Sermon audio here.
Today’s Holy Gospel is a warning against holding on to anger. To begin with, holding on to anger is bad because our Lord instructs us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
And notice what we pray for first: not for those who trespass against us, but for our own transgressions. Yes, other people need forgiveness to, but we need it even more. If our neighbor’s sin is a drop of water, ours is the whole ocean. If St. Paul can say the saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost, that goes double for us.
We don’t forgive others because they deserve it. We forgive as we’ve been forgiven by Christ for sins much greater than our neighbors’. Unless that thing you’re angry with someone about is worse than betraying Jesus, which is what you do every time you sin, then you have no excuse for ever withholding forgiveness.
If it weren’t bad enough that sinful thought and act is a betrayal of Jesus—no less insidious than what Judas did—holding grudges comes with the added bonus of making your life miserable. Conflict is one of the biggest sources of stress we have, and you could make that all go away in an instant. All you have to do is forgive as you have been forgiven, even if the other person isn’t sorry and doesn’t want your forgiveness. This is how you deal with the people you love to hate: forgive them. What do you gain by holding on to anger?
There should have been nothing but joy in today’s Holy Gospel. It begins positively enough. The tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear Jesus. Great! And as our Lord says, there’s joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. So what’s the problem?
Well, these people were sinners, and Jesus wasn’t giving them the punishment they deserved. So rather than rejoice, the scribes and Pharisees grumbled.
Jesus responds to this by telling three parables, and in each one something goes missing. And on the surface, what was lost seems pretty negligible and not worth going after: 1 sheep out of 100; 1 coin out of 10; and a son who was so wicked that, when he left, most people would have said good riddance, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Yet, in each of these parables, there’s someone who finds value in what was lost. When that which was lost is found, there’s great joy.
But as with most of Jesus’ parables, there’s a twist. The Pharisees would have thought Jesus was comparing the lost sheep, coin, and son, to the tax collectors and sinners, but they would have only been half right. They, too, were lost, but were too self-righteous to realize this.
That’s why they had animosity toward the others. Anger is often a sign of self-righteousness. Even if you only had an inkling of your spiritual poverty before God, God’s patience with you would lead you, in turn, to be much more patient and understanding when it comes to those who sin against you.
It’s not hard to deceive yourself into thinking that the sins of others are worse than you own. The Pharisees thought they deserved a seat at Jesus’ table, but not “those wicked sinners.” And that right there was the problem: they didn’t consider themselves wicked sinners. Thinking you’re pretty good is the definition of self-righteousness.
To anyone who thinks he deserves to sit with Jesus, He says, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
The joke is there aren’t 99 people who need no repentance. There isn’t even one. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That’s the point of the parable. Think of the most wicked person you could imagine, and then hold up a mirror. If their wickedness is bite-sized, yours is the whole chocolate factory. The Christian faith is about daily making St. Paul’s trustworthy, deserving-of-full-acceptance saying your own: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
It’s not like the Pharisees, much less the “tax collectors and sinners” they were so worried about, were this terribly wicked group of people with whom we have nothing in common. Which of us would go after 1 lost sheep if we still had a flock of 99? Who turns their whole house upside down in search of a nickel?
As for the prodigal, most fathers would have wasted no time in writing such an ungrateful, wicked child out of their will. But this father not only gives the child his inheritance, but welcomes him back with open arms and even throws a feast after he’s blown it all on God knows what.
Like the Pharisees, we want to see justice when it comes to the sin of others. And when it comes to putting all that effort into finding that one measly sheep or coin, we’re too reasonable to do that. But when you realize that the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son are all three different pictures of yourself, all of the sudden God’s unreasonable patience turns into Gospel. Thanks be to God that He doesn’t give sinners what they deserve!
For those times when you’re tempted to condemn and hold on to anger, the parable serves as a warning. As Jesus says, “with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” Think twice condemning the guilty. It’s not their death warrant you’re signing.
If holding on to anger only makes life miserable, forgiveness brings joy. Consciences are peaceful where conflict is resolved. Life is better. Just as Christ left us the outward signs of His love in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, so also the daily practice of forgiveness serves as an outward sign of faith.
Scripture provides us with example after example of those who had every reason to be angry, but forgave as they had been forgiven. After all the grumbling Moses had to put up with from the Israelites in the wilderness, you would have thought the golden calf was his golden opportunity. The people had sinned badly and God was angry. He was even ready to wipe them out start over with Moses.
And even though he had every reason to take God up on His offer, Moses is even more unreasonable than those in the parable. He not only goes to bat for the Israelites, he even tells God He can blot his name out of heaven in exchange for pardoning them. St. Paul says basically the same thing, that he wished that he himself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of his brethren.
And in this, both Moses and St. Paul provide a beautiful illustration of the Gospel. Unlike Moses and the apostle, Christ actually was cut off from the Father so that we might see our sins cast into the depths of the sea, washed away in Holy Baptism, and rejoice in the steadfast, never-failing, unreasonable love of God the Father, who shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Thanks be to God!