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Living under the Law

9/11/05

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If you've been Lutheran any time at all, you know that life is not to be lived under the Law but the Gospel. Life under the Law is life under the wrath of God, life under constant accusation, a life under "do this" and "don't do that." But don't fool yourself. No matter how long you've been a Lutheran you can still find yourself living under the Law.

Living under the Law begins with counting. As a youth some of you counted grades; figured percentages, weighed test scores. Most of you at some point have counted calories or fat grams. You've read labels, added the numbers. All of us have counted dollars and cents. We started with piggy banks and moved on to bank accounts.

And what's wrong with counting grades, calories, and dollars? Isn't that being responsible? Isn't that part of proper planning? Isn't that godly discipline? Yes, yes and yes. It can be and often is helpful to count things, but those of you who are dedicated counters know where the problem with counting lurks, don't you? The problem is when you live your life under the absolute, harsh rule of numbers. You're life was ruined as a youngster the first time your grades didn't add up to an 'A.' Your day was ruined when your fat grams were one too many. Or what's worse, you had that "nothing can touch me now" feeling when your dollars added up to a surplus.

Sinful fallen flesh needs the discipline of the Law; it can even use the discipline of counting. But when your counting becomes the basis for feeling good or bad about yourself, you've made the Law your ultimate judge, and you're either heading toward despair or pride.

People who grow up counters are prone to counting everything, so they count their sins. If they take the Law seriously, they cannot but despair. O by discipline they may be able to stop coarse outbursts of sin, and maybe even sinful words, but not those thoughts. They flood their heart and mind testifying just how foul, filthy, and lost they are. Every move they make, every breath they take is polluted by sin. The Law shows a constant stream of filth pumping out of our hearts black and fetid as the water coming out of New Orleans 24/7. This is what David sees when he says, "My sins have gone over my head."

But counting sins, strangely enough, can lead to pride. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, dealt with the black, stream of water pumping out of his heart this way: "Some may choose to call bad thoughts sin, I do not." He reduced the number of sins he had by not counting wicked thoughts as sins. Once you reduce the number of sins you can count against yourself to a number you can manage, you start counting the sins of others.

You know that old joke about the man and his mule heading west? The mule was obstinate. When it stopped the first time, the man said, "That's once." The second time he said, "That's twice." The third time the man pulled out a pistol and shot the mule. His wife started yelling at him for killing their only mule. He turned to her and said, "That's once." That's suppose to be a joke, but it's not funny because we really do act that way. We count the sins of others as the merciful God says He counts our tears. We catch sins in bottles and put labels on them. They did this against us then and they did that against us this time.

We don't do that, do we? Except to those people who've really wronged us. Except to those people we know aren't sorry. But notice, Matthew doesn't have the repeat sinner saying, "I repent" as Luke 17 does. So what this text places before us are the sins of people who've hurt us and never cared. They have wronged us and believed they were right. When we pray the Lord's Prayer asking for forgiveness as we have forgiven, we are not to think of sins we've had trouble forgiving but the ones we've forgiven easily. Here, however, we are to think of those who've seriously sinned against us, hurt us, and never said, "I'm sorry."

How on earth, how in heaven, can I ever stop counting that sin against them? But if you don't you're dooming yourself to a life under the Law and maybe a death under it too. The Law endlessly counts. It may start innocently enough with grades, calories and dollars, but it moves on to sins yours and others. And once others sins look like logs and yours look like specks, you'll feel good about not forgiving. Living under the Law begins with our counting, but it can only be brought to and end by God's counting.

Your sins against God are far more than you can count. David said that his sins were more than the hairs on his head. He pictures them as a mop of hair having grown so long it covers his eyes. But God counts more than that. In Psalm 19, David admits that he's not able to count all of his sins and that only God can.

The parable in our text shows our sins against God in relation to others sins against us. But you won't get the benefit of this parable unless you face the fact that some people have been abused as children; some have had drunk drivers kill their families; some have been beaten black and blue or been betrayed by spouses. Are such sins really only worth a 100 denarii, 100 days wages? No, such heinous sins are said by Jesus to be a 100 days wages when compared to our sins against God which are said to be 10,000 talents. A talent equaled 20 years' wages, so our sins against God are 200,000 years worth of wages compared to the sins of others against us which are 100 days worth of wages.

This is one parable that sounds like a tale from the Arabian Nights. Fantastic sums and unimaginable grace are involved. The total tax from Judea was 600 talents a year. Jesus has a man with a 10,000 talent debt! Here are your sins against the holy God. Here is what you owe Him. Here is what God finds when He counts sins. That's why we chant in Psalm 130, "If Thou Lord should mark inequities, who should stand?"

There's a display in New York that keeps track of the national debt. It spins much like our gas pumps do at these high prices. The day we enter the womb the LED display counting our sins is spinning. Hundreds of sins go by a second, thousands an hour, tens of thousands a day. But then God shuts the counter off. He doesn't shut it off because we stop sinning. He stops counting because there's nothing more to count. God the Father stops counting because God the Son came into the world to keep the Law that we keep violating and to take responsibility for our untold number of sins.

Rather than thinking about that person who sinned against you, wronged you horribly, hurt you wickedly, you are to dwell on the debt of your sins against God that you could never pay, and how God the Son took that debt on Himself. First, He kept the Law, fulfilled it, so that in Him the Father could only see the Law as kept. The counter can't run if there's nothing to count. Second, He paid for that 200,000 years worth of sins that had already been counted against you. To be just, God the Father had to punish sins. He would be a liar; He would break His own Word if He didn't punish our sins. So He handed His only beloved Son over, not to the jailers, but as the text literally says, He handed Him over to the torturers.

All that I have ever wanted to see done to those who've sinned against me, Jesus suffered. All the fear, the shame, the worry, we know we would suffer if anyone really found out about all of our sins, Jesus endured. Dear friend: Stop. Think. The Law you can't live under, the Law that weighs so heavy on your mind, has been fulfilled by Jesus. God in Christ doesn't look at you under the Law, so stop looking at yourself that way.

Moreover, the punishments the Law demands from those who sin but once, have all been suffered, endured, completed by Jesus. You're forgiven; you're free. You are commanded by God to forgive yourself for Jesus' sake, and if you can't do that, you are commanded by God to ignore that sin, ignore that biting conscience. The forgiveness Jesus won for you by His innocent life and death, are truer, realer, and richer than any sins you might have or even imagine you have.

Living under the Law begins with counting, and it ends with God counting our sins against Jesus not against us. This leads to our recounting God's mercy to sinners. And the first sinner we are to recount this applies to is us. With St. Paul, the one time murderer of Christians, we count ourselves chief of sinners, but we recount that Jesus came into the world to save sinners. We recount that we've been baptized into Jesus. We've been joined to Him, so that what He did we did, where He went, we went, where He goes we go. God regards Jesus' keeping of the Law as our keeping of the Law. Jesus went into the grave; we went into the grave with Him. Jesus rose from the dead free of sin, death and the devil heading for heaven, we rose with Him heading that direction too because we're forever joined to Him by Baptism.

Daily we remember our baptisms. Daily we remember that we've been marked, sealed, for everlasting life by the sign of the cross both on our heads and hearts. All our sins were paid for on that cross, and not just ours, but the sins of the whole world. Nobody sins were not there. Even the person who doesn't believe they're a sinner; his or her sins were there. Even that person that sinned so sharply, so beastly against you, his or her sins were there. Jesus suffered, sighed, bled, and died for those sins against us. If Jesus did that for those sins against us, if Jesus paid for those sins against us, if Jesus declared them finished, then what can we say but "Amen."

You misunderstand this, however, if you think forgiving from the heart is the same as being friends, or the same as trusting the person again. Forgiving from the heart means recognizing that if Jesus paid for all sins, they now belong to Him not to me or to that person who sinned against me. Forgiving from the hear is not trying to making yourself not count sins against you (That's living under the Law); it's recounting that God counted those sins against Jesus already (This is living under the Gospel). Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Pentecost XVII (20050911); Matthew 18:21-35