When I entered Caesar Rodney High School back in 1968 and was faced with deciding which language to study, I picked Latin. In hindsight, I probably made this selection basically out of pride. I mean, the thought of becoming a Latin student somehow sounded more intelligent than becoming a French student or a Spanish student. And I very quickly learned that pride does indeed come before the fall because Latin was a difficult language to learn. But I buckled down, studied, and ended up taking Latin all four years of High School. One of the reasons I hung in there and studied this “dead” language was because the teacher was so alive. Her name was Mrs. Mohle and she was an incredibly wise, joyful person. She had a good sense of humor was fun to talk to and was a skilled instructor—and she was so old we were convinced that she knew Julius Caesar personally. I think she was 62. About halfway through my freshman year I decided to go all in—and I joined the Latin Club. I pulled out my old year book and took this picture. This is my Latin Club! And just to prove that I was once young—this is a zoom in shot so you can see me—and Mrs. Mohle.
Once a year the members of the Latin Club all dressed like Romans. The guys would wear togas and the girls would wear togettes. Everyone had laurel wreathes in their hair and sandals on their feet—that kind of thing. Well I joined in the fun and had my Mom turn an old bed sheet into a toga for me—it was nothing fancy—just a sheet with holes for my head and arms—and a rope for a belt. I was standing in line in the school cafeteria for lunch when one of the school’s “bullies” a guy named Norm French came from behind me—grabbed the “collar” of my toga and pulled—ripping it completely in half from top to bottom leaving me standing there in front of the entire school in nothing but my gym shorts. I still remember the embarrassment I felt and the intense anger that welled up in me as everyone around began to laugh. To make things worse this bully had an accomplice in his crime—Barry Morris—and Barry was one of the youth from my church. He had always said he was my friend. Well, as I blushed and tried to grab parts of the toga to cover myself, they both stood there and laughed and, I responded by angrily calling both of them some things I shouldn’t. This immediately escalated into a shouting match in which I challenged Norm to a fight after school. Then I stormed out of the lunch room, went to my gym locker and found some sweats to wear—and as the hours passed I thought of nothing else but the fight to come. I was determined to mop up the ground with this guy. I intended to do everything I could to make him look as embarrassed as I felt. He had wronged me—and I wanted to wrong him right back. He’d think twice before doing something like that to me or any other Latin Club member again! Well, school eventually ended and we met up. Norm was ready to go—and Barry was there too. I put up my “dukes” and the fight began.
Now I wish I could tell you that I was victorious but I wasn’t. Not even close. I had no experience fighting and it was very easy for those two to humiliate me even further. I mean I went from being WRONGED to being WRONGED, bruised and bleeding.
Have you ever experienced something like that? Have you ever been WRONGED—HURT—HUMILIATED? Sure you have—we have all been treated unfairly. We’ve all been the brunt of injustice of some sort. And—truth be told we have all DEALT IT OUT at one time or another. We have all WRONGED others. We have all acted like Norm and Barry at times. I mention this to illustrate the main point of today’s message. Are you ready to hear it?
“YOU CAN LEARN A LOT ABOUT A PERSON’S HEART IN THE WAY THEY PRAY WHEN THEY ARE WRONGED.” (Billy Hybels)
The prayers a person utters in those times gives us a unique window into their heart and soul. With that in mind, this morning we are studying the first words Jesus uttered from the cross—words that formed a prayer of forgiveness. This particular prayer is one of the most extraordinary prayers ever prayed in the history of the world. It’s not long—just ten words—and eight of those ten words are just one syllable. But in spite of its brevity this prayer has rocked the lives and hearts of millions of people down through the centuries. Let’s read it aloud together. It’s on the screen:
Luke 23:34 – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Now—to remind you of the context, Jesus prayed this prayer as His crucifixion was BEGINNING. He uttered these ten words as crude spikes were being hammered into His hands and feet by bloodthirsty and no doubt profane executioners—hardened men, who, once they finished, would play poker to see who would win the rights of ownership to Jesus’ clothes.
Now we honor soldiers these days—and that’s a good thing—but these Roman soldiers were not honorable. No—they were cruel—sadistic men. Their MOA—their job in the military—was to torture and kill—and they were very good at it. I mention this to help you understand—that’s the first people Jesus was thinking of as He looked toward Heaven and uttered that never-to-be-forgotten ten-word plea:
“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
With this prayer as a backdrop—I want to borrow from Billy Hybels’ writings and look at THREE CATEGORIES of being wronged—and the idea is that by doing this we’ll better know how to respond—we’ll know better how to pray when we are wronged.
(1) So—here goes. Category One.
This first category is for those times we FEEL wronged about things that are silly—those times we foolishly blow our cool over things that REALLY don’t matter. Hybels says that when someone comes to him with a complaint and he realizes it’s a “Category One” — he often thinks or even says, “Really?! Really?!”—with as much sarcasm as he can muster. And I’m not saying you and I should use sarcasm. The point is—sometimes we get upset over things that just don’t justify our being upset. We get RIGHTEOUSLY indignant over things that don’t deserve that response.
Here’s an example from my youth ministry days. Back then kids ask to talk to me they would often complain about their parents. In their opinion mom and dad were too strict. They had rules that made this teen feel unloved. And as they described the “injustice” that was being done to them by their parents—I would think—not say—THINK, “Really?! You have righteous indignation over YOUR situation?! You have not been wronged. You’ve been RIGHTED—all your life!” Then I’d tell them, “Listen. You have nice clothes. You have a nice house. Your parents feed you and make sure you get a good education. They take you on vacations. They bring you to church—they chaperone LOCK-INS—and you’re complaining?! Come on! You’ve got it great! You are blessed! Instead of being angry—be thankful! In fact, tell your parents that!”
Do you see what I mean? These teens were feeling wronged by a category 1 deal—in fact it was SUB category 1. Sadly, I’ve seen adults get upset in a CATEGORY ONE kind of way as well.
I’m thinking of all the incidents of ROAD RAGE we hear about on the news—and whenever I hear of one I want to quote Hybels and go, “Really?! Really?! Grow up!!!!” I heard that this weekend there was a road rage incident in Florida this where a teenager was stopped at a red light. A man in a Toyota pulled up behind him, got out of his car and walked up to the pick-up and started yelling at the teen—telling him he was a lousy driver. Then he started hitting the teen. When the man said he was going back to his car to get a gun, the teen put his pick-up in reverse, drove up on top of the Toyota—and parked there. He was not charged with a crime but the owner of the flattened Toyota was.
I could cite other examples of Category one but the fact is too many times too many of us are like the people Paul describes in 1st Corinthians 13:5 in that we are “too easily angered.” It doesn’t take much to get us ticked and upset. We become incensed about the traffic and the lines at the grocery store and all matter of truly insignificant things.
Listen, if we are SOARING—if we have a growing relationship with Jesus—then we will be so filled with His kindness and graciousness that we won’t be bothered by the minor irritations of life. We’ll learn to ignore the inevitable “speedbumps” that come from living in a fallen world.
But, when we become upset about little things—category one things—it shows the condition of our heart. It shows we are not walking close with Jesus. It shows that when it comes to spiritual growth—spiritual soaring—we haven’t even left the ground. It shows we haven’t fully appreciated God’s grace, much less let ourselves be driven by it.
But—when we are maturing and the category ones of life come our way we think, “That’s nothing. It’s a speed bump. It’s a first world problem. It’s nothing compared to what other people endure.” When these “speed bumps” come our way we should forgive easily. To use more of my limited Spanish we say, “Da nada”— “It’s nothing!” If we are maturing—if our relationship with Jesus is taking wing—then when we feel ourselves getting upset by a category one deal we modify our Lord’s ten-word prayer and say, “Father, forgive ME; I know not what I do. I lost perspective. I’m Your treasured child. I’ve been redeemed. I have Your Holy Spirit in me. I’ve been blessed beyond measure. I have spiritual gifts. I have a wonderful church. I have an incredible family. I’ve got health. I have a future. Heaven is awaiting me. And I’m getting tripped up and mad about speed bumps? Father, forgive me, for I know not what I do.”
Can any of you relate? Have you ever gotten overly upset by a category one wrong? I know I have. I mean—think—what are the Category One deals in your life? If you’re having a hard time coming up with some—go on Facebook. It seems to me that many people use social media to complain about Category One things all the time. Let’s not be like that. Let’s all commit to keep in mind all that God has done for us—all the ways He blesses us—the good and perfect gifts He showers on us that are new every morning. Hybels puts it this way, “Put the bucket of your heart under the fountain of God’s ever-flowing, daily-renewing mercy. Get your heart all filled up, so the minor irritations of life and those little everyday injustices can be easily overlooked and forgiven by all that overflowing grace.”
This week I came across an article on a website called “The Science of Us.” The article says that a scientific study has proved that CATS NEVER FORGIVE. They never overlook wrong. With apologies to all cat lovers, I’m not kidding. Scientists have observed conciliatory behavior in many different animal species; the bulk of the research has been on primates like bonobos, mountain gorillas, and chimps—but they often follow confrontations with friendly behavior like embracing or kissing. Scientists have observed similar behaviors in non-primates like goats and hyenas. The only species that has so far failed to show outward signs of reconciliation are domestic cats. In other words, they are lousy at the “CAT-egory ONES of life.” I actually found some pictures of some of the cats used in this study.
All kidding aside, I hope you get my point. We are FAR better than cats. So—when we see ourselves becoming angry at a little thing—we should say to ourselves, “Really?! Really?!”
(2) Let’s move on to CATEGORY TWO
Here’s an example of the kind of wrong-doing that fits in this category. Someone comes to me and says, “Pastor—I just learned that someone I trusted—someone I thought was my friend—I learned they have been criticizing me behind my back. They have said all kinds of bad things. I admired this person. I can’t believe they did that. I feel so hurt—so embarrassed—so ANGRY.”
When I hear things like this—and sadly I do far too many times—when I hear them, I know this is more than a speedbump. It’s a betrayal. And a betrayal can’t be placed in the minor irritation category. It’s above a category one. You see, gossip and slander can’t be stopped. It spreads like wildfire. Plus—it hurts deep. Well, when someone endures a Category Two wrong-doing like this we could use the same words that we do to respond to a Category One—but in a gentle, empathetic way. We could say, “Really? Really? Oh, I am so sorry. I am really so terribly sorry. That brother should not have done that to you.” And then we talk to the person and try to help with the hurt. We pray together—but often the person will say, “What shall I do? He wronged me. I’m obviously the innocent party. There ought to be justice of some sort.” We might suggest they do what Jesus did when He was wronged and pray, “God forgive them for they know not what they do.”
But usually when we endure a category two wrong—the person is not ready to do that—not at first. No—to get to that point—we need to follow the guidance Jesus gave us in times like this.
It’s a familiar passage—Matthew 18—where Jesus said,
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault,just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church;and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
Now—I have to pause and say that in my experience we tend to complicate the simplest things.
One example is salvation by grace. The Bible clearly says we do NOT become Christians by doing good works. It’s simply than that. It’s not about what WE do—it’s about our faith in what Jesus did. But—down through the ages Christians have tried to complicate that—and it began early in the church. This is what Paul was talking about in Galatians 1 when he said, “I am astonished how quickly you are deserting the One who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is no ‘gospel’ at all. Evidently some people are troubling you and trying to distort—complicate—the Gospel of Christ.”
Well, Jesus’ guidance here in Matthew 18 provides another example of this sad practice. I mean, Jesus’ instructions here are so straightforward but people still try to add to it.
Look at it with me and you’ll see what I mean. If there’s a relational riff of some sort—doesn’t matter all that much who caused it—but if there’s friction in a relationship, a breakdown of one kind or another—if someone has wronged you in some way—
- Jesus says this: First of all, GO.
And please note—He says the WRONGED person—the one suffering a CATEGORY TWO—is to take the initiative. Why? Because many times the one DOING the wrong doesn’t KNOW he or she has hurt you. And if HE does know—then he’s obviously not mature enough to seek reconciliation. So YOU Christ-follower—YOU go. Initiate a reconciliation attempt. Don’t sit by the phone, saying that person has to call you. No. Go.
- And second, GO in PRIVATE. You don’t hold a pre-meeting. You don’t call all your friends together and say: “Do you know what this guy did to me?
I’m gonna go talk to him in a couple of days, but I want to tell you the terrible thing he did. He breeched confidentiality. He did this. He said that. Am I right at being mad at him or what?!”
You don’t do that. You don’t post it on Facebook—you email him or her while copying others.
You don’t tweet it or whatever. You don’t ever expose to anybody else what your little conflict is all about. You go ALONE to that person. Simple. Got it? Good.
- Here’s the third thing and it’s really, really important: Jesus says when you go—go with the goal of reconciliation and healing.
You’re not going to WIN an argument. You’re going to WIN your brother or sister. You don’t go with your guns loaded full of accusation bullets. You don’t go in order to HURT the person as much as he or she hurt you. You don’t go to get a pound of flesh. No—you go to fix things. You go prayerfully with the hope of actually IMPROVING your friendship. You go to make peace—not war.
And—I am not exaggerating in what I’m about to say. When you follow Jesus’ SIMPLE instructions here—when you go in this spirit of reconciliation—when you go quickly—when you go ALONE—95% of the time the problem is solved. Your relationship is strengthened. You turn an enemy into a close friend.
To illustrate this let’s go back to 1968 and my LATIN CLUB STORY. My ripped toga incident and the fight after school took place on a Friday and all weekend I nursed my wounded pride by fantasizing of ways to get back at Norm and Barry. When Sunday rolled around, I went to church with the rest of my family and as I sat in Sunday School that morning, in walked Barry Morris—and guess who he brought with him to church? Right! His toga-ripping buddy, Norm!
Now that REALLY angered me. I mean I was the Pastor’s son. This church was my “turf!” I was supposed to be safe from people like him here. Sure—I was a nerd at high school—but not here. Not at church. Well, I didn’t make eye contact with either of them the whole Bible study and when it ended I headed for the door as quickly as I could, but they stopped me and did something I didn’t expect. Barry and Norm pulled me into a side room and both of them offered a very sincere apology. They confessed their mean-ness and told me they realized they embarrassed me and that things had gotten out of hand and they asked for my forgiveness. In other words, Barry followed the guidance of Matthew 18. He came to me. He apologized. He got Norm to do the same. Now, I confess, I didn’t want to forgive. I would much rather have somehow gotten even. But I accepted their apology—we sat together in the church service—and eventually the three of us became very good friends. I mean, Barry and Norm never joined the Latin Club but they did keep their hands off of my togas from then on. I’m not sure what happened to Norm—but Barry became a pastor.
Listen—Jesus’ way works! Plus, it’s good for us. It BLESSES us to follow Jesus guidance and example and forgive the people who wrong us. I came across another scientific study that proves my point. This one is not about cats but it’s still good. Researchers at Erasmus University did this study where they asked participants to write about a time when they’d experienced a conflict. Some were instructed to reflect on a time when they didn’t forgive the offender; others were told to think about the time they did forgive the person. They were then given a small physical challenge: jumping five times, as high as they could while standing in place. Those who had been thinking about a time when they’d forgiven jumped highest, about 11.8 inches on average. Those who had written about their grudges jumped only 8.5 inches. In another, similar experiment, people who’d been set up to think about a time they had been wronged and held a grudge estimated that a hill was steeper—than people who were thinking about a time they forgave someone. These results suggest that the “weight” of carrying a grudge may be more than just a metaphor. The lead researcher for the study wrote, “A state of un-forgiveness is like carrying a heavy burden—a burden that victims bring with them when they navigate the physical world. Forgiveness can ‘lighten’ this burden.” Anyone have a burden they need to let go this morning? Does anyone see the need to follow Jesus’ very simple steps here in Matthew 18?
If you do feel that need then you may be wondering about what kind of time frame Jesus is talking about when it comes to our GOING to this brother or sister who has wronged you. Should you go tomorrow—wait a few days—when? Well, Jesus SIMPLY addressed this issue as well—in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:23ff He said, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you—leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” In short Jesus is saying go NOW. In fact, if you are in church singing a praise chorus or a hymn or listening to a sermon—and the Holy Spirit reminds you of a problem you have with someone LEAVE THE SERVICE. Crawl out over the ten people who are between you and the aisle. It is more urgent for you to resolve that relationship than it is for you to stay in the service. In fact, if any of you need to do that right now GO. Don’t feel ashamed. GO. We will applaud you for doing so. Just a warning—if someone has to go to the restroom right now you’re going to get applauded. One more thing about this and it’s very important. Sometimes you’re going to go to this person in private; you’re going to go quickly; you’re going to go with a reconciling spirit—and the other person won’t reconcile. You’ll find they don’t want to make things right. They want to hang onto their anger. They like the weight of a grudge. They like it so much they NURSE it—even though that will never make it better. Well, in difficult times like these we need to remember Romans 12:18 where it says, “If it is possible—as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” In other words, you can’t control the other person’s response. If you’ve done your best and the other person won’t reconcile, ask God to help you forgive. Ask Him to help you love the person. Ask Him to work in that person’s life and then honor that person’s response—and move on.
(3) Okay—let’s look at CATEGORY THREE
Now, as we begin this part of the message I have to say—I don’t think everybody experiences a Category Three level of wrongdoing in their life, and I think that’s just by the grace of God. You see, a Category Three level of wrongdoing is a dreadful injustice that comes your way, a life-shattering wrongdoing that comes out of nowhere—it’s an unthinkable wrongdoing. And MOST of us DON’T endure that kind of thing.
But someone who did is a Christian woman named Victoria Ruvolo. On a cold night in 2004, Victoria was driving her car on a New York motorway—unaware of the fact that she was minutes away from a Category Three wrongdoing. You see, a group of teenagers were out joy-riding that night going the opposite direction on the same motorway. One of the teenagers—an 18-year-old college freshman named Ryan reached into a grocery bag, pulled out a twenty-pound frozen turkey—and lobbed it over into the other lane of oncoming traffic. That twenty-pound frozen turkey flying at nearly 100 miles an hour smashed through Victoria Ruvolo’s windshield, hit her in the head and broke every single bone in her face. Her esophagus was caved in, her cheeks and jaw shattered. The socket of one eye was fractured, and she suffered brain damage. The impact was so severe, she nearly died at the scene. After several surgeries and months of recuperation, indescribable levels of pain, and a lot of scarring that she’ll have to live with the rest of her life—she decided to attend the court session when the young teenager who did this horrible thing to her would be sentenced for his crime. The judge gave Victoria permission to speak in the packed courtroom. And with a steady voice,
Victoria said, “Ryan, there is no room in my life for vengeance. I’ve asked the judge to be lenient upon you. And if my generosity will help you mature into a responsible, compassionate, honest man whose graciousness is a source of pride to your loved ones—then I will truly be gratified and my suffering will not have been in vain.” In that public courtroom, she forgave him. She said in effect: “Father, forgive him. Forgive Ryan; he had no idea what he was doing that night.” Upon hearing her forgiveness, this tough young Ryan guy broke down in the courtroom and started sobbing with remorse and saying how sorry he was for that act of stupidity. Victoria went up to Ryan, embraced him and hugged him as he cried. There judge was so moved by all of this that he gave Ryan six months in prison instead of the maximum penalty of twenty-five years.
Listen. Radical forgiveness is a powerful thing. It takes people’s breath away. It causes everyone to ask the question: “How could you find it in your heart to do this, because the normal human heart has to have revenge? How did you find it in your heart to do this?” And if you’re like Victoria you can say—it’s because Jesus has changed my heart. You can tell them how Jesus—innocent—died for the guilty—died in YOUR place. You can say, “When I understood how Jesus forgave me—I asked Him to help me forgive—and He did and He does.” My point is this—the only way we can forgive is when Jesus empowers us to do so. Only then can we pray as He did, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”
Now—I’d like us to all bow our heads. Many of us in this room don’t deal with the CATEGORY ONES of life well. We too easily become irate over the speed bumps that come from living in a fallen world. If that’s you—then say to yourself, “Really?! Really?!” If that applies to you today then pray something like this: “Father, forgive me. For I know not what I do. I’ve lost perspective. Forgive me for being a too-easily-provoked, too easily-offended Christ-follower.”
You may need to go to someone in this church and apologize for a time you blew up at them for a category one. Some of you have endured Category Two’s. Somebody disappointed you, betrayed you, broke a confidence, broke a promise. You’ve got reason for being disappointed and mad. There’s a good chance some of you have been holding onto that anger for a long, long time. Soon—NOW—you’ve got to get to that person in private. You’ve got to seek to reconcile. That is Jesus’ command. Remember—in that Garden Prayer we studied last week—one thing Jesus prayed for is that we would be ONE. He prayed that we would respond to the injustices of life in a way that honors Him by preserving our unity—so GO. You’ve got to own your part in the dispute. But Jesus says make things right quickly. As far as it depends on you—make peace. Don’t come back to church until you do.
Some of you have endured one of those life-shattering, unforgettable Category Three disasters in your life. And you think there is no way that you’ll ever be able to forgive whoever did that horrible thing. Well, I would say that is correct—on your own you can’t. But Jesus will give you the power to forgive if you ask. Like we said about Moses that day on the hill—Jesus will lift your arms. He’ll give you the power to forgive. With His help you can pray, “Father, forgive them. Father, I release my right to try to extract revenge. I release all that. Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The sooner you pray that prayer, the sooner you will feel the burden of all that wrong lifted.