In our text for this week, Matthew 17-18, we’ll highlight the power of two things in the life of a Christian: prayer and forgiveness. Or better said: the power of God in us via prayer and forgiveness.
The key story in this chapter really is the transfiguration of Christ, where he ascends the mountain like Moses and is transformed visually to outshine both Moses and Elijah, and a voice from heaven once again identifies Jesus as God’s son, as it did at Jesus’ baptism scene. This builds upon the confession of Christ as Messiah and son of the living God in chapter 16. The moment really is one of revelation for the disciples, not Jesus, as His identity is further revealed to His closest followers, along with another declaration of His impending death.
Immediately afterward, though, there is this interesting little story that describes the disciples’ failed attempt at performing a miracle. Immediately, I can imagine myself in their shoes. Matthew 17:14-21 (NET):
When they came to a crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, because he has seizures and suffers terribly, for he often falls into the fire and into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they were not able to heal him.” Jesus answered, “You unbelieving and perverse generation! How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I endure you? Bring him here to me.” Then Jesus rebuked the demon and it came out of him, and the boy was healed from that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why couldn’t we cast it out?” He told them, “It was because of your little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there,’ and it will move; nothing will be impossible for you.”
Probably every follower of Christ has at some point wondered just how far they should go when considering living out a ministry of healing/miracles. Most of us probably fear exactly this kind of situation: we tried, we failed, and we’re humiliated. Perhaps worse, we’re afraid of giving the Lord a bad name due to our failure. The disciples understandably want Jesus to tell them why they couldn’t cast out the demon, and Jesus tells them. So let’s get to the point: what’s this business about having too little faith? Is Jesus talking about the size of faith? That would be the natural reading of the text, perhaps, at first glance: the quantity isn’t enough. You need to work harder to build more faith.
Such is a great example of how the teachings of Jesus are often simple, but not easy! This parable reveals the very clear power of forgiveness: we can choose forgiveness for our own souls and our own sins–if we are willing to forgive others of their sins against us. That is the deal.
But Jesus is not talking about the quantity of one’s faith; He is rather talking about the quality of one’s faith. Notice v.20: “If you have faith the size of the mustard seed…” The point of the mustard seed image is, of course, that the mustard seed is tiny. The problem was not that the disciples’ faith was too small; Jesus is saying even the tiniest amount of faith could do great things (e.g. move a mountain, which was an expression used in Judaism elsewhere too, including the NT in 1 Cor. 13:2). It would seem rather that the disciples do not have the right kind of faith.
One can easily picture these young, eager disciples going out in Jesus’ name with power to heal: excited, energetic, and ready to do great things. It would be easy for us to imagine them going out and thinking that they—by their newly-given powers and authority–can do sort of an “abra-cadabra!” ritual and bring about great Kingdom works.
It is easy for any one of us to forget that it is not by our skills that we do great Kingdom things, but it is by God’s power.
So how do we obtain such faith? If it’s not about quantity, then what makes for quality faith? How can we obtain this faith in the power of God? Mark’s version of this very same story (Mark 9) may provide the answer. When the disciples ask Jesus privately why they could not cast out the demon, Jesus says: “This kind can come out only through prayer.” (Mk. 9:29)
Prayer is our means not merely to petitioning God for our needs and seeking guidance for our daily lives, but it is more, not less. Prayer is also a pathway to engaging the very presence of God, who equips us with His Spirit to do ministry in His name and by His power, rather than by our own strength alone. It is access to the very power of God.
The kind of faith that moves mountains is a faith that trusts in the power of God.
In Matthew 18 the story progresses into the fourth of five core discourses in this gospel, which stretches through chapter 20. In Matthew 18 we learn about the importance of humility in the community of Christ-followers (v.1-5), as well as about responsibility for holding each other accountable for sin (v.15-20). Church or community discipline is here sandwiched between parables of forgiveness, though, which is the second and final power of our discussion today: The power of forgiveness.
After Jesus’ instructions for community/church discipline (v.15-20), Peter asks Jesus how many times they should forgive a community member who stumbles back into sin. Some rabbinic literature displays a limit of three times: if somebody steals, and then repents, and then keeps stealing–well, surely their repentance is not genuine after so many times, right? That seems to have been the logic, and in light of this, Peter’s guess at forgiving someone seven times seems to be twice the normal amount and thus generous on Peter’s part, given those standards (not to mention the number seven’s significance). Let’s give Peter some credit here, then. Given the standards of his day, Peter does display a genuine eagerness to forgive in this passage.
Jesus said to him, though: “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matt. 18:21) God’s forgiveness is clearly much greater than anyone could have possibly imagined. To depict this further and to emphasize the weight of forgiveness in the kingdom of God and the community of disciples, Jesus tells a parable (Matt. 18:23-35):
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying ‘have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. but that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went out and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you no have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
To many post-modern ears, this may sound harsh. The point, however, is not that God is eager to punish us for our sins; rather, it is the precise opposite. God is ready to forgive the massive amount of debt we owe him–all of our sins committed in this life (an incalculable amount)–and He simply asks us to, “Go and do likewise.” (Lk.10:37)
Our own forgiveness from God lies squarely in line our willingness forgive those who have done us wrong.
THE FREEING & HEALING POWER OF FORGIVENESS
I don’t know but would guess that at some point in your life, someone has done you wrong. The older you get, the longer the list gets, frankly, and the easier it is to see wrongs in the world. Many of you even at this young of an age have already been wronged on levels that are truly unspeakable. If you haven’t been so poorly treated, consider yourself lucky. For just a moment, search deep down for any grudges you hold, and ask yourself if you have really forgiven those people.
The blessing in forgiving others is not just that we, in turn, receive forgiveness and the big-pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die-by-and-by, but in many ways, we may experience healing ourselves, now. The insidious power of hatred in the human heart is incredibly powerful, as you see every day on the news. I don’t need to describe that for you.
Let me instead share with you a story about the power of forgiveness.
“Corrie” ten Boom (1892–1983) was a Dutch Christian woman whose family hid Jews in their house to help them escape Nazi Germany in WWII; they saved some 800 lives. Their own family was caught, though, and Corrie and her sister found themselves imprisoned in the German concentration camp Ravensbrück. Along with the countless others who were horrifically abused and killed there, Corrie’s sister, Betsie, also died there.
Eventually Corrie was freed, and she began a rehabilitation clinic for Holocaust survivors, including those who had even helped the Germans. She began a ministry that took her worldwide, including back to Germany. Can you imagine going back to minister to the people who killed your sibling?
Worse yet, in one of the quiet meetings around a table with Germans, where Corrie proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness that God offers humanity, she saw one of the very prison guards who had tortured her sister:
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”
“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.
“But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein”–again the hand came out–“will you forgive me?”
And I stood there–I whose sins had every day to be forgiven–and could not. Betsie had died in that place–could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
For I had to do it–I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”
I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality.
Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.
“Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.
-Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place
Stay tuned for the next post that will continue exploring the fourth discourse of Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew.