Note: This is Part 5 of a series of sermons based on Pastor J.D. Greear’s study, Gospel Revolutions.
Part 1, Gospel Change
Part 2, Gospel Discovery
Part 3, Gospel Acceptance
Part 4, Gospel Approval
Part 5, Gospel Response
Part 6, Gospel Faith
Part 7, Substitute Gospels (Coming March 18, 2012)
Part 8, Gospel Depth (Coming March 25, 2012)
Text: Luke 19:1-10
Every holiday season, newspapers, radio DJs, and television anchors become fascinated by people who stand on corners and hand out $100 bills to strangers. There have been occasions where such bills – in large quantities – just floated down from the sky onto a city street during the season of giving. This past year, the kind, anonymous benefactor moved to another technique to impart their gifts on total strangers. Instead of just handing out bills randomly to anyone in the street, the benefactor would wait until someone approached store counter to make a payment on a layaway bill. At that moment, the stranger would then declare that they were paying the bill in full, thereby allowing the family to take home the items intended for presents. Such kindness and generosity took place all over the country and brought smiles and shock to families who were struggling to provide for their own in the current economy.
Such acts display a sense of generosity on the part of the one paying the bill or handing out the cash. One dictionary defines generosity as “readiness or liberality in giving.” Another defines it as, “willingness and liberality in giving away one’s money, time, etc.” Generosity takes what it ours and bestows it on someone else without cost or obligation. Such things often take us by surprise. We see them so rarely, because we are as a society and modern age so caught up in our own problems, agendas, and goals. We work hard for what we have and desire greatly to use it on ourselves, or at least on those close to us or causes we are passionate about. So to watch such displays between strangers really is eye-catching.
I want you to think with me this morning: when was the last time you were on the receiving end of someone else’s generosity? What did you receive? Was it money? A promotion? A display of affection? Someone else’s time that you didn’t expect to be able to have? How long would it have taken you to achieve, earn, or acquire that thing yourself? Would it have even been possible? What did it feel like to be on the receiving end of generosity? What did you do in response to the generosity of your benefactor?
Today, we have certain expectations, certain protocols that must be followed when gifts are exchanged. When someone displays generosity, social etiquette demands that the one on the receiving end of the benefits extend an expression of gratitude. This might come as a thank you note in private, or it might come as a very public display – perhaps a university naming a school or building after an individual or family that gave a large sum of money. Etiquette does not allow the generosity to go unreciprocated. It must be balanced, if only by a simple verbal thank you. Generosity demands a response.
Jesus tells two different stories of generosity in which the recipients of the generosity respond very differently. At the end of Matthew 18, Jesus recounts the following story in response to Peter’s question about how often we should forgive those who sin against us. Jesus says,
Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
This is a tremendous display of generosity. The estimates for just how much 10,000 talents were actually worth in today’s money varies. But in any case, it was an exorbitant amount. One recent article I read suggested that we should think of this sum in the same way we think of the government’s economic stimulus bills. Only instead of being owed by a government of 330 million people, this was one man. There was no reason to ever expect that he would ever be able to pay back the sum. The man was facing seeing not just himself, but also his wife, his children, his grandchildren, and all of his descendants in perpetuity confined to slavery because of this debt that he owed.
Then, in a remarkable display of overwhelming generosity, the master takes pity and forgives the entire amount. Imagine our nation’s entire load of debt wiped clean. This is a tremendous act of forgiveness and generosity. But this isn’t the point of Jesus’ parable. For the point, we have to pick up with the next part of the account. Jesus continues:
But when the same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.
This servant’s debtor used the same language on the 100 denarii that he had used on the 10,000 talents. Though generosity had just been extended to him on an unimaginably lavish scale, he could not extend generosity himself to such a small degree as 100 denarii. If 10,000 talents is an economic stimulus package, 100 denarii is an average American credit card bill – an individual’s credit card bill. It was actually reasonable to expect that this servant’s servant would really be able to repay this kind of money, unlike all of those talents.
But the forgiven servant himself does not extend such generosity. And we find the story at this point utterly repulsive. Because such generosity as he had experienced should have led him to be generous himself. And Jesus agrees with us. The story ends,
“When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.”
A 2000 Warner Brothers movie recorded the efforts of a boy to take this social pressure our society demands on people to return the favor of generosity received on its head. In Pay It Forward, the boy decides to do random acts of kindness to strangers and then in turn to encourage the recipients to repeat such an act with three other people. Thus, the world would be changed as these random acts of generosity and kindness spread exponentially throughout the world. This is the kind of response we should expect of those who receive generosity. We should rightly expect them to be generous themselves.
But that is not the story of the forgiven servant. He does not extend the generosity, and he is condemned for the rest of his life as a result. In contrast to this unforgiving servant, consider the story of Zacchaeus, which we read as our Scripture lesson this morning. This tax collector was of the worst scum of Jewish society of the day. They hated tax collectors. They worked for the oppressive enemy. They took above and beyond what Rome demanded in order to enrich themselves, and they did so legally. They were viewed as traitors.
Zacchaeus was a particularly wretched tax collector. He did his job so well that he was allowed to oversee other tax collectors as the chief of them. And he had done his job so well that he was “rich,” as Jesus says is Luke 19:2. Jesus tells us in the very last verse of Matthew 18 that the master of the unforgiving story represents God. Here in Luke 19, Zacchaeus actively seeks out Jesus “to see who Jesus was.” He wound up climbing that sycamore tree and having Jesus call him down so that Jesus could go to his house as his guest. And Zacchaeus “came down and received him joyfully.”
Zacchaeus found Jesus. From the rest of the story, we see clearly that Zacchaeus found Jesus in the same way we mean it today when we say someone “finds” Jesus. If there is any doubt, Luke ends the story with Jesus declaring that “Today, salvation has come to this house.” Zacchaeus found God and all of the same lavish forgiveness that the unforgiving servant found from the king in Matthew 18. And what was Zacchaeus’s response? He said, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Unlike the unforgiving servant, Zacchaeus learned generosity himself. He practiced generosity just as he had experienced the generosity of God in his own life.
The message of the Gospel is that we – all of us – owe a debt far greater than 10,000 talents. We owe a debt that we have no way of ever possibly repaying or clearing. We stand hopeless before God for the debt we owe to Him because of our sin. But God, in grace, through Jesus, declares to us just what the Master declared to the servant in Matthew 18: your debts are forgiven. They are wiped clean. Go and live. Be free of the burden. This is grace, forgiveness, and generosity of an unspeakable magnitude. And we are all of us and each of us the recipients of this if we, like Zacchaeus, have found Jesus.
If you are saved, if your name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, you have experienced profound generosity. So what has been your response? Are you more like the unforgiving servant who turns to the neighbor and demands restitution? Or are you more like Zacchaeus, seeking any and every opportunity to not just make amends, but to be generous above all expectations, because that is the kind of generosity you yourself have already experienced from God? Do you actively pay this generosity forward so that others can experience it and perhaps seek after God themselves?
At the close of the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus says, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Our salvation depends on our response and how we “pay it forward” with our experience of God’s grace and forgiveness. In the prayer that we pray in the way Jesus taught us to pray, we say, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” In other words, forgive us now in the way that we have in the past forgiven those who have wronged us or owe us debts. Forgive us in the future in the way in which we forgive our neighbors now.
Generosity demands generosity. We condemn ourselves to outer darkness and the worst of God’s condemnation if we do not practice generosity in response to the generosity with which we ourselves have been blessed.
When was the last time you were generous? When was the last time you “paid it forward” by going out of your way to give something of yours to someone who needed it, perhaps even someone you did not know or someone who had no way of paying you back? When was the last time that you extended forgiveness to someone who had wronged you? Are you in the habit of carrying grudges against someone – a former friend or family member who hurt you deeply or trivially, perhaps years ago? If you carry such grudges, God will maintain his grudges against you. But He doesn’t want to. He pities our condition. He loves us deeply. He desires greatly to be generous to you and to me. So be generous!
Measure your generosity to others by the measure of how generous God has been to you, not how others have been to you.
This week, pray this prayer: “As you have been to me, so I will be to others.” Be lavishly, abundantly, absurdly generous. For so God has been to you.