You’ve gotta feel for those Pharisees. They were working really hard on adapting God’s law to real life, making it applicable to daily business, when along comes Jesus with his "You have heard it said…, but I say to you…!" making the point of the law sharp and obvious.
Last week I preached on forgiveness. Which means that during the week I was working out the sermon. We’ve been working our way through the Gospel of Mathew and had come to Matthew 18, and the parable of the unforgiving servant, and Peter asking if forgiving someone seven times was sufficient, and Jesus replying "seventy times seven!" Infinitely. Completely. Perfectly.
But the week before was Mathew 17, and the story of the transfiguration, and the voice from the shining cloud saying "This is my beloved Son, listen to him!" So I thought we needed to receive the words of Jesus. I extracted forty odd sayings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, and after the sermon, people came forward to the front, and received a word of Jesus each.
Then during the week I worked on my Matthew 18 sermon. A large part of it was going to be looking at Jesus’ teaching about dealing with offences and forgiving, and focused on those situations and cases when forgiveness was really hard and might not be appropriate. I wanted to give people who had been badly hurt by others a way to deal with that challenge to forgive so that they didn’t feel condemned. We have a number of fragile people in our congregation, and I have no desire to lay heavy burdens on their backs.
But then the phone rang, and one of our fragile people was on the line.
"Remember that word of Jesus you gave me last Sunday?" she asked.
"I remember doing so, but I can’t remember which one it was – they just came up randomly."
"It was the one about forgiving so that we can be forgiven (Matthew 6:14 – 15)."
I feared the worst. How could I ask this women to forgive what had been done to her? How could I tell her that her difficulty in forgiving that would prevent God from forgiving her?
"Well," she continued, "I realised that I had been holding unforgiveness towards a friend who no longer talks to me. I thought I had dealt with the anger and hurt, and I had decided that before we could resume our relationship – if she ever showed any sign of wanting to – it was only right that she should acknowledge that she had hurt me and apologise."
I agreed. That was exactly what I had been writing about that very afternoon – the necessity for confronting people with their offences and not allowing sin to go unchallenged.
"But then I realised that in doing that, I was not forgiving her. I was holding something over her still, and I should forgive like God has forgiven me – without remainder. So I did that, in prayer, and guess what happened?"
I couldn’t guess.
"She knocked on my door – the first time in months – and I asked her in for a drink, and we talked, and it’s like nothing ever happened. We’re friends again!"
I went back to my study the next day and scribbled out a large part of the sermon I had written. I had become a Pharisee. I had wanted to show people how they could live and make the word of God fit our situation. But it works the other way. We fit the word of God and then we know how to live! I took out the ‘how to’ section and instead preached the gospel. God forgives us. We gotta forgive others. It’s our main job as the representatives of Jesus here and now. Forgive. No holding back.
That’s a hard word, but it’s God’s word. And he has shown me that when he puts his word into someone’s life, he will put it to work in the way that most makes sense for that person. My job isn’t to twist the word so that it’s a better fit, but to preach the gospel, and God will straighten us out so that we fit his Word.