Preached November 4, 2012
St. Matthew 18:21–35
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
We continue this morning regarding the matter of the development of the Christian life, specifically personal sanctification, holiness. You will recall that this is the on–going theme of the second half of the Trinity season, for which we are rapidly drawing near the end now.
The Epistle lesson for the day is taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a letter written while Paul was under house arrest in Rome awaiting execution. The whole theme of the Letter to the Philippians is sanctity, the development of holiness, so it is particularly appropriate for our consideration at this time. Paul is looking back over his ministry, and this letter to the Philippians is not a letter of scolding, correction, or even to answer particular questions. It is simply a warm, personal, pastoral letter to his old friends in Philippi, written with great affection and joy. This is evident in St. Paul’s beginning: Philippians 1:3–5 I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, 4 Always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, 5 For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now; I would call your attention to the sense of personal closeness that Paul expresses here, even though he is far removed from these people in physical distance. He opens with positive exuberance, I thank my God upon every remembrance of you; that is an incredibly powerful statement! This is an important characteristic of the Church, the true unity of the Church. We often tend to lose sight of this in our modern world, but it should be so with us today as well.
Paul has a particular word of encouragement for parents, God–parents, pastors, and anyone else who is charged with the care of souls when he says, Philippians 1:6 6 Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ: Paul is saying that the good work which Christ has begun in each of us, He will also enable to be continued until its completion, until the Judgment. This enabling is only possible through the work of the Holy Ghost; it is far more than any of us can do by ourselves, but St. Paul is telling us that he is confident that it will indeed happen. The Holy Ghost does not drop the ball! It is true that some will turn away, some will reject salvation, but that is not a failure of the Holy Ghost but rather the work of the devil. The Holy Ghost is there at all times, supporting and leading each soul to Jesus, by working sanctification in the life of the believer.
Skipping ahead a few verses, we read, Philippians 1:9-11 9 And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; 10 That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ; 11 Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God. Paul is expressing here some of the key concepts that we need for the development of holiness, for the sanctification of our lives. He uses good words, but words that have become so badly abused in our modern language that they have almost lost their meaning, in some cases even becoming trite. Let us therefore seek to examine what St. Paul has said here with real care.
The first part of St. Paul’s prayer is, “that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment.” We are constantly warned today against being judgmental, and even knowledge is considered suspect these days, so just what is Paul praying for the Philippians, and for us as well? Consider first the word “judgment.” This means the ability to make proper distinctions, to correctly evaluate what is right versus what is wrong, what is good against what is evil. This is closely associated with another word that has become forbidden these days, the word “discriminate” which means to be able to tell differences, pick out shades of distinction, to notice where things are unequal. If we cannot make these distinctions, if we cannot tell the difference between what is right against what is wrong, then we are easy prey for the devil. How do we discriminate and make proper judgments? We must open our eyes to observe, and we must apply the knowledge that God has given us, knowledge of His Law, of His Son Jesus Christ, and of His universe. God does not want us to stumble through life as blind men; that is why we have been given eyes to see and brains to think. We are expected to use both, to employ all the gifts that God has given us as we seek to live more holy lives. We must be discerning people, constantly studying that which is around us, evaluating it as to whether it is good or evil and how we should respond to it in such a way as to please God. We cannot simply say, (1) nothing really matters, and I can do whatever I want to do, nor (2) can we say I have no way to know the difference between right and wrong, so I am free to just stumble along blindly, doing whatever I want.
And what are we to do with this ability to be discerning and make right judgments? St. Paul says, … that ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ. And just what are things that are excellent? We hear the word “excellent” batted around so often today that it has become somewhat trite, but we should think about what this word really means if we want to understand what Paul is saying here. To be excellent means to be that which excels, that which is above all else, that which is far above the ordinary. So in our ability to make discerning judgments, that is to observe distinctions and make an informed choice based on knowledge of God’s will, we are not to choose the ordinary, but rather to choose only those things that are far above the ordinary, those things that truly excel. It is perfectly clear that this cannot be done without the knowledge to make an informed judgment, nor can it be done if we are unwilling to actually make the judgment, the act of choosing.
Why do we choose those things that are excellent? They are chosen so that we may be sincere — let us pause right there. What does it mean to be sincere as it is used here? This comes from the Latin sinceritas, which is compounded of sine, without, and cera, wax, and is a metaphor taken from clarified honey. The idea is that this is the pure honey, without the corrupting wax material of the comb. This could be verified by holding it up to the strong sun light, to verify that the honey was indeed clear. This is the basis for the translation of the original Greek words used at this point. The whole idea is that of purity, of being without corruption. The person that is pure does not give offense, either to God or to other men, neither stumbling himself nor causing others to stumble. Thus we are called to exercise judgment in knowledge until the day of Christ, in order that we might be made pure and acceptable to both God and our fellow men.
The result of doing this is Philippians 1:11 Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God. The result of holy living will be evident in the lives of those who practice it. The results are honesty, truth, kindness, meekness, and goodness. St. Paul is wishing that this will be fully evident in the lives of the Philippians. He says that this comes by Jesus Christ, which is to say that it comes by the actions of the Holy Ghost in our hearts, by our efforts to follow Christ, and is a natural result of being a part of the Christian fellowship. The holy lives of Christians are lived to the honor and glory of God. They are more effective praise than words, more than all manner of the talk about giving glory to God. God is truly glorified in the holy lives of His saints, and therefore we must not make light of this matter of sanctification of our lives.
Of course, one of the places where God is most often not glorified is the way in which we deal with each other. Our Lord Jesus takes this matter up in today’s Gospel lesson, first in regard to a question from Peter about how many times Peter must forgive his brother. The answer, of course, is the familiar seventy times seven times. This leads Jesus into the parable of the servant who owed his lord a large debt, 10,000 talents, which he could not pay. When the servant humbly petitioned the lord, he was forgiven the entire debt, free and clear, an amazing act of generosity. A short time later, that same servant came upon a fellow servant who owed the first servant a small debt, 100 pence. He demanded payment, and would not yield to any request for mercy but rather had the second servant cast into debtor’s prison. When the lord heard about this, he was angry and pointed out the great inequity in the way the servant had dealt with his fellow compared with the way the lord had dealt with the servant himself. Then the lord had the servant punished for his hardheartedness.
Look at the numbers involved: 10,000 talents versus 100 pence. The Jewish talent was 125 pounds (Troy), so presuming this to be 10,000 talents of silver, this is 1,250,000 pounds (Troy) of silver. There are 240 silver pennies to a pound, so this second servant’s debt is something less than a half pound (Troy) of silver. The immensity of the debt of the first servant compared to that of the second servant is quite evident! We are not to concern ourselves with the question of how could a servant ever get into debt to the extent of 1,250,000 pounds of silver. Instead, realize that what this parable is really about is our position before God. The debt of sin that we owe to God is like the 1,250,000 pounds of silver owed by the first servant, an incredibly large debt, beyond the ability of any human to pay off. When we petition our Lord God through His Son Jesus Christ, He fully and freely forgives us all our sins — just like that! This is what the lord did for the first servant, and that is what God the Father does for us, because He has sent His Son to die for our sins. If we then turn around and deal harshly with our fellows, even as the first servant did with the second, this is seen by our Father in Heaven. Who are we to be dealing with other people in such an unloving way when we have been given so very much so freely? Did we earn our own salvation? Did our good works save us? Of course not! We are only saved by the blood of Christ Jesus. Therefore we must remember that when we deal with other people and treat them accordingly.
In this way we build up the Church, the Body of Christ, by sanctifying the lives of the members of the Church.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.