Sept. 17, 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

Romans 14:1-12


Humans behave atrociously. That, I think, is the message of the parable that Jesus shares after he instructs Peter to forgive 77 times.  The parable is hyperbole, that is, it exaggerates God’s perspective on humanity in order to make its point.  The point isn’t that our heavenly father will torture us if we don’t forgive.  Rather, the point is that any reasonable person might expect the good king to react the way he did after finding out that his extravagant mercy and generosity had been so abused.

You have to understand that “ten thousand talents” was far more than any slave could possibly ever earn.  I’ve read that it was the equivalent of 150 years of daily wages.  I don’t think a slave could ever amass such a debt, but I’m pretty sure Jesus knew that when he told the story.  Again, he exaggerates.  The point is that this king is unimaginably, unexpectedly, unnecessarily generous.  The slave knows he deserves punishment and he asks only for the grace of having a little more time to raise the funds that he owes.  The king, however, does more than grant the man time; he forgives the entire outrageous debt!  The question is: how is it possible that that same slave could then turn to a man who owed him significantly less and insist upon punishment when that man couldn’t pay?! It is outrageous; it’s completely amoral, and yet, I think the story is given to the church, given to us, as a reminder of humanity’s capacity to behave exactly that way, and of our call to adopt God’s way instead.

Our Old Testament passage today is the story of the Exodus. My college professors would have called it the “central generating experience” – the CGE – every religion has one – of the Jewish tradition, and therefore an important moment for Christianity’s self-understanding as well.  Here, in the parting of the Red Sea, we see a God of liberation in action.  We see a God of the oppressed working mightily on behalf of God’s enslaved people.  Here God is decisively on the side of the powerless, and God’s will is freedom.  That much seems right and true and in keeping with the God of Jesus Christ.

What’s troubling though is that Pharoe’s resistance to setting his Israelite slaves free is due not just in part to an economy that depends upon their labor, but also to God’s decision to harden Pharoe’s heart. God is behind Pharoe’s repeated “NO” to Moses’ pleas to “let my people go.”  God is the one who clogs their chariot wheels in the muck between the parted waters.  God is the one who tosses the Egyptians into the sea.  Now, maybe they deserve it.  Maybe, if you lived under the oppression of Egypt, devalued and dehumanized, you would have no sympathy for those folks and you would celebrate God’s wrath upon them.  However, you’d still have to admit that the pairing with Christ’s command in our gospel passage to forgive “77 times” is a difficult one to reconcile.

You might argue that in the gospel parable the slave asks for mercy. Pharoe on the other hand never comes close to an apology, and can you really forgive someone who isn’t sorry?  Now, that may be a fair point, but I still do see a deeper connection between our passages.  After their exodus the Jews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before coming upon Cana, their promised land.  The thing is, there were people already living there.  Perhaps those people stole the land from someone else; I’m not really sure, but to make a long story short, the Jews didn’t come to occupy the promised land because its current residents gave it to them.  Rather, they took it by force, killing at least most of the men, and they interpreted their success in doing it as God’s favor.  Flash forward four hundred years later and they are well settled in, their 12 tribes are united, and they have a king.  By then they’ve had a couple of kings.  But, this one is King Solomon, and he’s built a massive, glorious, architectural wonder of a temple to honor their God.  Except, he didn’t build it.  His slaves did.  Forced laborers from the Jebusites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, and other conquered peoples did the actual building.  So, you see, it didn’t take long for the oppressed to become the oppressors, for slaves to become slave owners, for those who had been so powerfully liberated by their God to become those who now saw God to be on their side as they cracked the whip.

How can a people who have been saved by grace turn and deny grace to others? That’s the question from today’s passages, and it’s not a matter of ancient history, and by no means do I mean to imply that it’s simply a Jewish matter.  Thank God the Jews were so honest in telling their/our story.  And thank God there were other voices in that story calling for us to turn our swards into plowshares, calling for us to extend hospitality to the alien, and to let the oppressed go free.

My spiritual advisor made me promise him something. He made me promise to say the Jesus prayer 25 times 7 times a day.  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”  Though I’ve not fully fulfilled that promise, I have given it an effort.  The assignment went against my grain just a bit.  I’ve never been big on the “human depravity” side of the Christian equation.  “What have I done that’s so wrong?  Why am I such a horrible sinner?” asked the voice inside of me that offered resistance.  Nonetheless, I’ve been saying the prayer and I’ve been finding myself not so reminded of all that’s wrong with me, but rather reminded of the grace of an eternal God who is just fine without me, a grace whose presence alone is the mercy I need, a grace that sees my smallness, and my own captivities, and comes nonetheless with joy and love – a grace that says, “What you are is mine, and what I want is for you to be free to know it.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the following story:

“A woman in my congregation comes to see me. She is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children.  She says to me, ‘Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills.  I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, whiles he’s living it up with his new wife in another state.  How can you tell me to forgive him?’  I answer her, ‘I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable.  It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish.  I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman.  I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him.  You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.’”[i]

Forgiveness is our way of conquering the pain and anger within us that keeps us captive. The truth is that in some cases forgiveness is more for the sake of the victim than for the offender.  It frees us, but in my experience it doesn’t come easily.  In my experience it is a process, and it comes from God, and it is rooted in the knowledge that we ourselves have been the recipients of great mercy and love.

I would also argue that in some cases forgiveness works a bit differently. In some cases forgiveness is meant simply to free us, but in other cases forgiveness is meant to do more; it is meant also to unite us.  Peter asks Jesus, “If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”  The question isn’t about forgiveness in general; it’s about forgiving a member of the church.  When Jesus says you should forgive 77 times he’s talking about a way of being that characterizes and defines the community.  He is saying that this is a community that knows the grace by which it lives.  This is a community that like the slave in the parable understands that it has received boundless mercy, but unlike that slave it will not forget, it will not act the way the world so often acts, it will live by the practice of extending that mercy.  And, in so doing it will look and feel like a place that is free.

I have a colleague who has suffered public disgrace. He’s somewhere between an acquaintance and a friend, and he wrote a book that gained national interest because of its association with a politician of great national interest.  The scandal broke when it turned out that a piece of the book was plagiarized.   Disgrace set in when it was discovered that a great many more portions of the book were plagiarized as well.  He’s a man who means no harm, and if you took time to understand how it happened you might feel some empathy, but he’s guilty and ashamed, the book has been pulled from the shelves, and it’s not clear where his career will go next.

I was so happy to see another colleague on Facebook who posted a picture with our friend. It said, “I’m standing with Bill.  Not because he is perfect or blameless – but because he is my friend.  Let those of you who are without sin…”

There’s no guarantee that such grace converts a person to his better self? In fact, Jesus implies that it may take multiple tries.  But, I suspect that if Bill is going to heal it will be because the community embraces him, frees him from his self-loathing, and remembers that unearned love has claimed us all.


[i] Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 4, page 72.