Measure for Measure — Part One
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Measure for Measure — Part One

Luke 6:36–38  (ID: 2109)

Pride makes it easy to be harsh toward others’ flaws while ignoring our own. In contrast to this mindset, Alistair Begg draws our eyes to Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6. In our personal relationships, Jesus instructed, we are not to condemn or judge but to forgive. By showing mercy and forgiveness in our daily lives, we reflect our heavenly Father’s mercy toward us.

Series Containing This Sermon

Encore 2019

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25910

A Study in Luke, Volume 4

The Christian Manifesto Luke 6:20–49 Series ID: 14204

Sermon Transcript: Print

By the time the gentleman appeared at the front door, it was a done deal: the baby was asleep in the nursery, and the woman was already the rich man’s wife. Of course, she should never have been his wife. He had allowed lust to give way to immorality, and as a result of his immorality and the resultant pregnancy of the woman, he decided to try and cover up as best he could, and the cleanest way he could think of covering his tracks was to get rid of the husband. And so that’s what happened: he had the husband killed. And he believed that time heals—that if he put enough time between the events and his present circumstances, that there would be for him no sense of bondage, no lingering evidence of guilt.

The man at the door was welcomed in, they sat down to eat together, and in the course of eating, the gentleman decided that he would share with the homeowner, the rich man, a story that he had recently heard. He said, “I want to tell you the story of two men in a certain town.”

“Go on,” said the homeowner.

“Well,” he said, “one was rich, had plenty of sheep and cattle. The other man had nothing at all, save for one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised it from its infancy, it grew up with his children, it shared his food, it drank from his cup, it slept in his arms, and it was regarded by him as actually a daughter.

“The rich man had a traveler come to stay at his house, and instead of doing what would be appropriate—namely, sending out into his fields to take one of his sheep and have it killed in order that he might be able to provide for the traveler who had arrived at his house—he instead sent for this little ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man who had only one such creature, and he had it killed, and that was how he provided for the traveler.”

So the homeowner jumped up and said, “This is absolutely ridiculous. It is totally wrong. The man who did this deserves to die for such a pitiless action.” And with the words hardly dying on his lips, it suddenly occurred to him: “I’m the man.” Because what had been described, in a far less significant manner, was the circumstances of the rich man who had invaded the privacy of the one man and had snatched away his wife.

Now, the reason I mention this this morning is because it is an indication of something that I find as a tendency in my own heart—I wonder if you share it—namely, the ability to very quickly detect a problem in somebody else while ignoring the problem that I face myself. Or, in the words of Jesus a little later on in the passage, to see specks of sawdust in other people’s eyes while at the same time overlooking the fact that we have planks in our own eyes.[1]

Now, this brings us to the very core of what Jesus is teaching here this morning, confronting us with the fact that each of us, if we’re honest, are inclined to discover and condemn the faults of others while passing lightly over our own sorry sins. And for those of us who were hoping that the turbulent times of the last couple of Sundays in these studies in this sermon by Jesus were giving way to very clear air, and it was going to be possible for us to relax a little bit—that the seat belt sign was going off and we were going to be able to get up and walk around the cabin and stretch our legs—I have news for you: make sure that your seat belt is fastened low and tight across your lap, and prepare for the duration of the flight to be equally, if not more, turbulent than all that we have faced so far.

I believe that God, in a unique way, is speaking to my life, my heart, my perversity, and I believe that since he is to me, there is an even chance that he may well be doing so to you, and that in actual fact he is bringing to us, at this very crucial time in our church’s life, instruction that is foundational and vital if there is to be any meaningful future for Parkside Church in seeing unbelieving people become committed followers of Jesus Christ. And I have not overstated my conviction in saying what I’ve just said one iota.

We’re gonna notice three things: one, the principle; two, the practice; and three, the promise.

The Principle of Mercy

The principle is contained in verse 36. Verse 36—“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”[2]—may be regarded as a fulcrum on which is balanced the positive instruction which has preceded it and the negative instruction which follows from it, at least in the early part of verse 37. Verse 36 might equally be regarded as a summary statement principlizing all that Jesus has previously said concerning love for your enemies and doing good to them and lending to them without expecting to get anything back. If somebody had listened to all of that instruction and said to Jesus, “Can you simply put it in a principle for us?” he might have said, “Well, how about this: ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful’?” And if someone had come in to begin listening to the sermon at that point and had heard Jesus say, “Be merciful, as your Father is merciful” and they had been tempted to say, “And how will that actually work out?” then the instruction which follows would unpack this principle.

God is “kind,” as we’ve noticed in verse 35, even “to the ungrateful and [to the] wicked.” And since he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked, we, as his children by faith through Christ, are to be kind to the ungrateful and the wicked too. Now, there is a basic premise here that we need to understand, which we stated last time and which is important for us always to reiterate—namely, that if you look at verse 35 and it says, “Your reward will be great, and you will be [the] sons of the Most High,” this is not Jesus saying that if we do certain things or act in a particular way, we will make ourselves the sons of God. No. In fact, the reverse of that: it is by our conducting ourselves in a certain manner that we prove ourselves to be the sons of God—in other words, that people look at us, and they say, “My, you are so very like your Father,” in the way that it is possible for us sometimes to detect in a child the traces of his dad. Either because of his wit, or because of his incorrigibleness, or because of his artistic capacity, or just a glint in his eyes, or whatever it might be, we see this child and we say, “You know, I think I know whose boy that is,” or “I think I know whose girl that is,” because the family resemblance is so strong.

Now, Jesus is saying that there is a demonstrable family resemblance, and it is this: mercy towards those who regard us as crazy for exercising mercy. “To return evil for good is devilish; to return good for good is human; to return good for evil is divine.”[3] And that is what Jesus is saying: “I want you now to respond to evil by good. I want you to respond to being done down by exercising kindness. I want you to respond to the fact that people have cheated you by giving without regard for the interest rate in return. In other words, I want you to imitate your Father.”

And you know, just in passing: boys do imitate their fathers. It is proven that the way in which a boy walks is a learned walk, largely from the influence of his dad. The way he sits in a chair, the way he crosses his legs, the way that he does certain things will be just like his father, provided his father has been there to model it all the time—not by saying, “This is how you walk,” or “This is how you should cross your legs,” but suddenly you find the child is doing the same thing. And imitation is a vital part of life. Imitation is a vital part of learning a golf swing. And all of the stuff that is produced about muscle memory is based on the premise that there is a significance that is attached to imitation, in the same way that it is attached to repetition. And both of those characteristics are part and parcel of becoming like our Father. We are to imitate him: “I am the Lord your God,” Leviticus 11 says. “You shall therefore be holy, as I am holy.”[4] In other words, “Be like your dad.” Jesus says, “As I have loved you, so you must also love each other. Imitate me.”[5]

Now, what is he calling us to? He’s calling us to a sympathy and to a compassion which is extravagant. You see this? Extravagant. Now, the extravagance we’ll probably never get to this morning, but you’ll see it in verse 38: it’s “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.” It’s like you go to a store, and the person says, “You can not only have this, but you can have this and this and this and this and this,” and they fill the bag up for you to overflowing, and you go away, and you say, “Man, I didn’t deserve any of that.” And you didn’t deserve any of it, but it was out of the kindness of the individual. And this picture of the generous merchant is the picture that Jesus uses. And he calls us, then, to work out this principle.

The Practice of Mercy

Well, let’s go to the practical implications of the principle, because we needn’t say more than that. What does it mean in practice to “be merciful as your Father is merciful”? Well, it’s worked out in the next verse, 37. And for those of you who like orderly thought, I think you will agree this is orderly: the principle there is verse 36, the practice then follows in verse 37, and it is developed by two negative commands followed by two positive commands: negative command one, “Do not judge”; two, “Do not condemn”; positive command one, “Forgive”; positive command two, “Give.” So, “Do not judge. Don’t condemn. Forgive. Give.” Simple. You say, “Well then, let’s go home, because you’ve made it very clear.” No, don’t let’s leave just yet; I think I can help a little beyond that.

Because I don’t think most of us know what “Do not judge” means. That’s the first one: “Do not judge.” What does it mean, “Do not judge”? If the Royal Law—namely, “Do unto others as you would have them do to yourself”[6]—is surrounded by confusion, it is more than matched by the confusion which surrounds this phrase, “Judge not.” And you will find the phrase “Judge not, that you be not judged” trotted out by some of the most unlikely people at the most unlikely times and used in the most unlikely and unbelievable ways. Therefore, it is imperative for us, since it is a clear command of the Bible, that we understand exactly what Jesus is saying when he says, “Do not judge.”

So let us try and understand what it does not mean—what it does not mean—and then we’ll say what it does mean. First of all, it does not mean that Jesus is prohibiting the exercise of justice in a court of law. If you read Tolstoy, he presses this phrase to the end that sets aside human courts. He’s wrong, because the Bible, as you take it in its totality, upholds the rule of law, sets aside the place of the state in the exercise of law, and Christian people are to uphold the rule of law, which is appointed for the punishment of those who do wrong and for the well-being of those who do right. Jesus is not here prohibiting the administration of justice. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”[7] is a principle of justice belonging to the law courts.

So the instruction is not about the institution of law, but about the matter of individual relationships. And this is where most of the confusion comes about. And that is why, you see, even in the exercise of justice now in our culture, the thing is collapsing at its core: because people have taken the notion of “Judge not, that you be not judged,” and now they sit on a jury and they say, “I can’t say anything! I can’t do anything! I can’t exercise judgment! I’m not even supposed to judge anyone! I don’t really know what we’re here for! Oh, he may have killed his wife with a knife, but you know what? We’ve all done bad things up here on the jury—we’ve done different things, you know—so what are we supposed to say?” And it is crumbling at that point. So, the upholding of the institution of law, as we will see when we come to other sections of Luke’s Gospel, is vital, and we need to realize that what Jesus is talking about here is that we are not to take the law into our own hands.

Jesus is not calling for his followers to be a strange group of people who have taken their brains out and set them on the side and are now living as hypocrites.

Secondly, he is not calling for us to suspend our critical faculties in relationship to others. He is not calling for us to suspend our critical faculties. Now, it’s possible to use the word critical positively. But we tend to think if someone is critical, then it’s a pejorative statement; it’s immediately negative. Not so! We have to have critical faculties in order to discriminate between truth and error, between good and bad, between right and wrong. And Jesus is not calling here for his followers to be a strange group of people who have taken, if you like, their brains out and set them on the side and are now living as hypocrites  saying, you know, “I have no opinion about this, and I have no opinion about that,” like the man in the Paul Simon song, “You Can Call Me Al.” You remember, he “walks down the street,” and he has a “short … span of attention,”[8] he says, “And I got no opinion about this, and I have no opinion about that.” He’s the perfect end-of-the-twentieth-century man, and he thinks that he is actually working out this principle. No! He’s just gaumless, that’s all!

Jesus is not teaching here that we are supposed to turn a blind eye to sin, that we are to refuse to point out error, or that we are to neglect to discern between good and evil. I mean, think about it: he couldn’t possibly be, could he? Because the way in which he gives the rest of his instruction demands the critical faculty, demands the ability to adjudicate between a wise man and a foolish man, to be able to discern between a good tree and a bad tree, to be able to look and see if our righteousness is greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, to see if our love is of a dimension that is vaster than that which is merely meager on the part of others. In other words, Jesus’ teaching calls for us to use our critical faculties.

So then, let me summarize what it’s not—and this is not all that it is not, but I don’t want to keep you here all day. Jesus is not, in this phrase, setting aside law courts, nor is he encouraging his followers to suspend their critical faculties. Okay?

Well then, what is he doing? What is it that Jesus says we mustn’t do if we are not to judge? The answer is, he is condemning censoriousness. Now, that is an immediate challenge for some of us, because that’s the English language and we haven’t a clue what the word means. So, let me spell it for you and then define it for you: c-e-n-s-o-r (as in “censor”) i-o-u-s-n-e-s-s. Censoriousness. What is censoriousness? It is a spirit of self-righteous, self-exalting, hypocritical, harsh judgmentalism—self-righteous, self-exalting, hypocritical, harsh judgmentalism.

That’s why I told you, “Fasten your belt low and tight across your lap.” ’Cause this is uncomfortable. I said to somebody this morning, “You know, I have this sin; this is very hard to preach about.” And the person said, “Well, I have it too, but I just don’t have it as bad as you”—thus proving that they have it worse than me. Actually, not worse than me; I am now worse again, because I told the story. So I am now in the lead, in that it’s now 30–15 in the tennis match on who is the most censorious between us.

It’s the kind of approach to people which seeks to avoid self-examination by highlighting and condemning the faults of others. The person who has this brings with them always the flavor of bitterness. It is negative, it is destructive, it actively seeks out the faults of others, and it is delighted when it finds other people’s faults. It is not simply that it identifies faults when it trips over them, but it actually goes in search of them and seeks to produce them, and having produced them to hold them up before the individual and say to them, “You see? You see what you’re like?” and “You see how bad you are?” and “You see this?” and “You see that about yourself?” And all the time, it is in the spirit of harsh judgmentalism, because like David in the story—which you can read for your homework in 2 Samuel 11 and 12—David, in seeing what was done to a lamb, manages through a spirit of censoriousness to disguise what he’s done himself in relationship to the woman who is lying in the back bedroom.

John Stott defines it with clinical helpfulness: “An individual who is on the wrong side of this exhortation from Jesus [does this]: (1) puts the worst possible construction on other people’s motives, (2) pours cold water on their schemes and dreams, (3) is ungenerous towards them when they make mistakes.” I want to say that to you again, because this nails it: “One: I know that I am on the wrong side of this equation when I put the worst possible construction on other people’s motives, when I delight to pour cold water on their schemes, and when I am ungenerous in responding to their mistakes.”[9] Do you sense any of this in you, dad, towards your children? Wife, towards your husband? Boss, towards your employees? Pastor, towards your people? People, towards your elders?

I thought last week was harder than the previous week, but this week is even harder than last week. Luke chapter 6 is proving to be a minefield for me. And if you doubt that, you should feel perfect liberty to ask my wife just how wonderfully loving and uncritical I have been in the last five days. I would be hard-pressed to have got myself so badly out of sync with a passage of Scripture if I had set out to do it. And the Lord says, “Okay, then: Why don’t you go up and talk about ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged’? And then why don’t you go on and follow it up with ‘Do not condemn’? And then, let’s talk about forgiveness, just to wrap it up.” And I say, “How about we have somebody else do this this week, Lord? Somebody who’s done all this stuff, who’s had a fantastic week, you know, who feels total freedom in relationship to talking about it, because he knows that he can point his fingers out this way and no fingers point back at him. Get somebody else to do this week, would you?” The Lord says, “No, I think you should go up and do it this week. After all,” he said, “you got a PhD in censoriousness, and it would be good for you. You’re even censorious,” he’s saying to me, “about the fact that you knew the word and other people didn’t know the word—that’s how bad you are. That’s how messed up you are.”

If I am prepared to put myself in the other person’s shoes, and if I am prepared honestly to wish for them what I wish for myself, then I will be prepared to replace meanness with generosity, harshness with understanding, and cruelty with kindness

Now, here’s the thing: that kind of spirit completely violates the Law of Love that we’ve just considered. Because if I am prepared to put myself in the other person’s shoes, and if I am prepared honestly to wish for them what I wish for myself, then I will be prepared to replace meanness with generosity, harshness with understanding, and cruelty with kindness .

“Do not judge.” It’s not setting aside law courts. It’s not asking us to suspend our critical faculties. He’s asking us to beware of the spirit of censoriousness—indeed, not simply to beware of it, but to identify it, to admit it, and to root it out of our lives and our families and our congregation. And churches such as this, where there is a strong desire to maintain theological purity, moral rectitude, significance in relationship to the parameters of what it means to be involved and to be in membership—the danger that is represented to our church to come down on the wrong side of this is a significant danger. And the answer to it is not cluelessness and theological vagueness. Because those are the two poles: either people just walking around in a dwalm, they don’t have a clue what’s going on—“I got no opinion about this, no opinion about that, and that’s the way I’m supposed to live my life”—or over here in a spirit of harsh judgmentalism. And Jesus is saying, “I don’t want you to live in either extreme. I want you to be able to exercise your critical faculties in a way that doesn’t judge, and secondly, doesn’t condemn—doesn’t condemn. Do not condemn.”

The trouble with assuming that I have the right to be the judge is that it appeals to my tendency not to set people free, but to condemn them.

You see, the trouble with assuming that I have the right to be the judge is that it appeals to my tendency not to set people free, but to condemn them.  Isn’t it interesting when the child says, “I’m going to be the headmaster”? What happens? He or she immediately starts to give out detentions. They don’t say, “I’m going to be the headmaster,” and then they say, “Take the rest of the day off.” The person says, “I’m going to be the boss.” What happens? They start to say, “Get in earlier,” or “You’re fined five dollars for leaving your coffee cup there,” or whatever else it is. In other words, as soon as we aspire to the position of leadership and assume that we have the prerogative, now, of judge, as we sit there on the emperor’s chair watching the gladiators below, we just can’t wait to give the thumbs-down. Not up! Be honest! Be honest: “Now I’m the judge. Let me exercise a little condemnation on you. Pfft. Gone.”

We are not, as human beings, qualified to judge and pronounce condemnation. Why? Because we cannot read each other’s hearts.

That’s what Jesus is saying. We are not, as human beings, qualified to judge and pronounce condemnation. Why? Because we cannot read each other’s hearts.  We are unable to accurately assess each other’s motives. But it doesn’t stop us, does it? I haven’t noticed that that bold fact actually stops me from being a judge, and a harsh one. Indeed, if information in and of itself could root that out of my sinful heart, I would only need to know that, and it would be gone. But I know it, and it isn’t gone!

Therefore, I need to be exceptionally wary—we do—exceptionally wary in pronouncing condemnation. We sin so easily with our tongues in this respect, don’t we, in saying things that are injurious to the good name of others? Oh, we’ve got a very clever way of saying it in Christian circles, in evangelical circles; we have all this cliché-ridden terminology that can make it sound like a prayer request or, you know, a “concern for glory and rectitude,” and blah, blah, blah, but basically, when we cut to the chase, half the time we’re just delighted to get it out of our tongues: “Did you hear about her? Do you know about him? Do you know what I think about this? Do you know why they did that? Do you know why he bought that? Do you know why he lives there? Do you know why she said that? Do you know why this—” You don’t know any of that, and neither do I!

And the spirit of that, when it becomes endemic in a congregation, may take years and years and years to root out. That’s why our parents told us, “Ask yourself, before you say anything, ‘Is it kind, is it true, and is it necessary?’” Because the Bible says we shouldn’t say anything that is untrue (that’s in the Ten Commandments), we shouldn’t say anything that is unnecessary (that’s in Proverbs 11:13), and we shouldn’t say anything that is unkind (that’s in Proverbs 18:8). So what in the world are we going to say? What are we going to talk about, then? It’d be a kind of a silent place for a while, wouldn’t it? If everybody was taking the thirty-second gut check and going, “Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary?” Suddenly nobody’s talking—not just for thirty seconds, but for the two or three minutes that follow it, because we don’t know what we’re going to say, because everything I was going to say was either unnecessary or unkind. So I’m going to have to stop and think about something else to say. And then maybe I can’t think about anything else to say, so maybe we’ll all just sit in silence.

   If all that we say
   In a single day,
With never a word left out,
   Were printed each night,
   In clear black and white,
It would make strange reading, no doubt.

   And then just suppose
   Ere our eyes should close
We must read the whole record through
   Then wouldn’t we sigh
   And wouldn’t we try
A great deal less talking to do?
   And I more than half think
   That many a kink
Would be smoother in life’s tangled thread
   If half that I say
   In a single day
Were to be left forever unsaid.

I don’t know about you, but do you know how easy it is to compound the problem in your marriage when you’ve got the slip road out—it’s right in front of you—when you can leave, you know? I don’t mean leave your marriage; I mean when you made a hash of it, and your wife has been gracious in response, and you know, “Now I should just be gracious,” and then you go, and you just drive the nail further into the ground, you know, say, “Aw, why did I say that?” and then “Why did I say that?” and “Why did I say—” and “I just, aw…” Now, maybe I’m just … maybe it’s just me, I don’t know.

The Promise of Mercy

Okay, we’ll wrap it up with one positive. Let’s be clear: to be discriminating and critical is necessary, to be judgmental and hypercritical is wrong. That brings us to one positive statement—we’ve got time for just one. After all, it’s only one word, and we probably can’t think of much to say about this word. It’s the first word in the third sentence of verse 37, and it’s the word “forgive”—“forgive.”

Now, think for just a moment about the kind of transformation that would be brought about in our relationships if we were to take seriously this one dramatic directive: “Forgive.” Just one word, apoluo; it actually means “release.” And the bondage in which individuals and families and couples and churches and groups live can be traced, in a vast majority of cases, to an unwillingness to obey this one simple directive: “Forgive.” It’s not the same as “Excuse.” It’s not the same as “Deny.” It’s not the same as “Just forget about it for a while, and it will just all pass over and be gone.” It is actually an act of the will, driven by the Word of God, enabled by the Spirit of God, to recognize that although this person is habitually this way, is a total royal pain-in-the-neck (he said, without a spirit of censoriousness at all) and the person is this way, that I am still to forgive him.

Shakespeare says,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this—
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
the deeds of mercy.[10]
Every time that I refuse to forgive or you refuse to forgive from the very bottom of our hearts, it is a cold and deliberate choice. And every time that you and I make that cold and deliberate choice, we entomb ourselves; we live within a dungeon of our own construction; we are trapped in the bondage of our own unforgiving hearts.

Chinese proverb says, “The man who opts for revenge should dig two graves.” “The man who opts for revenge should dig two graves, for he will go in one of them.” George MacDonald says a striking thing when he says, “It may be infinitely worse to refuse to forgive than to murder.” You say, “This is overstating the case, surely.” Listen to how he puts it: “It may be infinitely worse to refuse to forgive than to murder, because the latter”—namely, murder—“may be an impulse in the heat of the moment, whereas the former is a cold and deliberate choice of the heart.”[11] And that is absolutely true. Every time that I refuse to forgive or you refuse to forgive from the very bottom of our hearts, it is a cold and deliberate choice. And every time that you and I make that cold and deliberate choice, we entomb ourselves; we live within a dungeon of our own construction; we are trapped in the bondage of our own unforgiving hearts.  This, says someone, is “a hard law … that when a deep injury is done to us, we never recover until we forgive.”[12] “When a deep injury is done to us, we never recover until we forgive.”

And loved ones, I don’t know where this hits you, but I’m sure it hits you somewhere, for it certainly does me. And those of us who have made a career of harboring bitterness and of holding grudges should not be surprised at the chaos of our lives, no matter how well we’ve concealed it with whatever we’ve enjoyed in terms of physical things, or material things, or whatever else it is. There is not a thing that is invented on the face of God’s earth that can deal with this. There is only one place that it’s dealt with. There is only one person who can deal with it.

And that, incidentally, is one of the key explanations for so much of the manifold chaos that exists in our contemporary culture: because people have turned away from the idea of having offended against God, have been told that guilt is some kind of “trip” that you’re put on and that it is absolutely wrong ever to feel guilty—and there is spurious guilt from which we need to stay away—but the whole notion of guilt is pooh-poohed, and so you have these millions of people moving around the country, unforgiven and unforgiving.

Do you want to know how to stay in your marriage? Forgive! That’s it! That’s all of it! Forgive! All the other bells and whistles you can add at different times, but if I refuse to forgive my wife, I will never make it, and if she refuses to forgive me, she will never make it, for God knows how much offense I cause her. How do you stay in a church when somebody ticks you off? Pretend they don’t tick you off? No! Admit they tick you off, and forgive them. How do you stay as the pastor of a church? Forgive!

It’s the whole business in one word. You want something to put on your baseball cap? You want something burned into your heart? I found the Spirit of God saying this to me this week, in my study, all on my own, just by myself, talking to myself, the Spirit of God says, “Listen, if you want to spend your life known for one thing, now, from age forty-seven for however long I give you, perhaps you would like to be known for forgiveness.” How radical would that be? How many lawsuits does that deal with? How many relationships in business does that see reengineered?

Jesus—such a kind and wonderful shepherd.

You see, censoriousness is in the prodigal brother, who, when the prodigal comes back, having made a royal hash of things, and he comes up the street, his father, who in the story represents God running out to him, comes and says, “Hey, boy!” and he gives him a big kiss, he gives him a big hug, and he starts to get him all jazzed up: new clothes, new shoes, new jewelry, big party, music, dancing, the whole thing. And out in the fields is Mr. Censorious:

“’Scuse me, what’s going on in there?”

“Hey, your brother came back! It’s fant—aw, man, you oughta hear the band. It’s awesome!”

“I can hear the band. I don’t like that kind of music. I’m not—”

“So, well, it’s … but forget the music, then, don’t worry. Your brother came back!”

“Well, he’s been down there, he’s with prostitutes and just making a royal mess of things, and I’m slaving away here for my father, and I don’t get a party at all.”

That spirit is alive and well; it’s the spirit of the Pharisee: “What’s she doing here? Does anybody know who she is? What’s he coming for? Do you know about him?” In contrast, think of the hugs all ’round that Joseph got going when his brothers, who had offended against him so badly, finally show up, and he says to them, he says, “Guys, I am Joseph.” If they had seen a ghost they couldn’t have been more freaked out: “Joseph? The guy we sold into slavery? The guy we threw in the pit? The guy we’ve been lying to our father about for the last twenty-plus years?” “Yeah, I’m Joseph.” You can just see them going, “Oh, you are, are you? You are? Oh, nice.” He says, “Hey, come here.” He hugs the first one, he hugs the second one, and he hugs them all the way down the line. Did he have grounds for frying their tails? Did he have the right to clamp the manacles of Egypt on them and put them down in a hole on the strength of all that they had done to him? In the sense of the exercise of justice, yes. But in terms of his demonstration of the mercy of God the Father to him, the answer was absolutely no.

Let me give you one final quote. This is from a lady called Hannah Arendt, A-r-e-n-d-t. It’s from a community that I found in Pennsylvania. She said this: “Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to a single deed from which we could never recover. We would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice, who lacked the magic formula to break the spell.”[13]

Jesus died on the cross in order that you may not live confined to a single deed from which you cannot recover, in order that you do not need to live a victim of the consequences forever.

Can I say to you this morning that Jesus died on the cross in order that you may not live confined to a single deed from which you cannot recover, in order that you do not need to live a victim of the consequences foreve r? And you do not need a magic formula to break the spell. You and I need a Savior whose blood cleanses us from all sin and whose Spirit empowers us, then, to start looking a little more like our Father—learning not to judge, choosing not to condemn, and learning how to forgive.

If we’re prepared to take this seriously, I think it will make a dramatic impact in our lives. I don’t know the details of your lives; I just know there’s enough in my life that can be covered by this. Maybe there is in yours. As God guides you, let’s take care of things.

O God our Father, thank you that the Bible is a book to be studied; that it’s written sensibly, in an ordered fashion; that we’re not simply dipping into it to find blessed thoughts, but we’re wrestling with it. It is wrestling us to the ground; Father, it is bringing us to our knees, where we need to be. From verse 17 on, you turn the searchlight into our hearts, Lord, as individuals, as families, as couples, as leadership groups, as a church family.

Save us, Lord, from the stupid naivety, the gaumlessness, which is often believed to be the expression of taking this seriously. But save us also, Lord, from the tendency that rises in our hearts to sit on the throne that is yours alone and to exercise a prerogative which is only yours.

Thank you that you forgive us, and that those who know themselves to have been forgiven of much will be easy to detect because of the forgiving spirit that they show to others. Thank you for “the steadfast love of God, which never fails;”; thank you for “the mercies that never come to an end.”[14] Send us out, Lord, with that thought uppermost in our minds, so that the principle may be applied: Be merciful, be full of steadfast love, just as your Father is full of steadfast love. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

[1] Luke 6:41 (paraphrased).

[2] Luke 6:36 (NIV 1984).

[3] Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to S. Matthew (London: E. Stock, 1909), 89.

[4] Leviticus 11:44 (paraphrased).

[5] John 13:34 (paraphrased).

[6] Luke 6:31 (paraphrased).

[7] Exodus 21:24 (paraphrased).

[8] Paul Simon, “You Can Call Me Al” (1986). Paraphrased.

[9] John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount: Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1978), 176. Paraphrased.

[10] William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, act 4, scene 1.

[11] George MacDonald, “It Shall Not Be Forgiven,” in Unspoken Sermons, Series I, II, III (1867; repr., Whitehorn, CA: Johannesen, 1997), 56. Paraphrased.

[12] Alan Paton, Too Late the Phalarope (1995; repr., New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 278.

[13] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 237.

[14] Edith McNeill, “The Steadfast Love of the Lord.” Paraphrased.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.