XV Pentecost, Year A
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, "Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt."
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers." So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, "What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?" So they approached Joseph, saying, "Your father gave this instruction before he died, `Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, "We are here as your slaves." But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones." In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
"As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God."
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, `Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
If we think much about this parable, it might well scare the pants off us. Why? Because although on the outside it is about forgiveness, on the inside it is about the ‘rule of law.’ The rule of law is what is often promoted in America as a “Judeo-Christian democracy.” The rule of law is the bedrock upon which "religious" and "secular" alike build their societies.
Law has two components, prohibition and command. When you obey the law, you do not accumulate any merit for yourself, but when you get caught disobeying the law, you accumulate a debt to society that must be paid. Punishment is the essence of the law. The balance of debts must be maintained or the equilibrium of the society will degenerate into unceasing mimetic conflicts and violence.
In our parable, the unmerciful servant breaks his own "rule of law." He violates his own "social contract." Once he is forgiven, he charges forward to exact from another that which he has paid in shame and anger. He creates a scapegoat in the other servant, having him imprisoned in order to vent his own rage at being forgiven. In his "rule of law" there is no forgiveness, and so, either the master’s forgiveness creates a greater debt, or his master’s forgiveness results from some other, previously unrecognized merit. In either case, he finds himself enraged because of the increased debt or the merit he had and never knew about. His inexplicable action becomes easy to understand when we realize his enslavement to the notion of "balance" that he cannot escape. Caught up in this mimetic balancing game, flush with adrenaline at having discovered a huge shift (in either case) in his own relationship to "balance" he stroms up to the other servant and demands enforcement of the same "balance." Failing to grasp the nature and reality of his master’s forgiveness, he sacrifices the lesser servant, having him thrown into prison.
When we talk about forgiveness, if we speak with conditions, then our talk is no longer about forgiveness but the rule of law. This is one of Martin Luther’s lessons to us. And when it comes to God’s forgiveness, many would say that God’s forgiveness toward us sinners is unconditional. Why then, like the unmerciful servant, do we only extend forgiveness so far, only to ourselves, but not to others? Only to Christians but not to Pagans or Jews or Muslims?
We betray our understanding of God’s forgiveness to the extent that we do or do not forgive others. We may say that God’s grace is unconditional but if we live with others by extending conditions or limits, then the fact is we have not understood what unconditional means with reference to God. The logion at the end of the parable says essentially this.
If we believe, teach and proclaim that God forgives sin but then we do not, we do not yet believe what we teach and proclaim. In this parable we are challenged to forgive others in the exact same manner that we believe God forgives us, which is totally, unconditionally, freely and in love. From our hearts, from our deepest desire comes the desire to forgive others. This is the true imitatio Jesu. This is positive mimesis.
I recommend Jeremias, Scott and Herzog on this parable. Herzog’s observation that Jesus parables are subversive is, as Dr. John Mann might say, “spot-on.”
There lies within "Christian culture" the beating heart of the rule of law. It can be seen vividly in most of Western civilization today. The rule of law may come under the guise of democracy, theocracy or evangelical theology or it may mask itself as communism or liberation theology; it has taken the form of feudalism, it is known as patriarchy. The rule of law enters Christian culture and theology when God’s self is subjected to an internal law, or what is more popularly known as God’s holiness. “God is merciful and just” it is said. This is the premiere dualistic premise of false Christianity. It is this premise that undergirds our sacrificial (read Anselmic, penal) atonement theory, it informs our eschatology (hell) as well as our view of biblical authority (literal inerrancy).
The Jesus of the Gospels reveals that God is not merciful and just, he is just merciful period, full stop, end of sentence. Or as I John puts it, in one of the very infrequent axiomatic sentences of the New Testament, “God is love.”
Over my many years I have heard sermon after sermon on God’s love for the world, and have all too frequently heard about the limits of forgiveness in the way we forgive one another as human beings, in the same sermon. Forgiveness is given limits and thus appears the rule of law. Yet the preacher honestly believes that unconditional grace is being proclaimed.
How then, shall we preach this?
Some Sermon Thoughts
Well, let’s start off with, "If you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven!"
Um. In manner of my daughter, "NOT."
I’m pretty sure that counts as a condition.
So, how then? Once again, (I asked that we look at things this way last week. I hope this week’s readers are a whole new lot… lol) I suggest that we stop reading this parable from above. As you read it, which character is the one with which you most easily identify? Some folks, the ones who’ve been in the position of the "lesser servant," who have been beaten down by "culture," might identify with this second servant, but I doubt that most preachers find themselves in that spot. In fact, I’m pretty sure that we feel the outrage of the "master" when we see the unjust behavior of the first servant.
Before we go insisting in this sermon that the "master" is supposed to be God, let’s think again. Isn’t the master more like us? Don’t we think the first servant deserves his final punishment? Don’t we really believe that the initial forgiveness DOES create an indebtedness?
What if we read from the position of the second servant? What good does it do him to have first servant thrown in prison with him? (other than some perverse pleasure?) What might the master have done that would have shown the true nature of forgiveness to the second servant?
I think that, if we let our reading of the narrative come from "below," we’ll see what the parable REALLY wants to tell us.