Sunday Night Worship – 9/14/08

Who Do You Want to Be?

Matthew 18: 12-35

We are stubborn people. We hear God calling and we look behind us to see who God’s talking to. We receive a clear message from God and then try to work out ways for it to cost us less. We are stubborn people who come from a long line of stubborn people.

Our reading from Matthew picks up right where last week’s left off. Last week we heard Jesus give simple, direct, explicit instructions for how to reconcile with others in the Christian community. First you go alone to speak to the person who has sinned against you. If he doesn’t listen, take a couple of other church members with you. If he still doesn’t listen, tell the whole church. And if he still doesn’t listen, treat this person as someone worthy of further outreach and mission. (Matthew 18: 15-17)

As soon as Jesus finished giving these instructions Peter pipes up and that’s where our reading for this week begins. I guess we could give Peter the benefit of the doubt and say that he is just trying to make sure he’s gotten the whole message. But Peter is one of those stubborn grandfathers in our long family line and it’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.

As soon as Jesus finishes up this easy-to-follow plain-talking list of instructions, instead of saying what’s really on his mind, Peter jumps in with a legalistic question. He says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (Mt. 18: 21) Ok, I’ll give you that forgiveness has its place, Lord, but just how long am I supposed to engage in this ridiculous and unreasonable behavior?

 I think what’s really on Peter’s mind is how hard this is going to be, how much it will require of him, and how mind-boggling it is to even begin thinking like this. When someone has sinned against him and he’s hurt and angry, how in the world is he going to muster the courage and faithfulness to engage in this sort of truthful reconciling community? How can he do it just once – much less, 77 times? (Mt. 18: 22)

Jesus often speaks in parables to illustrate a point to the disciples and it’s at this point in our reading that he turns to the familiar form of the parable. He says that “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a [master] who wished to settle accounts with his slaves” (Mt. 18: 23). The master calls forth a slave who owes him 10,000 talents that he can not repay so the master orders that the slave and his family and everything they own be sold off and that the slave be put in jail until he can pay the rest. The slave drops to his knees and says “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything” (v.26). The king has pity on him and forgives the entire debt.

Following this extravagant generosity, the slave encounters a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii. The first slave manhandles the second one and demands payment immediately. But when the second slave begs for mercy – in almost exactly the same words as the first slave used with the master – the first slave refuses to offer mercy and throws the other man in prison.

Their fellow slaves see all this and report it to the master, who calls the first slave back in again, and says, “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?” Then he hands the slave over to be tortured until he can pay up on the debt he originally owed the master. (Mt. 18: 21-34)

Now, biblical scholars have some disagreements about exactly where this parable ends. Many think that the original parable told by Jesus ends with the question in verse 33: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” Some think it stopped at the next verse with the master handing the slave over to torture. But they all seem to agree that the final verse, 35, is an addition to the original material, added by Matthew to allegorize the parable and make the larger theological points of the gospel he was writing (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol.VIII, p. 382).

Whatever the case, it seems clear that the literary and dramatic weight of the parable falls on the question in verse 33: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” It’s a question with a familiar ring to our stubborn ears.

It sounds a lot like something God says to Jonah. In the story of Jonah from the Hebrew scriptures God calls Jonah to go and preach to the city of Nineveh, at which point Jonah jumps aboard the next ship heading for Tarshish – about as far from Nineveh as he could get. Through a lot of twists and turns, including a turn inside the belly of a whale, Jonah eventually relents and heads for Nineveh.

But when he preaches and the people turn from their evil ways to worship God, instead of Jonah feeling a sense of satisfaction and job-well-done, he gets steaming mad. At God. He tells God that this is why he never wanted to come in the first place, because God is full of mercy and would end up forgiving everyone anyway, so what was the point? And then, like a self-righteous 3-year-old, Jonah stomps back out of the city, makes a little hut for himself at the gates to the city, sits down in it, and begins to pout.

When Jonah and God finally have a come-to-Jesus moment (so to speak), it is in the very last verse of the whole book. Reprimanding Jonah for his inappropriate anger at God’s mercy, God says, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4: 11)

We are a stubborn and stiff-necked people. And we surely come by it honestly. Just look at this family tree full of Jonahs and Peters! Stupid Nineveh people who You love anyway! Stupid person I already forgave 76 times! Stupid slave who owes me money! Stupid, unreasonable, ever-loving God! We are stubborn and selfish.

Nevertheless, Jesus calls us to more.

I was watching the 80s movie “City Slickers” a few months ago. There’s a scene with a couple of city slickers out west riding horses through the desert. They’re friends from back east and they are escaping their lives and trying to find some solace in a week of playing at being cowboys. While they are riding along together and talking one of them asks the other a hypothetical question: If you knew you wouldn’t get caught, would you cheat on your wife?

It’s an interesting question because it assumes that getting caught is what is undesirable. It assumes that the man’s behavior isn’t important in and of itself, that only the consequences matter. It assumes that betraying his wife is only about her anger and feelings and not also about what kind of a person he is.

What kind of a person do you want to be? Do you want to try practicing forgiveness – even when it’s incredible and unreasonable, and the 77th time you’ve done it? Are you up for that kind of life? Do the sinful actions and punishment of all the people around you matter more to you than your own soul?

My seminary professor, Luther Smith, was the first person I ever heard give an adequate definition of forgiveness. He said that forgiving someone does not mean that what they did was right, acceptable, or OK with you. It does not mean that you will ever let them do it again. It does not mean that you forget what happened. It may not mean that you can continue on in any kind of personal relationship with the other person. But it does mean that you no longer see that person only in light of their action. It means that you refuse to let the thing or things she did define her. It means that, despite what he has done, you choose to see him as a child of God.

This kind of forgiveness is what Sister Helen Prejean practices on the death rows of our country. She is the famed nun of the book and movie Dead Man Walking and though she knows exactly what they’ve done to land them on death row, she chooses to see more to them than their crimes. She chooses to try to seem them as God sees them. She wants to be the kind of person God calls us to be, accepting of God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness in our own lives and full of forgiveness and mercy for those she meets – even the ones who have done things that are unspeakable.

I recently became a step mom to Blair. Blair is 19, sweet, a charmer, loves to watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, and struggles with autism. Though we have a lot of fun together and some things in common we part ways when it comes to chocolate.  I looooooove chocolate and Blair doesn’t think much of it. He likes cookies and cakes but he’s an oatmeal and raisin kind of guy. So when his birthday came around this summer I, the chocoholic, was in a bind as to what type of treat to make him to celebrate. All of my favorite desserts involve significant amounts of chocolate.

I have to admit that I considered not making anything. Blair spends time with his mom and step dad and with Woody and me. He happened to be at his other home for his actual birthday and because of his disability rituals and ceremonies like birthdays don’t have the same meaning for him. He loves a good dessert but he may not distinguish between the oatmeal cookies he has every time he comes to our house and the cake he has once a year. As far as he seems to be concerned, people he loves are giving him yummy things and that’s cause for celebration.

So I am not proud to say it but I did consider not making him a special birthday dessert. It probably wouldn’t make a difference to him. He already had one celebration at his mom’s. It wasn’t the actual day anymore so it might be confusing….I considered it but I couldn’t not make something. I realized that it did not matter one bit whether Blair recognized in the same ways I would expect one of you to recognize what was happening. I knew what was happening and I wanted to be the kind of person who went out of her way to try to give her stepson something he would enjoy.  As it turns out, I tried lemon pudding custardy things and he obligingly took one bite and said “No!” The dessert failed but I succeeded – that day – in being the kind of person I wanted to be.

Who do you want to be? Listen to what Jesus is telling us in the parable. All the forgiveness and mercy and grace and love you could ever imagine is already yours. Your debts are erased and the only thing God asks is that you live like someone who has experienced this kind of unreasonable, ridiculous, over-the-top generosity. Go and do likewise. May we all know in our stubborn hearts that these words are for us.

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah E. Lewis 2008