“Our Dirty Job”

September 14, 2014
Jonathan Rumburg
Matthew 18:21-35

He has waded through sewers, peeled road-kill, moved houses, castrated sheep, and cleaned up monumental septic explosions.

He does the jobs that most of us couldn’t bear to do, although we know how important they are.

You might not think that many people would want him in their living room, but in fact they love to see him—and welcome him in week after week.

His name is Mike Rowe, and he’s the star of the Discovery Channel TV show Dirty Jobs.

Rowe has tried his hand at more than 200 of the dirtiest and most disgusting jobs being done today.

He serves slop to pigs, removes bones from fish, hunts plagues of vermin, and sloshes around in sewers— leaving him covered and caked in grim, struggling to maintain composure, and even sometimes vomiting on camera.

Nonetheless, he’s a star.

It is reported that Rowe is swarmed by autograph seekers everywhere he goes, photographed by camera phones incessantly, and surrounded by dirty jobbers everywhere.

Rowe once told how he got a shout-out from two men who together declared how awesome he was. One man was a cop and the man was the guy the cop had just handcuffed and was putting into the police cruiser.

Women adore his craggy good looks, and guys admit that they have “man crushes” on this star who is willing to roll up his sleeves and really get his hands dirty.

It seems, the dirtier he gets, the more people love Mike Rowe.

But there’s something that goes deeper than good looks and dirty hands.

Mike Rowe has real curiosity about challenging jobs, and deep respect for the men and women who do them.

Journalist Ellen McGirt says, “The show sends a powerful message. There’s dignity in hard work, expertise in unexpected places, and deep satisfaction in tackling and finishing a tough job.”

That’s a message we need to hear today. “There’s dignity in hard work, expertise in unexpected places, and deep satisfaction in tackling and finishing a tough job.”

This statement is true of the hard work Mike Rowe does, the work millions of others do, and even the hard work required of those who follow Christ Jesus.

Because the truth is—being a follower of Jesus is a tough and dirty job.

 

In the gospel of Matthew, Peter walks up to Jesus and says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times”

Forgiveness. Maybe it’s not necessarily a literal “dirty job,” but it is a tough job—and if presented the choice, we might rather do one of Mike Rowe’s vomit inducing jobs than forgive someone who has wronged us.

But, according to Jesus, we have got to do it again and again and again and again— as many as seventy-seven times. However, the word used by Jesus to describe this extravagant forgiveness can also be translated “seventy times seven,” which means 490 stinking times.

But really, what Jesus is really getting at is that our forgiveness should be beyond calculation.

Imagine such a thing.

Again, by comparison, sloshing around in a sewer doesn’t seem so bad.

But here it is. Jesus is calling us to roll up our sleeves and do some very hard, diry, demanding work in what will no doubt be an unexpected place.

In our justice-oriented world, we expect that insults are going to be followed by apologies and crimes are going to be followed by punishments, but Jesus turns this system upside down by saying, “Just forgive!”

Notice that Jesus doesn’t even expect the sinner to repent or make amends. Forgive them, orders Jesus— “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Maybe 490 times. But really, do it beyond calculation.

Forgiveness is a dirty job—and it’s one very few people want to do. But that is what Jesus teaches us to do, it is what he wants us to do, it is what he expects us to do.

 

Now some will object to this open-ended approach to forgiveness, saying that it turns Christians into doormats, fails to hold sinners accountable, and invites abusers to continue their abuse.

Such an argument has a point, and it’s hard to imagine that Jesus wants us to throw justice completely out the window.

This text is especially hard in light of this past week—with Ray Rice’s domestic violence, the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, and the unconscionable acts of the terrorist cell Isis all at the forefront of our minds. It makes the thought of justice-less forgiveness impossible to consider, let alone offer.

But still, Jesus calls us to forgive.

Not just seven times, but dozens or even hundreds of times.

Jesus is saying that forgiveness is at the heart of life for a follower of Christ, for a Christian.

And he says this because he knows forgiveness is what creates that kind of community we all want. A merciful, beloved community.

 

The parable of the unforgiving servant answers why this is true by modeling the reason we must offer forgiveness.

It has nothing to do with the pursuit of justice, and everything to do with the character of God.

Jesus tells how we can learn about life in God’s kingdom through a story about how a king deals with his debtors.

The king calls a debtor to appear before him. The man owes him 10,000 talents, which is an insanely large sum of money. By today’s standards, this would be millions upon millions of dollars. This man is more than knee-deep in debt. He’s over his head, sinking like a rock.

The king orders the slave to be sold, along with his wife and children and all his possessions, so that a payment can be made.

Naturally, the slave falls on his knees before the king and says, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”

To everyone’s surprise, the king shows mercy and forgives the entire debt.

That’s the kind of God we have, says Jesus— a king who has mercy on us, and who forgives us our debts.

Now that’s a pleasant parable, but we haven’t reached the end.

That freshly forgiven slave leaves the palace and comes upon a second slave who owes him a hundred denarii— 100 coins, each one equal to the daily wage for a laborer.

This amount is a significant sum, for sure, but it’s positively microscopic compared to what the first slave owed the king.

The first slave seizes the second slave by the throat and demands that he pay him what he owes.

The second slave falls down and pleads with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”

“No way”, says the first slave. “Not gonna happen”. And he throws the man in prison until the whole debt is paid.

When his fellow slaves see what has happened, they go ballistic— they run and give the king a full report.

The king summons the first slave back and says, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Why didn’t you show mercy to your fellow slave, as I did to you?”

Then, in his anger, the king throws him in prison until the debt is paid, which is understandably, never.

*******

There’s an unbreakable bond between the forgiveness of God and the forgiveness we are to offer one another, making it illogical and impossible for us to accept the mercy of the Lord and then refuse to extend mercy to others.

Jesus summarizes this quite succinctly in his teaching of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Forgive us our debts— that’s what we ask of God.

As we have forgiven our debtors — that’s what we are to offer those who have wronged us.

In the kingdom of heaven, you can’t have one without the other.

 

The big question in all this is, how? How are we to truly forgive?

Last year the Monday morning study group read and discussed for several weeks WM. Paul Young’s book, “The Shack.”

The fictional book tells the story of Mackenzie, whose youngest daughter Missy is murdered in a remote wilderness shack, and how years later Mac is lured to that shack by God, who is then revealed to Mac in three human people: Papa who is God, Sara-yu who is the Holy Spirit, and Jesus.

The novel leads to a culminating point where Papa, again God, asks Mac to forgive his daughter’s murderer.

God says to Mac, “I want to take away one more thing that darkens your heart…Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person’s throat.”

Mac’s retort is simply, “I don’t think I can do this.”

To which God says, “I want you to. Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver, to release you from something that will eat you alive, that will destroy your joy and your ability to love fully and openly. Do you think this man cares about the pain and torment you have gone through? If anything, he feeds on that knowledge. Don’t you want to cut that off?”

The dialoged and struggle continue until finally Mac says to God, “How Papa?”

To which God says, “Just say it out loud. There is power in what my children declare.”

It took incredible strength and determination, but Mac does say the words, “I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you.”

With great compassion and joy, God then says to Mac, “Son, you may have to declare your forgiveness a hundred times the first day and the second, but the third will be less and each day after, until one day you will realize that you have forgiven completely.”

Our Lord is a merciful God who is willing to do the dirty work of blotting out our transgressions, washing us from our iniquity, and cleansing us from our sin.

That’s a job that would overwhelm even a tough guy like Mike Rowe.

But God knows that we have been transformed by God’s forgiveness into the kind of people who can do the hard work of forgiving others.

God knows that God’s mercy can have a surprising and wonderful effect— it can create a community of merciful people.

*******

God is willing to do the most disgusting of dirty job — the removal of our sin through God’s gift of forgiveness.

All God asks is that we turn and do the same for others. Seven times. Seventy-seven times. Perhaps 490 times. And if need be, an incalculable number of times.

That is the way of the Kingdom of God. And there is dignity in that kind of work.

There is expertise in unexpected places, and deep satisfaction, in tackling and finishing this tough and dirty job called forgiveness. Amen.

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