winners go bankrupt within 3 years after they receive a financial windfall. Why do so many lose their shirts? It is because they go right back to the habit of gambling it away. They do not manage their wealth, or they may give out to predatory family members or business propositions that lead nowhere. A little bit here, a little bit there, they don’t feel it.

This is where Jesus presents the parable of the unmerciful servant to his disciples today.[5] Much like today, the best practice to “making it” or “going somewhere” is to have money. That is the perception. How one gets it is one thing. How one keeps it and grows it, is another. The king, in the story has many resources and when he sees an apparent and desperate situation upon one of his subjects, or slaves, who is indebted to him, he acts with compassion. He could have extended his payments, like so many landlords are doing today for those who are without a job and cannot pay their rent. He could have simply said, we will recalculate and spread it over a longer period of time, but he didn’t. He forgave his debt. Do you wonder how others who owed a debt to the king, felt like when they heard this news? Forgive my debt too, King!

Another interesting point to make about this passage, is that it continues the story from the previous verses, discussed last week, as far as how it opens. The disciples are not concerned about what is happening too much in public. They want to know specifically how to treat each other. “Lord, if a member of the church sins against me.” This is so important, because it tells you just how bad the sins of habit are in this day and age, if it trickles into the life of a spiritual, compassionate community such as a church. You know things are bad when fellow believers are behaving no different than how you see the rest of the world operate. The Church is called to be different in that respect. We are supposed to help others when there is no one else who can, to the best of our abilities.

Look at the story of Moses. When God parted the Red Sea, he showed mercy to the slaves and when he closed the passage to the Egyptians in pursuit to harm them, he exercised justice.[6] But what did the people of Israel do, when they built Jerusalem? They soon forgot the debts forgiven and began to put others in bondage. This was the whole story of Jesus overturning the money changers. He was not going to stand for this practice, nor would he die on the cross only if we would turn to him.[7] That was a free offering. He hoped we would pay it forward by making a similar sacrifice to show others the way of salvation, but he did not say, “Pay what you owe.”

Most people know when they are doing something that separates them from God. Sin is separation from God. You will recognize it by asking yourself, “How hard is it for me to let go of something?” If your 401k tanks, will you feel like your life has ended? If you can’t get out of the “red” because you do not make enough money, and the bills are piling up, do you feel like life has no meaning? Everyone sins, which means everyone has put their trust in something other than God. Therefore, be careful and put your trust only in Him. Do this first. Secondly, do not be harsh to others when you have been forgiven. In this case, the Lord will not show mercy. When you do not trust and when you do not forgive; whether you lend or borrow, be careful to open the letter that God has sent you, in the form of His Son Jesus, to loose your chains. Remember, this...

Chains of habit are too light to be felt
Until they are too heavy to be broken.

[1] Warren Buffett
[3] Proverbs 22
[4] January 12, 2018.
[5] Matthew 18:21-35
[6] Exodus 14:19-31
[7] Matthew 21:12

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