Exodus 14:19-31; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Ordinary 24A; Proper 19
The early Christians quarreled over opinions. The members of the church in Rome judged each other, disagreed and failed to fulfill all those marks of Christian community spelled out in Romans 12.
Peter quizzes Jesus on the limits of forgiveness within the Body of Christ. What is required? Seven times? That sounds generous, right? Disciples of Jesus struggle, perennially, with how to get along and demonstrate the love and mercy of the One we follow. Is this a relief or a disappointment to us? Perhaps it is simply a reality each generation of Christians must confess and address. While we know we are united in, with and through Christ, demonstrating our oneness takes work and we will inevitably fail and need to ask God’s for help.
Living in community requires commitment, humility, patience, every fruit of the Spirit and Christ’s constant prayer — perhaps especially now, when we are stretched, stressed and anxious. We need Paul’s instructions and Jesus’ admonition more than ever as the election season gets heated and the pandemic persists. The temptation to give into rancor, to quarrel over opinions, to judge one another and to not only withhold forgiveness but seek vengeance gets stronger by the headline, sound bite and yard sign. Lord Jesus, surely, in our context, forgiveness times seven is more than enough.
Jesus clearly says that, in fact, we ought not keep count, keep score, keep track, keep a tally of offenses and subsequent mercy extended. These relationships with one another are covenantal not transactional. Given the grace we have received, our forgiveness ought to know no end. Further, God alone is Lord of conscience and therefore we need to temper our judgment with the reality that our pronouncements may well be wrong. And one more thing: being merciful to each other really matters to God. Exploiting our siblings or refusing them a second, third, fourth or seventy-seventh chance angers God like seemingly nothing else.
The parable Jesus tells in Matthew is not G-rated. After the king of this story gets wind that the servant for whom he forgave the large debt refused to do likewise with a fellow servant’s lesser debt, that heretofore merciful monarch hands over the unforgiving servant to the “torturers.” The occurrence of this word, “torturers” is found only here in all of the New Testament. Extending mercy to one another matters a great deal to Jesus and the consequences of our mercilessness are grave.
Time and time again, Scripture reminds us of the relationship between God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of one another. Our realization of the grace given to us calls us to respond in kind to others. Every week we pray: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Jesus’ sermon on the mount includes: Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. More bluntly we are told that we will be judged with the judgment we pronounce. More poetically we read: Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought to love one another. Our relationship to God, our utter astonishment at God’s mercy, grace and goodness to us, compels us in humble recognition of our undeserved reprieve from sin to lavishly (some would say foolishly) be merciful, gracious and good to others. Such behavior flies in the face of our current cultural climate. But, according to this week’s New Testament readings, mercy and grace have always been countercultural, even among Christians.
In “The Origin of Others” Toni Morrison writes, “Why should we want to know a stranger when it is easier to estrange another? Why should we want to close the distance when we can close the gate? Appeals in art and religion for comity in the Common Wealth are faint.” Why would we want to forgive when resentment is so much more satisfying? Why should we be merciful when ruthlessness gets rewarded? Why would we ever withhold our judgment when condemnation makes us feel so good? Why, even among Christians, is the appeal for comity in the Common Wealth, in our churches, so faint?
Perhaps because we forget what Christ has done for us. We may well love the hymn “Amazing Grace,” but we do not really think we are wretched and we are sure we’re not nearly so bad as those others singing the same lyrics in the congregation down the road. And yet, where would we be without the grace of God? The forgiveness that makes of us a new creation in Christ? The mercy that means we are more than our greatest mistake? With that realization how can we not believe Jesus when he says forgive your sibling 77 times (which really means stop keeping count)?
Jesus says, “blessed are the merciful,” and further: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” And week after week we pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Not to mention that bit about specks in others’ eyes and logs in our own. If our call for mercy is faint, God’s cry for it resounds throughout Scripture and reverberates through all creation. Goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives, right?
What if we took Jesus at his word, his 77 times word, his parable of the unforgiving servant word, and attempted in real, tangible terms to be merciful, forgiving and grace-filled with one another? Not because we fear being handed over to the torturers, but because we are overcome with joy at the love and compassion God has given us, despite the huge, impossible-for-us-to-pay debt we owe. And if 77 feels like too big a reach, we could start with forgiving one person, one thing, one time and then keep going until we get to the point that we lose count.
- What opinions are we quarrelling about in our congregations and communities? How do we welcome each other despite our differences?
- When have you struggled with forgiveness?
- When have you experienced mercy?
- When you pray the Lord’s Prayer, asking God to forgive as we forgive others, does that impact your relationships with others?
- How do you reconcile God’s mercy with the harsh ending of the parable Jesus tells?
- What does it mean to you that God alone is Lord of conscience?
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