A Sermon by the Rev. James P Cooper

Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. (Mat 18:19)

The subject for today is what happens when things go wrong between people. We are not really talking about the simple, easily resolved misunderstandings, the little things, but the big things, or when little things are allowed to go on, and anger begins to replace discomfort; when we end up with feelings of contempt, anger, jealousy, rage, even hatred. These are the things that happen when we allow our feelings to get out of control.

We feel these kinds of strong feelings when we believe that someone – whoever – is doing something to us that is malicious, that is consciously designed to do something to harm us.

Now let’s think about just that issue for a moment. How often can each of us honestly say that we’ve done something to someone else with a conscious, deliberate effort to harm them? In most cases the things that we do to others we’re doing because we genuinely believe it’s for the best. Either for the best in general or the best for that other person’s own good. Whenever something goes wrong, whenever there’s anger. We’re surprised when that other person says “How could you think that? that’s not what I meant. I was trying to …” and we try to explain that our intentions were good, and we’re always surprised and hurt when the other person thinks ill of us.

If that’s the case, logic indicates that we should give others the benefit of the doubt. We should also train ourselves, or remind ourselves, that other people, no matter what they say or do are trying to do what they think is right, or best, or helpful. Now a lot of problems could be solved if we would remember this simple idea: that we all are trying to do what we think is best in spite of the fact that we sometimes make errors, and it’s these errors that we’re thinking about now, because it’s the errors and the anger from them that the Lord was speaking about. We become angry with each other from time to time and we have to learn how to deal with that anger.

The Word tells us in the Arcana Coelestia that “brother” means neighbor, anyone not ourselves, immediate family, people over the whole world. The idea of neighbor is not to be limited just by racial group or family or nation. That it means everyone is because all of us recognize that the Lord is our Father and so we are all brothers in His care.

When there is anger, when there are problems, and the Lord recommended that certain steps be followed. It’s interesting to note that in researching this part of the Word the internal sense was not given to these steps because the steps themselves are what is meant. The internal sense and the natural sense are one and the same here. This is one of those places in the Word where the Writings teach that “the Word is like a man clothed,” in that in some places the internal sense is very deeply hidden, like under very many layers of clothing that have to be carefully peeled away. But other parts of the Word are like a man’s face or hands that stand forth without explanation.

The Lord said, the first thing you must do when you’re angry is to discuss the problem between you and him alone, and that may solve many problems. If it doesn’t, if there’s stubbornness or misunderstanding it may be necessary to go on, and the next step is to take two or three witnesses. The principle here is that in trying to establish what is the truth everyone’s memory is flawed and it often helps to have a number of different views. That’s how the court system works. You bring witnesses in to speak and as each one speaks and others are allowed to question and resolve the issues that arise, a clear picture of what really happened should emerge. The truth becomes apparent.

That may solve many problems, but if it doesn’t, the Lord says the third step is, if he still doesn’t hear you, to tell it to the Church. Now why the Church? It wouldn’t have made any sense for Him to say “take the man to Civil Court”, because in those days there was no such thing. It was the Church who served that role in the time that the Lord was in the world. It was the Chief Priests who were called, who the Lord was taken to when the Pharisees and the other priests got together to arrest Him. He was only taken to the Roman Governor Pilate because the Jewish Church did not have the authority to execute a prisoner, and so they had to take Him to Pilate if they wanted to put Him to death.

So the Lord did not mean that for us, today, that somehow the pastor of the Society, or the Bishop has any particular insight for solving problems. Although there are times when that can help too. The idea He was suggesting was that we should take our disputes to some authority that both parties will recognize. Where both parties will say “We’ll present both our cases as clearly as we can, and let this person, who is objective and has the principles of justice in mind, make the decision.”

Sometimes that doesn’t work either, and what happens then? What does the Lord say when parties take it to a higher authority and yet even though a decision is handed down, there is still anger and even hatred?

The next step He says is, “Let it go”. He says “Let him be as a publican and a sinner to you.” In other words, treat them as the people of the Jewish Church in those days would treat publicans and sinners: they would have nothing to do with them. He is telling us that not every problem can be solved, and there comes a time to let it go. What worldly dispute can be worth your eternal soul?

What did the Lord say in our lessons that we read today? What was the next thing He said after “let him be a publican and a sinner to you”? He said “What is bound on earth will be bound in heaven”. When you burn with enmity and hatred and revenge on earth, it can become a part of your life. When that becomes the focus of your life, it becomes a part of your character that you take with you into the other world. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to remember where those people gather who have bound anger and hatred and revenge and enmity to their characters, to their souls. The Lord allowed them to build hell for themselves and it is there that they gather together.

After the Lord taught that what is bound on earth will be bound in heaven and said that if we hold onto these things they become part of us and taint our souls, He said, “Where two or three are gathered together in My name there am I in the midst of them”. Think of this passage in its context. We’ve been talking about anger, we’ve been talking about hatred, we’ve been talking about people who are full of this horrible feeling, and then He suddenly talks about how people gather together in His name, that He will be with them. The contrast is obvious. What He is saying is when people are gathered together not in His name, but in anger and in dispute, then He is not present.

Apocalypse Explained number 411 says. The Lord’s name means everything by which He is worshipped and as He is worshipped by means of truth from good, which is from Him, so this is meant by “His name.” When people come together in charity, when they do what is good because they have learned what is true from the Word, then there is concord, there is harmony. That is the life of heaven, and the Lord is present, and it is clear from the context what the Lord is saying. When there is dispute, He is not present.

So the point is clearly made that when there are disputes we should do everything we possibly can to clear them up and if we cannot clear them up by reasonable means we need to let the matter go for the sake of our own souls. We need to forgive, to let it go.

Peter, understanding exactly this point, says to the Lord “Lord how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? up to seven times.” and the Lord answers “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” (Mat 18:21)

Divine Providence 280 speaks to this point saying, The Lord remits the sins of all: He does not accuse and impute. Yet He can take them away only in accordance with the laws of His Divine Providence; for He said to Peter, when he asked how often he should forgive a brother sinning against him, whether seven times, That he should forgive not only seven times but until seventy times seven. (Mat 18:21,22) (If a man is to forgive another man seventy times, or continually) What then will not the Lord do who is Mercy itself?

And further about the number 7: Arcana Coelestia 433 tells us, That the number “seven” is holy, originates in the fact that the “seventh day” signifies the celestial man, the celestial church, the celestial kingdom, and, in the highest sense, the Lord Himself. Hence the number “seven,” wherever it occurs in the Word, signifies what is holy, or most sacred; and this holiness and sanctity is predicated of, or according to, the things that are being treated of. When anything most holy or sacred was to be expressed, it was said “seventy-sevenfold,” as when the Lord said that a man should forgive his brother not until seven times, but until seventy times seven (Mat. xviii. 22), by which is meant that they should forgive as many times as he sins, so that the forgiving should be without end, or should be eternal, which is holy.

There is no way that while living in this natural world with its confusion and error that we can avoid giving offenses entirely. Therefore we must be forgiving and we need to be forgiven, and that is why the next thing that comes in this sequence, this passage of the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, is the parable of The Unforgiving Servant.

Just to remind you briefly what happened: There was a man who owed the King 10 000 talents. Now for us to try to understand just how great a debt that is, Biblical reference works tell us that we should regard that number in terms of today’s money as being the entire annual budget of a small country. It is so much money for an individual as to be unimaginable. We’re not to worry about how he got into that debt in the first place, but the idea is that here is a man who owes more money than it could ever be possible for him to repay. The King calls him and he goes to the King who says “Pay me what you owe.” The man says “I cannot, I don’t have it, I can’t pay.” And the King says “All right it doesn’t matter, you’re forgiven, you don’t owe me anything.” The story goes on that immediately that man, having just been forgiven a most phenomenal, unimaginable debt, goes out and runs into a man who owes him a denarius – one day’s pay, an easy amount to pay. We’re told that this fellow who has just been forgiven a huge debt grabs the other man by the throat, flings him onto the ground and demands that he pay right now. When the man is unable to pay immediately he has him cast into debtor’s prison. The King hears of this, calls the servant back and says “As you have been unforgiving I take back what I said. You now owe me the debt.” and it says that he was sent to the torturers until he should pay every cent. The image is clear: that because of the size of his debt, to stay with the torturers until he should pay, means to eternity.

This whole lesson from the eighteenth chapter of Matthew follows a sequence and the lesson is quite clear. How can anything that anyone can owe us compare to the debt that we owe the Lord? He is willing to forgive us massive debts. The Doctrine of Regeneration says that you don’t have to correct every sin, or every evil inclination from the time you are born. You only have to start the process. It says that if you, as often as you prepare for the Holy Supper, once or twice a year, look to your sins, you repent, reform, and begin a new life, it is sufficient to put you on the road to heaven. It doesn’t say that you have to accomplish everything. Just begin the process.

The debt we owe is enormous and yet the Lord is willing to forgive if we will make the effort. However, He will forgive us only if we do one thing, only if we forgive others. All this anger, all these problems we have in the world are minor compared to the debt that we owe the Lord. And if we wish to be forgiven by Him, if we wish to enter into the spiritual world bound with things of charity and kindness (rather than anger and hatred), we must practice charity and kindness in our lives here. For the Lord Himself taught, “That which is bound on earth will be bound in Heaven.”

[Tie back to Working it out, Letting it go]

In the Lord’s Prayer we pray to the Lord for Him to “forgive our debts as we also forgive our debtors.” Remember what Peter said in our text: “Lord how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” (Mat. 18:21-22)

Lessons: GEN 4:1-9, MAT 18:15-22, AE 1015

(Transcribed by Gay Waters from a tape made 2 February, 1992 at Westville, South Africa)

3rd Lesson: AE 1015.

[2] Since hatred, which is to will to kill, is the opposite of love to the Lord and also of love towards the neighbor, and since these loves are what make heaven with man, it is evident that hatred, being thus opposite, is what makes hell with him.

[3] Since hatred and love are direct opposites, and since hatred in consequence constitutes hell with man, just as love constitutes heaven with him, therefore the Lord thus teaches :- Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you are thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny. (Mat. v. 23-26).

To be delivered to the judge, and by the judge to the officer, and by him to be cast into prison, describes the state of the man who is in hatred after death from his having been in hatred against his brother in the world, “prison” meaning hell, and “to pay the last farthing” signifies the punishment that is called everlasting fire.

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