Now, before we explore our scripture readings for this morning, let’s remember that our theme for Lent is Jubilee – freedom, release, liberation from those things that bind and burden us and keep us from knowing God, liberation that can be ours by the grace and mercy of God. We’re exploring different dimensions of Jubilee in our personal spiritual lives, in our community of faith, in our society. Last week we looked at the literal Jubilee in the Laws of Moses, which is release from debts, and all the shame around debt, and questions of a just and fair way of lending. This week we’re exploring forgiveness in the more moral sense, which is a big part of the meaning of Jesus for us. Now, from the outset let me do away with a couple of bad misuses of Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness. 1. It is a misuse and abuse to use Jesus to tell someone who is being abused that they need to forgive their abuser and go back to the abusive relationship or situation. No way. We want people to be free from violent situations. So, you could say, “Forgive, but don’t forget.” The way Jesus put this was: “Be as savvy as serpents and as gentle as doves,” that’s Jesus’ guidance for his disciples about living in the way of the Gospel in the midst of a world that can be hostile. Be smart, while keeping your heart free from anger and bitterness, by the mercy of God. 2. Forgiveness does not mean dismissing the harm that’s been done. It actually requires engaging with the harm and being honest about the full scope of it, especially with how the harm has affected our relationship with our own souls and with God. Forgiveness is for the sake of our own souls, not just for the sake of the person we may be hell bent on punishing. It means letting go of the sense of debt and grievance due to that harm, release from the need to punish or to be punished for that debt. 3. Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness are very demanding on the person asking for forgiveness – he calls for nothing short of sincere humility and willingness to be transformed by mercy. So if I owe you an apology, I should be so humbled by that I am dedicated to living in a better way, regardless of whether you’re going to forgive me or that. A true apology does not have the expectation that you then somehow now owe me forgiveness. This brings us to number four: 4. Forgiveness is not some kind of transaction. We’ll see this, how Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness really scrambles the rules of the marketplace. It’s about transformation, not transaction. This also means that offering forgiveness and receiving forgiveness is not a one and done kind of act. It is a process – it’s not going to happen right away, and no one should expect it to. It’s part of soul growth and soul healing as we learn to rely more and more on the strength and mercy of God. When we step onto the Jubilee Way, we are cast into a realm of mercy that is all about the free flow of mercy.
Matthew 6: 9,12-15; 7:1-2 Jesus taught them, saying, “You therefore should pray like this: ‘Our Abba who is in heaven, may your name be held holy … Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those indebted to us. And do not put us to the test, but deliver us from evil.’ “For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Abba will forgive you also. But if you do not forgive others their offenses, not even your Abba will forgive your offenses… “Do not judge and you will not be judged. For, just as you judge others, you will yourselves be judged, and the standard that you use will be used for you…. Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.”
So, this seems to be a puzzling sort of economy, this economy of Mercy. It doesn’t just involve two people, but God as well … and … It seems that what mercy we receive from God is connected to what mercy we give to each other … But Jesus also teaches the opposite – what mercy we can give to each other is connected to what mercy we can receive from God … hmm … Our next reading is from later in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18. It’s important I set the context, because this is a story that is often taken out of context. Earlier in Chapter 18, Jesus talks about how the way of the Realm of Heaven involves becoming humble and free like children, and doing no harm, and letting go of those parts of ourselves that can lead us to do harm, particularly harm against those who are vulnerable like children. And then Jesus teaches, that if and when someone does harm to another – here is what someone who is part of the community of Jesus followers should do: First, the person who has been harmed should go to the offender and tell them about what they did to you, and give them a chance to hear you and repent and improve the relationship. But if the offender does not hear you, what you do is get a couple of other community members who can attest to this harm. And you all go again to the offender to show them their offense. But if again they do not hear you, then Jesus says, the community is to treat them like “a gentile or a tax collector.” At first it seems this means we kick them out. But Jesus is being cunning here – because how does Jesus show is disciples to treat foreigners and tax collectors? With mercy. The Way of the Realm of Heaven runs the same course as the Jubilee Way
Matthew 18:21-35 Then Peter came up, and said to Jesus: “Master, how often am I to forgive someone who wrongs me? As many as seven times?” But Jesus answered: “Not seven times, but ‘seventy times seven.’ Therefore the realm of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he begun to do so, one of them was brought to him who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. And, as he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold as a slave toward the payment of the debt, together with his wife, and his children, and everything he had. The servant threw himself down on the ground before him and said, ‘Have patience with me, and will pay you all.’ The master was moved, and he let him go and forgave him the debt. But on going out, that same servant came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. Seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe me.’ His fellow servant threw himself on the ground and begged for mercy. ‘Have patience with me,’ he said, ‘and I will pay you.’ But the other would not, but went and put him in prison until he should pay his debt. When his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and went to their master and laid the whole matter before him. So the master sent for the servant and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! When you begged me for mercy, I forgave you the whole of that debt. Ought you not, also, to have shown mercy to your fellow servant, just as I showed mercy to you?’ Then his master, in anger, handed him over to the jailers, until he should pay the whole of the debt. So, also, will my heavenly Abba do to you, unless each one of you forgives your sibling from your heart.”
So let’s explore this in terms of the economy of mercy. (First of all, as an aside, the word here is “slave,” which in this case means some form of indentured servitude, probably not the worst chattel slavery. Translations sometimes soften it and say “servant,” but it’s important we always are honest about the uncomfortable word “slave” – this guy is not free.) Aright. Now, to get to the Jubilee Way. Our question is, kind of economy is this economy of mercy that Jesus is teaching about? One thing to know here is that the proportions in this story are outrageous. The amount that this guy owes the king is astronomical. At the rate of his pay, as an indentured servant, he’d have to work for 10,000 years to pay it back. So, we can ask, why did the king lend him this much in the first place? Did he really expect to be paid back? What’s the nature of their relationship? And what did this guy do with that outrageous amount of money? This sounds similar to the story of the prodigal son, who asks his father to give him all his inheritance early, but he only goes off and squanders it all. Both these stories about the economy of mercy start with seemingly reckless act of generosity. They both received life and life abundant, only to blow it all. Now the prodigal son, remember, found himself face down in the muck, and picked himself up and came back home in shame, only for his father to welcome him home with complete joy and forgiveness. The Jubilee Way. But it’s a bit different with this enslaved and indebted man and the king… The second outrageous thing in this story is the punishment the king at first wants to mete out against this guy. It’s extremely severe – so severe, in fact, that it’s actually against the Laws of Moses. This is not how someone is supposed to treat an indentured servant who owes them a debt, to sell them and their family into chattel slaver. Okay, let that sink in, preachers don’t usually bring this up: The king’s initial behavior is against the Laws of Moses – God’s law. So, in this parable, can the king in this moment really be a stand in for the true God? Alright, so to recap: The king’s generosity is outrageous. What the man owes is outrageous, if we treat the sum as a debt. When he can’t pay, the king’s initial punishment is outrageous. This is what happens when we are locked in in the harsh terms of a transaction. But when the slave humbles himself and begs forgiveness – then the two of them seem to step into the Jubilee Way – The king is moved by compassion, his heart frees up into the realm of mercy: He releases the man from his outrageous debt and the outrageous terms of punishment. This could have been the end of the story, in which case it would be like the Prodigal Son. But this particular man, we discover, does not let his heart get freed up by this experience of outrageous forgiveness – he doesn’t truly receive this mercy, he does not enter on the Jubilee Way. Instead… he comes upon a fellow slave who owes him a pittance. The man is outrageously violent towards his debtor, the debtor begs for mercy, but the man is merciless and throws him in prison. Everyone else is outraged by this, and they tell the king. We are now off the Jubilee Way. The king is now as merciless as the man is. Notice that the king’s punishment is not as severe what he initially threatened. Instead, the punishment the man receives is in proportion to the punishment he gives. Imprisonment. He has become locked into the logic of debt and punishment. He did not let mercy free him. The result is like imprisonment.
There’s a story about two soldiers who were prisoners of war together. They were freed and came home and they stay in touch and help each other out. One man manages to lead a more or less healthy life. The other has a lot of destruction and chaos and anger in his life.
Years later the first veteran asks the other: “Have you forgiven our captors yet?” The other guys says, “Hell no!” The first says, “Well, then they still have you in prison.”
“So, also, will my heavenly Abba do to you, unless each one of you forgives your sibling from your heart.” These stories show that when it comes to moral debt and punishment, it’s like we get the kind of god we worship – the kind of god we actually believe in and a actually worship in our thoughts and our deeds. If we live by an economy of grievance and retribution, that economy will punish us, lock us in like a vengeful god. But if we let God’s mercy free us to walk on the Jubilee Way – well, then we may go in peace.
What’s the true nature of God here? Mercy. But we do not know that nature of God unless we know that mercy.
I’ll close with a little story of my own testimony. I was feeling really guilty about something. I fell on my knees and prayed to God, “I’m sorry, God. I’m sorry.” Immediately the message came: “You don’t need to apologize to me. Apologize to yourself.” I was immediately aware of how I had been hurting myself, and using the idea of my guilt before a judgmental God to just further the hurt. Mercy and love washed over me and through me. This, I am convinced, is a deeper nature of God. When we know this mercy and walk in the Jubilee Way, we can know peace.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered March 24, 2019, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)