Tag Archives: Forgiveness

Matthew 18: 21-35 A Forgiving King and Community

By Domenico Fetti – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=150920

Matthew 18: 21-35

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 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. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 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.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 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. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

This parable is unique to Matthew’s gospel but is well known as the parable of the unforgiving servant (or slave). In the individualistic culture of modernity it is natural that we focus primarily on this one slave who has an incredible debt forgiven, but the placement of this parable within a chapter that is focused on forgiveness and reconciliation within a community setting should alert us that something beyond an individualistic interpretation which neglects the surrounding community is insufficient. In Matthew individual actions and communal responsibility go together just like forgiveness of sins/trespasses and the forgiveness of economic debts. We have already seen Jesus model for the disciples in Matthew 6: 12-15 where in the Lord’s prayer the disciple asks for God to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtor.” And follows this with, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.” In response to Peter’s question about forgiveness these statements are given narrative form in the parable.

Peter’s question, narratively prompted by the practices of reconciliation with a member of the community of Christ who sins against another member, about the limits of forgiveness and Jesus’ response about the expansiveness of forgiveness provide the foundation for the world of the parable. Peter’s question of limits is a practical one in discerning when a fellow member of the community is beyond redemption, when a lost sheep should remain lost of a fellow member be perpetually condemned as a Gentile and tax collector. Jesus’ answer invokes the figure of Lamech and stands in direct opposition to Lamech’s way of retaliation:

Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech listen to what I say: I have killed a young man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4: 23-24)

Lamech, the descendant of Cain, responds to violence with greater violence, Jesus responds to sin and violence with the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation. As David Garland can state, “Under Lamech there was no limit to hatred and revenge; under Moses it was limited to an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life; under Jesus there is no limit to love, forgiveness, and mercy.” (Garland, 2001, p. 197)

Entering the parable, we have the kingdom of heaven placed alongside a king settling accounts with his slaves. Although the slavery imagined in this parable is different from slavery as it was practiced in the United States, the people ordered by the king are not merely servants who are bound by an economic arrangement that either party could terminate. The slave, their relationships and their property are ultimately the property of this king who has the power, as we will see in the parable, to dispose of as he sees fit. On the other hand, this king delegates incredible economic authority, and presumably power as well, to the first slave in particular. In settling accounts (literally settling words) with the slaves of the king only one debtor is significant enough to bear mention for the story. We can become fixated on how to communicate the value of 10,000 talents, but both the word for 10,000 is like seventy times seven, a number too high to account for and the unit of measure, a talent, is too large for most of Jesus’ hearers to ever possess. As M. Eugene Boring can state:

A talent is the largest monetary unit (20.4 kg of silver), equal to 6,000 drachmas, the wages of a manual laborer for fifteen years. “Ten thousand” (mupia,j myrias, “myriad”) is the largest possible number. Thus the combination is the largest figure that can be given. The annual tax income of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents per year. Ten thousand talents would exceed the taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria. The amount is fantastic, beyond all calculation. (NIB VIII: 382)

For Matthew debt and sin are closely related and so it is a short jump from a question of forgiveness of sin to a narrative where an unpayable debt is owed and forgiveness is granted on account of compassion and mercy. In the narrative the king is entitled to sell of the slave, his family, and his possessions to regain as much of the impossible amount that this slave is unable to pay back. The slave prostrates himself and asks for patience, the king responds with compassion and grants a release from the loan and from the impending punishment of himself and his family.

The first slave forgiven the impossible debt then encounters another slave who is indebted to him for a realistic and repayable amount (1/600,000 of the forgiven debt if one wants to be literal). The violence of the forgiven slave’s action towards the debtor where he grabs him and is choking him as he makes his demand for repayment stands in contrast to the king’s summoning. While in the world of court political intrigue where the forgiven slave is attempting to reassert power over his subordinates may make sense in a normal kingdom (Carter, 2005, p. 373) it is anathema to the kingdom of heaven. It is helpful to remember that a parable is a narrative world based upon but not dependent upon a concrete reality, a real king or an earthly kingdom. The forgiven slave claims a power the king did not use initially, the power of violence and threat, the power to imprison and demand. The still indebted and choked slave responds to the assaulting slave with the exact stance and words used before the king, asking not for forgiveness but time. Yet, this former debtor shows no patience or mercy to the current debtor. Instead he imprisons him, perhaps to demonstrate his own power or to sooth his own ego. Regardless of the reason it impacts the community of those who serve the king.

The community knows what has happened in its midst, it grieves exceedingly the violence and injustice done to one of their own. In their grief they report it to their lord, hoping that their lord will intervene. The slaves of the king are heard and noticed, and this type of activity within the king’s reign, especially in light of the previous forgiveness, is unacceptable. The king’s will is to show mercy and to have mercy shown (perhaps a strange king but what normal king is like the kingdom of heaven). It is necessary to forgive others as one has been forgiven in this community. The forgiven slave may have a claim on the slave indebted to him, but the king of both has the final claim. The king finally responds to the previously forgiven slave in the same manner he responded to his debtor.

Some modern interpreters and many modern Christians are troubled by a God who judges. We may either believe in the distant god of modernity which is an unmoved mover, or we may imagine a god whose love excludes punishment of any kind. Neither of these gods are the God we encounter in scripture. God does take sides and God does judge and this is a corollary of God’s love for God’s people and the creation not in opposition to it. A community committed to reconciliation and doing the hard work of advocating and including lost sheep, Gentiles and tax collectors and debtors is an alternative to the ways of power in the world. The kingdom of heaven is not like a regular king, but a forgiving one. At the same time, it is still better for a millstone to be hung around the neck of those who place barriers for the little ones of the kingdom for God judges what the community cannot. The community of Christ may have the hard work of binding and loosing on earth, and God values that work, but it is always directed towards a community of forgiveness and mercy. Just as Christ is present where two or three are gathered, so the community’s cries when an individual or group does not practice forgiveness are heard by their heavenly Father. There is an edge to God’s dwelling with the community that does not practice the life God calls them to. This is the edge in the prophets’ voices as they spoke to Israel when they did not live in accordance with God’s covenant for them and this is the edge of the parable when a community or individual does not forgive as they have been forgiven.

 

Matthew 18: 15-20 A Reconciling Community

James Tissot, The Exhortation to the Apostles (between 1886 and 1894)

Matthew 18: 15-20

15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

This short passage, unique to Matthew’s gospel, has exercised a powerful influence on the shaping of church practices and understandings. In five short verses we have the background of the church’s practice of excommunication, a second reiteration of the ability to bind and loose, and the promise of Christ’s presence where two or three are gathered. Our understanding of these verses is often locked into our understanding of church as it exists two thousand years after Jesus’ life with all its accumulated traditions and practices. Every act of interpretation is an act of imagining the context in which these words were spoken to an early community of disciples attempting to enact the assembly that Jesus calls into being with his words and presence. Yet, for Matthew more than any other gospel, the formation of a community that can embody Jesus’ vision for the kingdom of heaven in their proclamation and life together is an important feature.

When we use the term church to translate the Greek ekklesia it ensures that most readers will bring to this reading their concrete experiences of church and their intellectual and emotional baggage that the term may carry. Ekklessia in the Greco-Roman environment is typically an, “assembly, as a regularly summoned political body” or when used in the Septuagint to talk about the gathered community of the Israelites is typically the “congregation” of the Israelites. (BAGD, p.241) Matthew’s understanding of the ekklesia taking on the role of Israel on behalf of the world probably leads to ‘congregation’ being a better term, but that is also associated in modern times with the experience of church. Ultimately for the purposes of this I would translate this as the ‘congregation of Christ’ or ‘the assembly of Christ’ hopefully calling attention to the unique nature of this community in relation to the world around it and its distinction from our experience and understanding of ‘church.’

In the church the historical practice of excommunication was used to enforce the boundaries of the church, to exclude those who by beliefs or practices were felt to be a danger to the right worship of Christ. Unfortunately, the manner in which it has often been practiced in the life of the church was centered upon exclusion rather than reconciliation which is the direction of Matthew 18. The congregation of Christ that Matthew speaks to does have the difficult task of holding a brother or sister accountable for their actions towards an individual or the community. The imperative to act is placed upon the one who perceives they have been sinned against. Here the action is against a one person, and the initial response is for the individual to point out the fault while they are alone.

The action of bringing the action of the brother or sister to light in a way that encourages reconciliation and forgiveness is countercultural in our society of shame and blame. This is a courageous action which hopes for healing, rather than an identification of faults for the sake of exercising power over the individual or to justify their exclusion. The entire direction of this fourth block of teaching is directed towards forgiveness and reconciliation, the hope that the lost sheep might be rejoined to the flock. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say as he tried to re-imagine a community of Christ in Life Together:

Nothing can be more cruel than that leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than that severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin. (DBWE 5: 105)

This community called into existence by Christ is called to practice a way of life that can hold another brother or sister accountable for their actions and let them know that by their actions they are walking outside the way of the community of Christ in the hope of repentance and reconciliation between the one whose sin has placed a stumbling block before others in the community.

The one who is sinned against had the responsibility to bring the action to light, but this also requires a community that supports this practice of accountability. Just like the owner of the sheep who realizes that one of their flock has gone astray, so the individual who realizes a brother or sister has sinned goes to seek them and to try to heal the brokenness. Yet, just as there is the possibility that a sheep may not be found, there is the possibility that a sinner will not change; but the community bears responsibility for providing them every opportunity for repentance and reconciliation. If one on one the reproving is not received, then they are to go as a group of two or three. This parallels the requirements in Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15 where the evidence of two or three witnesses is required to sustain the punishment or exclusion from the community (by death in Deuteronomy 17). Matthew’s community may not practice the death penalty, but it is attempting to figure out how it can model a society based upon a merciful reading of the law. If even in the presence of witnesses the person refuses to hear reproving, then the matter is brought before the congregation for an additional opportunity at public reconciliation. It is now the congregation of Christ that bears the power to receive or release the individual from the community, they can declare that one is no longer living in accordance with the congregation and are therefore an outsider who would need to be evangelized and repent before being considered a brother or sister once more. The congregation bears this authority because of Christ’s presence among the congregation.

As I argued in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew is trying to articulate a community of Jesus followers who can live and hand on Jesus’ teaching. As Richard B. Hays can state: “There can be no question here of a purely individualized spiritual formation. Matthew is strongly ecclesially oriented.” (Hays, 1996, p. 97) This community is always oriented towards forgiveness. Yet, it is a community that cares enough to declare some actions as inappropriate and scandalous towards the little ones of the community of Christ. It is a place that is an alternative to the practices of the kingdoms of the world and provides a place where forgiveness can be learned, and courage is practiced as sins are named and sinners have an opportunity for reconciliation.

The gospel of Matthew begins and ends by referring to Jesus as Emmanuel, ‘God with us’ and here within the guidance about life in the community of Christ the reference to Jesus’ presence among the gathered community is highlighted once more. In Matthew 1:23 the narrator uses the name Emmanuel to introduce Jesus’ coming birth and here in this passage we have Jesus promising for the first time his continued presence among the congregation of Christ (this theme returns at the end of the gospel). There is an oft noted parallel teachings in the Rabbinical Jewish tradition where the rabbis state: “But if two sit together and the words between them are of Torah, then the Shekinah[1] is in their midst.” (m. Aboth 3:2) The community of Christ gathered around Jesus’ words experiences the presence of God in the way the rabbis expected of observant Jews gathered around Torah. This is heightened when one anticipates Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24:35 where, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” and that passage’s connection to Isaiah 40:7-8,

The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

There is a theological boldness to the claiming in a manner parallel to God’s words not fading, Christ’s words will not fade, and that as God’s Shekinah is present in the gathering around Torah, the community gathered around Jesus’ words for discernment shares the presence of Jesus in their midst. The formation of a community of Christ that can both name sins that are committed and practice reconciliation is a community that will later be called to make disciples of not only the little ones of Israel, but all nations, handing on all that they have been commanded. Yet, they go in the presence of the Jesus who is with them always.

[1] The Shekinah is from the Jewish word for ‘settle’ or ‘dwell’ and while not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures is an idea in rabbinic writing that refers to the presence of God among God’s people. It can refer to the presence of God in the temple, but also as here to God’s presence in the midst of the studying of Torah, also in prayer, in judging, in relationships and in times of need.

Matthew 18: 12-14 The Parable of the Lost Sheep

Lamb By © Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1377638

Matthew 18: 12-14

Parallel Luke 15: 3-7

12 What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.

This short little parable is placed here in the midst of the discussion of the community Christ is imagining for those who will follow him and it demonstrates the continuing concern for the little ones who may be ‘scandalized’ and lost to the community. Both Matthew and Luke use this brief illustration of a flock of sheep with one missing whom the master of the sheep seeks out and rejoices over, but their placement of this parable within the context of the gospel and the structure of the surrounding text are used to illustrate different points. In Luke’s gospel, this parable is the first of three familiar parables which answer the accusation that Jesus, “eats with sinners and tax collectors” and through stories of a lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son Jesus points to the joy in heaven over a sinner repenting and a child returning home. In Matthew’s gospel the primary issue is the finding of one lost to the community and it is set within parables and teaching about reconciliation and it is paired with two different parables about unforgiving servants and ungrateful workers.[1]  For Luke this parable is used to explain to outsiders the inclusive nature of the community of Christ, in Matthew the parable reminds insiders of their continual need to seek out those led astray and to welcome them home with forgiveness and rejoicing.

In the parable a person has a hundred sheep. It is important that the person is not labeled as a shepherd in the original Greek but is ‘a certain person’ having 100 sheep. The person is not merely the ‘caretaker’ of someone else’s flock but they both own and are present with the flock.  Most translations tidy up the parable to indicate that the missing sheep has ‘gone astray’ but the Greek plano has the primary meaning of being led astray or deceived, this is language unique but important to Matthew’s narration of this parable, especially sandwiched between a discussion of those who ‘scandalize’ the little ones by their actions and the upcoming discussions on forgiveness and reconciliation. The sheep has not merely wandered off, but has actively been deceived or mislead to be away from the remainder of the 99. Likewise the action of the owner of the flock is not merely leaving the ninety nine on the mountain, but the Greek aphimi has the connotation of abandoning and the act of leaving behind the majority of one’s sheep to search for the lost one who might be found would not be a normal action for a person caring for a flock but this again demonstrates the point of the parable, that the one rejoiced over in the kingdom of heaven is the little one who was lost and regained.

Even though the owner of the sheep in the parable values the restoration of the lost one, in Matthew’s relation of this parable there is no guarantee that the lost one is regained. While Luke’s parables states ‘when’ the owner finds the sheep, Matthew says ‘if’ leaving the possibility that even with the owner’s search the led astray sheep may not be recovered, just as an corrected member may not accept correction in the following section. Matthew’s placement of this parable within a discussion of relations between members in the church and the continual emphasis on reconciliation and forgiveness can realistically acknowledge the danger that a little one can be led astray by the actions of those inside or beyond the community, but the hope is always for restoration. The lost little one restored is the source of joy of the owner and the will of the heavenly Father.

Amy-Jill Levine points to a midrashic text which has an interesting resonance to this parable. In Exodus Rabbah, Moses is shown as a paradigm of what it means to care for a flock. The story in Exodus Rabbah states:

The Holy One tested Moses by means of the flock, as our rabbis explained: when Moses rabbenu (Moses our teacher) was tending Jethro’s flock in the wilderness, a lamb scampered off, and Moses followed it, until it approached a shelter under a rock. As the lamb reached the shelter, it came upon a pool of water and stopped to drink. When Moses caught up with it, he said, “I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty. Now you must be tired.” So he hoisted the lamb on his shoulders and started walking back with it. The Holy One then said, “Because you showed such compassion in tending the flock of a mortal, as you live, you shall become the shepherd of Israel, the flock that is mine.” (Levine, 2014, pp. 43-44)

Matthew’s placement of this parable in the context of discussions of the community that will be shaped by the message of Jesus, the ekklesia (often translated church) indicates the stance of compassion that God has for those who have been led astray. This also should is to shape the response of those called to participation in this community and the compassion they are to have for the little ones who are led astray. When possible they are to be restored and that restoration is to be greeted with joy. Restoration may not always be possible, but the owner of the flock is willing to leave behind the majority to seek the sheep who is missing. Leaders in this ekklesia are to model the compassion of Moses in the parable above and the compassion for the little ones who trust in him that Jesus shows throughout his teaching. If the owner of the flock will abandon the herd to search for the lost one, those who shepherd the flock are called to practice this type of care for those they guide. Throughout Matthew’s gospel and throughout most of scripture there is always an opportunity for repentance and reconciliation. Sometimes the led astray little one may need to repent and sometimes the individual or community that allowed a stumbling block to be placed before the little one will need to repent so they can participate in the joy over the reconciliation between the lost little one and the remainder of the flock.

[1] As mentioned in the previous sections I view Matthew 18: 1-20:28 as a unit structurally. Many scholars end this unit at 19:1 with “When Jesus had finished saying these things…” but I view the section beginning and ending with questions of ‘the greatest in the kingdom’ and it also includes Matthew’s (and Mark’s and Luke’s) normal pattern of groups of three parables which center around a common theme.

Matthew 9: 9-13 The Nature of Discipleship Part 2A

Carvaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600)

Matthew 9: 9-13

Parallels Mark 2: 13-17, Luke 5: 27-32

 9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Matthew composes his gospel for both the scribes who can read and the hearers who hear, and while we have lost the sensitivity to the rhythmic patterns that Matthew uses (especially when we break it up into small sections like is frequently done in worship) it is a skill that can be learned. Like a composer using a set of triplets to set up the following note (think for example of the beginning of Beethoven’s fifth symphony) and what comes before prepares us for what happens next. This interweaving of the narratives that highlight the identity and authority of Jesus with narratives that highlight what it means to follow Jesus prepare us for the next major block of instruction in chapter ten and connect us back to the Sermon on the Mount.

We are finally introduced to the disciple whose name is associated with this gospel, Matthew. Matthew’s name in Greek (Matthion) is closely related to the word translated followed him in verse 9 and disciples in verse 11 (mathetais) as well as the word translated learn in verse 13 (mathete). Ultimately a disciple is a learner, pupil or student of master who learn by listening and by following. Just as the name Matthew for the gospel gives us a clue of the purpose of the gospel, to form followers and learners from Jesus, also here in this central reflection on the nature of discipleship we continue to learn not only what it means to follow Jesus, but who our fellow followers might be. I’ve argued earlier in the Sermon on Mount against a perfectionistic reading of Jesus’ first sermon, here we find tax collectors and sinners reclining at the table with Jesus while the Pharisees protest this arrangement.

Matthew as a skilled editor places this text immediately following a story where Jesus has demonstrated he has the power to forgive sins. Jesus has authority over the elements, over the demons and over sins, stepping into a role that was presided over by the priests in the temple. Jesus claims for himself authority that the priests in the sacrificial system had mediated for the people of God. The sacrificial system was originally intended to be a means of reconciliation between God and the people and a way of restoring relationships within the community. Yet, we see in this story that there are those who by their vocation of by some previous action have been excluded from the reconciliation that the temple was to mediate. Matthew and the fellow tax collectors and sinners are those who, like the leper in Matthew 8: 1-4, would be assumed to be unclean and like the Centurion in 8: 5-13 would be viewed as emmisaries of a hostile empire. Any religious group has the potential to become exclusive with the insiders composing the righteous and the outsides consisting of the ‘sinners’ and yet we are encountering in Matthew a different understanding of what righteousness will consist of than the Pharisees or even the disciples of John the Baptist would conceive.

Matthew quotes Hosea 6:6 twice, once here and later in Matthew 12:1-8 in the context of plucking grain on the Sabbath. In both places we encounter one whose role is greater than the role of the temple. Jesus invites Matthew, and the other tax collectors and sinners to recline with him at the table, to break bread with them and invite them into the circle of followers invited to the banquet. The removal of the barrier for the sinners and tax collectors to gather with Jesus raises concerns among some other watchers of Jesus.

The Pharisees in this text refer to Jesus as ‘teacher’ like the scribe in Matthew 8: 19, and as I mentioned in discussing that scribe, when someone refers to Jesus as teacher in Matthew they are almost always challenging his authority. These Pharisees probably believe that one who shares bread with sinners becomes like them. They may point to a text like Proverbs 4: 14-17

14 Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of evildoers. 15 Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on. 16 For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble. 17 For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.

But the way of interpreting scripture and the meaning of righteousness that Jesus embodies centers around mercy, and the use of Hosea 6:6 becomes a key verse to understanding the practices of Jesus. Jesus who has authority to forgive the sins of the paralytic has authority to welcome the sinner who is forgiveable. Jesus who can heal Peter’s mother-in-law, the paralytic, the Centurion’s child, and the Gadarene demoniacs is the physician who can heal the sick (literally the bad/evil ones, Greek kakoos). This the cumulative effect of this narrative in the string of preceding stories illuminates a different way of perceiving the relationship between God and those who have been excluded. As Richard B. Hays can state:

Thus, if the Pharisees go to learn what Hosea 6:6 means, they will need to read more than one verse. Once they search the wider context of God’s scriptural intentions, they will find there, in the midst of a judgment oracle against the people, a call for repentance and a portrayal of a merciful God who wants his people to show mercy, not contempt to those who have gone astray. (Hays, 2016, p. 126)

This merciful reading of scripture points to a merciful God welcoming those who have gone astray. Righteousness is not a perfectionistic bar which sinners and tax collectors can never clear, but instead is an invitation to be a part of a community of disciples like Matthew who recline with Jesus around the table amazed at their inclusion in this community of learners who are learning that it is blessed to be merciful because they to have received mercy.

Matthew 6: 5-15 Exploring Prayer, Forgiveness and Righteousness

James Tissot, The Lord’s Prayer (1896-1894)

Matthew 6: 5-15

Parallels : Mark 11: 25-26, Luke 11: 1-4

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

9 “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. 

This second practice of righteousness is prayer, but the prayer is between the disciple and their heavenly Father and is not done to either impress the surrounding community or God with their piety or eloquence. As mentioned above, the righteousness that we are encountering in Matthew has little to do with the way we often think of religious piety. Instead it is based upon the security of the individual and the community in their covenant with their heavenly Father. The disciple’s actions may be done in secret, but the community who trusts in God’s provision and attention will be visible.

Jesus, like the law, the prophets and psalmists, viewed the relationship between the people and God as founded on their righteousness as practiced in mercy toward their neighbors and prayer is an important part of maintaining that relationship. As Samuel Ballentine when writing about prayer in the Hebrew Scriptures can state:

prayer is a principal means of keeping the community bound to God in an ongoing dialogue of faith. I suggest that the church is summoned to a ministry that both promotes and enables this dialogue. (Ballentine, 1993, p. 275)

Prayer is, in Ballentine’s language, “a service of the heart” which breaks into the mundane reality of daily life with the presence of the sacred. (Ballentine, 1993, p. 274) Prayer can happen in the public places, the synagogue and the street corners for example, and prayer led in the community has a long-standing place within the community’s worship. Yet, the community is made up of disciples who can also have the private and unseen places interrupted as the language of the heart encounters the heavenly Father who knows the needs of the heart.

Instead of prayer being fashioned around rubrics and phrases that are piled one upon another, prayer for the followers of Jesus is simple because it lifts up to God what God already knows. One is not in prayer to appease a god with one’s eloquence or to impress the divine with one’s piety, for with the heavenly Father one’s righteousness is already seen. It is not for public display and recognition, but this wise prayer recognizes and honors the already existing relationship between the disciple and their God who sees.

The Lord’s Prayer, as given in the gospels, is slightly different than most Protestant Christians learned through worship. The most notable difference is the deletion of the final phrases about “the kingdom and the power and the glory” being God’s. Ultimately this change comes from the tools available to scholars and translators that were not available when the influential King James Version, and other early English translations were produced. The King James version of the Bible used a simple majority of early texts to determine what was translated, while later translations (like the NRSV which I’m using as a basis for this reading) are able to use technologies like carbon dating to determine the age of a manuscript and privilege the oldest manuscripts. It appears that the addition of the phrases attributing glory to God appear later and are then incorporated into later copies of the gospels, perhaps reflecting an already existing practice in the early church.

The language of this prayer is familiar to most Christians, addressing God as the heavenly Father and asking God to make holy the name of God. From a scriptural perspective there is the commandment that the people of God are not to profane the name of God, but the relationship also allows the one praying or in dialogue with God to declare than an action by God would bring God’s name dishonor. For example, during the dialogue between God and Moses after the construction of the golden calf by Israel, Moses’ appeal to God not to destroy the people hangs upon this understanding:

Moses appeals to God’s own character by reminding God that God has already taken an oath (v. 13: nisba’ta lahem bak, “You have sworn to them by your own self”), the violation of which would jeopardize trust in the divine character. (Ballentine, 1993, p. 138)

The book of Psalms and Jeremiah also frequently uses this tactic in appealing to God to act in accordance with maintaining the sanctity of God’s name and honor.

The prayer continues with the prayer for the coming of the kingdom of heaven where God’s will is done on earth as well. The community and the disciple trust in God for the provision of the things they need. Like the people of Israel in the wilderness, where God provided mana, now the followers of Jesus can trust that God will provide the bread they need, even when their physical ability to provide resources is unable to sustain the crowds that gather around Jesus (see for example Matthew 14: 13-21 and Matthew 15: 32-39).

Forgiveness is lifted up within the prayer and immediately following the prayer and in both occurrences divine forgiveness and the practice of forgiving others is linked.  The link with the Apocryphal book of Sirach (sometimes called the Wisdom of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus) is often noted:

Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. (Sirach 28:2)

While Jesus and Matthew may or may not have been familiar with the book of Sirach, both are pulling on a long tradition of wisdom literature interpreting both law and righteousness to the hearer, and here the wise and righteous one forgives the neighbor in the context of prayer and in their actions. The practice of forgiving debts goes back to the practice of remitting debts every seventh year (see Deuteronomy 15: 1-18). Additionally, it is important to note that in Matthew both the practice of forgiving economic debts (see also Matthew 18: 23-35) and trespasses (wrongdoing or sin, see also Matthew 18: 21-22 where a question about forgiving sin is answered with a parable about economic justice). Both cases, economic and trespasses link the disciple’s forgiveness with their reception of divine forgiveness. This is a community where justice is practiced, but the merciful receive mercy (Matthew 5:7). Ultimately a community where reconciliation is practiced, and anger is addressed will need to be a community of forgiving disciples.

Finally, the prayer concludes with a prayer not to be brought to the time of testing and deliverance from the evil one. The disciple’s life rests in their heavenly Father’s hands and it is God who can deliver them in the times when their trust in God is tested. Following Jesus may involve suffering, but that does not mean that one prays for that suffering to enter one’s life. The presence of the evil one is assumed throughout Matthew. The devil and those who are actively or passively working for him will resist the approach of the kingdom of their heavenly Father.  Ultimately God is the one who can deliver from both temptation and the evil one.

Prayer and forgiveness, along with acts of mercy (almsgiving) are all ways in which righteousness is practiced for the individual within the community of the faithful. It is a community where thoughts and prayers are also surrounded by actions of justice and personal piety involves commitment to the good of the neighbors in the community. It is a place where the kingdom of heaven approaches the community of the faithful and God’s will is done in these places where earth and heaven meet. Prayer and forgiveness are practiced as a part of the relationship between the God of the disciples and the community they share. Everything is done in the confidence of God’s provision for the needs of the community as a whole and the disciples as individuals. The heavenly Father is the one they trust to rescue them from the temptation and persecution they will encounter.

Psalm 38 A Cry for Forgiveness and Healing

Psalm 38

<A Psalm of David, for the memorial offering.>
1 O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath.
2 For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me.
3 There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin.
4 For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.
5 My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness;
6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all day long I go around mourning.
7 For my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh.
8 I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
9 O Lord, all my longing is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you.
10 My heart throbs, my strength fails me; as for the light of my eyes — it also has gone from me.
11 My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction, and my neighbors stand far off.
12 Those who seek my life lay their snares; those who seek to hurt me speak of ruin, and meditate treachery all day long.
13 But I am like the deaf, I do not hear; like the mute, who cannot speak.
14 Truly, I am like one who does not hear, and in whose mouth is no retort.
15 But it is for you, O LORD, that I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.
16 For I pray, “Only do not let them rejoice over me, those who boast against me when my foot slips.”
17 For I am ready to fall, and my pain is ever with me.
18 I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.
19 Those who are my foes without cause are mighty, and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
20 Those who render me evil for good are my adversaries because I follow after good.
21 Do not forsake me, O LORD; O my God, do not be far from me;
22 make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation.

This is a song for a broken heart, a broken body or a broken spirit. The psalm cries to the LORD for mercy, for reconciliation and for renewed presence. We never hear in this psalm the sin which the author believes they are suffering from but this sin which is mentioned but never named is the perceived cause of the psalmist’s suffering. Something has come between the singer of these words and the LORD whom they cry out to. Something has, in the poet’s mind, caused God to turn away in anger and indignation. Something they believe has caused God’s disposition to them to change dramatically. They are no longer at peace with God. Their relationship with their creator has been fractured and they stand in the position of helplessness and weakness. They feel the weight of God’s judgment and perhaps their own as well upon them.

 While there is no easy or direct correlation between sin and sickness in the bible, the psalmist’s cries do ponder a connection between their physical, emotional and spiritual health. Sin can cause suffering in body and mind and the feeling of abandonment or shame can manifest in physical and emotional ways. While the psalmist language is probably in some senses metaphorical it doesn’t mean that the language of the psalm doesn’t base itself upon the actual pain that the psalmist feels. As Beth Tanner can say, “The burden of sin burns inside, and the whole body feels the strain (v.7) The insides feel faint, and the spirit is crushed (v.8); even if quiet on the outside the mind roars over the torment in one’s heart (v.8)” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 358) The poet has something they feel intensely that has separated them from the protection and provision of their God, some unspoken sin that is seen by God and makes itself known in their body and spirit. They stand in need of forgiveness and reconciliation which will also begin the healing of their mind and flesh.

The poet’s plight is heightened by the distance and judgment they now feel from their community. Friends and neighbors who one relies upon now stand at a distance. Perhaps they feel like a leper who is cut off from the community for fear of contagion or perhaps, like the friends in Job’s narrative, the neighbors and friend have decided the sickness must be a judgment of God. Friends and neighbors stand aside while enemies perceive an opportunity. The weakness of the psalmist becomes a reason for their increased isolation from the community which they also rely upon. They have no words to answer the whispers they imagine being spoken of them as the lie (actually or metaphorically) prostrate and crushed unable to rise.

Though God may have turned away in indignation, at least in the psalmist’s perception, and they feel that God is just in God’s anger they plead for mercy and restoration. They trust that God will not ultimately forsake them. They have reached the point where they are ready to let go of the sin they conceal in their breast and the burden they have carried. They wait upon the LORD for their strength to be renewed. The psalm ends with the cry for the LORD’s steadfast love to overcome the indignation rightly felt. Where the poet feels distance from God and community they call for God’s return and healing. They call out in urgency for their case is dire. They end with the cry for their salvation and we, with the psalmist, enter their time of waiting for the LORD’s action.

Psalm 32- A Psalm of Restoration

Sunrise on Halekulani, image from https://www.halekulani.com/packages/sunrise

Psalm 32

<Of David. A Maskil.>
1 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
2 Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah
6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah
8 I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
9 Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
10 Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.
11 Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

This Psalm has often been categorized as a psalm of penitence but it would probably be better to think of this as a psalm of restoration or a psalm of grace. This psalm deals with forgiveness and the difference between carrying around a hidden sin and the freedom of that sin being confessed and forgiven by the LORD. The psalm begins, like Psalm 1, with the declaration that happy are those (the Hebrew word ‘aŝrê translated as happy has the connotation of blessed and is probably the Hebrew idea that Jesus would use in the Sermon on the Mount to express blessedness). The psalmist begins with two beatitudes declaring that the one who is forgiven and the one who the LORD does not declare immoral or wicked. Here the LORD is the one who covers the sin of the person, where the same word translated as hide in verse five talks about the individual covering up their sin. The psalm puts before the hearer the choice of the freedom of the LORD hiding the transgression and the bondage of hiding the transgression within oneself.

Verses three and four poetically describe the experience of hiding one’s iniquity within oneself. There is a physical and a psychological impact for the psalmist of this sin which they hold inside and the conceal from God and the world. There is a weight that the poet carries, a weariness that saps their energy and strength, a consuming silence that they have imposed on themselves which is slowly consuming them. The weight of the guilt becomes too great and the psalmist moves to the moment of confession where they are immediately set free. They dwell on the impact of the sin hidden, but God’s action at the sin confessed is quick and immediate in the psalm, “and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

There is no movement of penitence, no assigned task of making the relationship right between the sinner and their God, the forgiveness is sudden, graceful and complete. We don’t know the sin that the psalmist confesses but we do sense the joy of the restored relationship in the poetic joy that follows the action of forgiveness. The reception of forgiveness becomes the reason the writer encourages faithful prayer and has a renewed sense of the LORD as their safe place and refuge. Whether the psalmist becomes a teacher giving a proverb in verse eight and nine or perhaps the voice changes to God’s voice, but either way there is a new chance to go in the correct paths without the need for harsh correction or guidance. The psalmist doesn’t need to be led like an animal ridden or pulling a cart for they are now free in their relationship. They are once again among the righteous for their iniquity has been hidden away by God. They now stand in the place of trusting the LORD and they rejoice at the restoration they have felt and received, in the gracious place they now stand within and the forgiveness given once their sin was no longer concealed by them. As Beth Tanner can state, “Just as in Psalm 1, this psalm makes a way of life outside of trust in God the foolish choice. Really, would you rather drag around all your sorrows or be surrounded at all times by God’s hesed? There hardly seems to be a choice at all” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 309) While Psalm 1 presents a choice between the way of the righteous and the wicked, Psalm 32 presents us with the choice between guilt and forgiveness. Within the world of this gracious psalm of restoration the choice is clear.

Exodus 32: The Golden Calf Threatens the Covenant

 Exodus 32: 1-6 The People Ask for Gods

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” 6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

Being the people of God involves learning patience: patience with the LORD and patience with the leaders who mediate between the people and their God. While Moses has been up with the LORD receiving the instructions for the tabernacle where God can dwell among the people, the people and Aaron go against the covenant they have made and cast the golden calf and prepare to worship it. This is a pivotal scene in the relationship between the people and God. The covenant has been broken by the people and the next couple chapters must reconcile the brokenness of relationship between God and the people.

The people heard the prohibition of creating an idol at the head of the decalogue in Exodus 20 and in Exodus 24 they sealed the covenant ritually as the people when the blood of the sacrificed oxen was dashed on them. The people have heard the LORD’s commandments and agreed to them and yet the absence of Moses creates a crisis of faith for them. Whether the cast image of the calf was meant to represent the LORD the God of Israel whose voice they had heard or whether the calf is not clear, it could be read either way. In either case the people have either, with Aaron the high priest’s assistance, abandoned the LORD their God or attempted to make an image for the God who refuses to be limited to any image on the earth or above the earth or under the earth.

One of the threads in this reading is control. The people and Aaron want an image for god, something they can carry and use as a symbol but there is also a limiting function to having a god in the image of a calf or any other form. Yet, fundamentally the LORD refuses to be limited or controlled by an image. Images of the LORD or any other god were not to be made by the Israelites, even the name of the LORD was only spoken in the greatest of care. From chapters 25-31 we have seen how God has worked with Moses to set aside a space where a little bit of heaven can come down to earth and where the LORD would meet with the people. In contrast the people have attempted to create an earthly god to replace the LORD of heaven and earth.

The golden calf is an incredible resonant image. It can become in any age and time the safe gods we choose instead of the LORD the God of Israel that Exodus presents us with. Even in our time the image continues to hold power. It is perhaps the height of irony that the largest amount paid to a living author for a piece of art was to Damien Hirst for ‘the Golden Calf’ a week before the financial collapse of 2008. (Sacks, 2010, p. 259) During the time while the initial draft of this sat these lines were written by me:

Security may be the golden calf we sacrifice to and worship
We dance in the glow of the images of fertility and strength
Following the masses in the shadow of Sinai as they celebrate
That which they can cast and control, tame gods that don’t speak
Metallic beings of the valley rather than the master of the mountain

There will always be the temptation to worship that which we can see or to model the things we worship upon that which we value. As a religious leader there is the temptation to provide that which the crowd desires rather than to be the prophet in the uncomfortable position of standing between a wounded God and a stiff-necked people. Yet, the golden calves of every age tend to lead to our fragmenting into tribes of like-minded worshippers and sometimes to intertribal warfare like we see at the end of this chapter as Moses and the Levites attempt to bring the people back to the LORD and the LORD’s ways.

Exodus 32: 7-14 Moses Between God and the People

7 The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” 9 The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

11 But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” 14 And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Moses stands between the people and the LORD and he is the one unbroken strand in the covenant. For the LORD this is a betrayal that threatens not only the relationship of the people and their God, but a betrayal that threatens to overcome the people with God’s anger. The LORD takes this relationship seriously! There are many things that can be said about the portrayal of the LORD the God of Israel depending on one’s perspective but this God is never the enlightenment’s unmoved mover. The LORD is engaged in the redemption of the people of Israel from slavery and is invested in this people and the people’s actions can wound God emotionally. Yet, the LORD’s tie to Moses also remains strong and the LORD considers starting over with Moses and even presents this offer to Moses, the same offer that Abraham received.

Moses stands between the people and the LORD, that is where the prophet stands. In the coming verses we will see Moses’ anger but in this time before God Moses is the logical one calling to mind not only God’s honor but also God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. Moses calls upon God, even in God’s anger and grief, to honor the promises that have been made. Moses calls God back to the covenant, even though the covenant has been broken in a spectacular way by the people. Prophets stand between God and the people and God listens even when God wants to be left alone. When the LORD desires silence, for the sake of the people the prophet speak so that they might change God’s mind and avert disaster for the people.

Image from Rt. Rev. Richard Gilmour, Bible History Containing the Most Remarkable Events of the Old and New Testaments, with a Compenduim of Church History (1904)

Exodus 32: 15-24 Broken Covenant, Broken Relationships

15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant1 in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18 But he said, “It is not the sound made by victors, or the sound made by losers; it is the sound of revelers that I hear.” 19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.

21 Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” 22 And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off ‘; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

Moses risked entering the furnace of the LORD’s anger for the people but now his own anger burns hot. Moses knows the danger the people have put themselves into, he knows the consequence of the broken covenant with the LORD. He has seen not only the LORD’s hopes but his own hopes dashed in this sudden act of rebellion. The tablets, the work of God, have been made worthless by the work of the people. A broken dream and a shattered covenant. The object which Moses had waited to bring to the people now lies shattered at the base of the mountain.

The tablets are broken, the calf is destroyed and scattered on the waters for the Israelites to drink in the bitter taste of their betrayal. Yet, it is Aaron who in this moment receives Moses’ first attention. Aaron who will be the high priest of the people, whose role will be to atone for the people has been active in their betrayal. In a manner like Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, Aaron immediately attempts to deflect Moses’ anger onto the people. Yet, Moses and Aaron here are in strong contrast: Moses interceded for the people while Aaron blamed them. In one way this is oversimplified since Aaron is down the mountain with the people and feels pressured by them, yet the role of leaders is to restrain the people from a path that would lead to their destruction. Aaron minimizes his role within the creation of the golden calf (I threw the gold into the fire and out popped the calf). Atonement will need to be made for Aaron before he can make atonement for the people. The only one able to make the needed atonement is Moses.

Exodus 32: 25-35 Sin, Brokenness and Consequences

25 When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 He said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.'” 28 The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. 29 Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves1 for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.”

 30 On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will only forgive their sin — but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” 33 But the LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin.”

35 Then the LORD sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf — the one that Aaron made.

Moses and the sons of Levi violently restore order to the camp. I struggle with the violence unleashed in this scene even though I can appreciate the seriousness of the situation. For Moses this is a struggle of life or death. If order cannot be restored he knows the consequences of the LORD’s wrath continuing to burn and break out against the people. The Levites here are set aside for their future ministry in the service of the LORD. The cost of the earlier celebrations has been high indeed. This is nothing short of intertribal warfare and its conclusion determines the direction of the people of Israel.

In what, to me, is one of the most courageous scenes in the book of Exodus and perhaps in all of scriptures, Moses returns to the LORD and still stands with the people. He dares to ask God to forgive the people, but if God cannot forgive the people then Moses stands with them and asks for his own name to be removed. Moses refuses to give the LORD the option of starting over with him. There is consequence to this sin and brokenness but it is not immediate. God has turned aside from the threat of letting God’s anger consume the people, even though there is the plague which comes at the end of the chapter. There is judgment but not annihilation. The relationship and the promise of the land continue but trust has been broken and the relationship is not the same.

Deuteronomy 15: A Life of Covenant Generosity

Roman collared slaves-Marble relief from Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), 200 CE

Roman collared slaves-Marble relief from Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), 200 CE

Deuteronomy 15: 1-18 Forgiveness of Debts

1 Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. 2 And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the LORD’s remission has been proclaimed. 3 Of a foreigner you may exact it, but you must remit your claim on whatever any member of your community owes you. 4 There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the LORD is sure to bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, 5 if only you will obey the LORD your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today. 6 When the LORD your God has blessed you, as he promised you, you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you.

 7 If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. 8 You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. 9 Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt. 10 Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

12 If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free. 13 And when you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. 14 Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the LORD your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today. 16 But if he says to you, “I will not go out from you,” because he loves you and your household, since he is well off with you, 17 then you shall take an awl and thrust it through his earlobe into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. You shall do the same with regard to your female slave.

                18 Do not consider it a hardship when you send them out from you free persons, because for six years they have given you services worth the wages of hired laborers; and the LORD your God will bless you in all that you do.

 

There is a narrative that is heard frequently in some political circles and among many conservative religious groups that reflects a privatized view of reality. The belief that an individual’s prosperity is possible without any obligation to the neighbor or the safety net for the vulnerable among us. Sometimes this privatized view of reality and faith is endorsed with the idea that, “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth,” (see verse 11) or Jesus’ saying in John’s gospel, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Pastors who preach with an emphasis on social justice issues, or who advocate for legal protections for vulnerable portions of the society are often accused of being too political. And perhaps this is on my mind after seeing several of my colleagues in Houston who were brokenhearted at the failure of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance after actively working to assist with addressing some of the fear based misinformation that often was circulated by other Christian groups. Perhaps this particular ordinance may not align with what Deuteronomy 15 is talking about, but Deuteronomy’s call for a society that practices debt forgiveness is opposite of a community that can endorse a privatized view of economics or of a religion that is uninvolved in advocating on behalf of those who are economically and politically at risk.

The type of economic forgiveness that is outlined here in Deuteronomy challenges the privatized world of economic gain. The people are called to live a life that is generous towards their neighbors, lending to them and providing for them in the time of need but not allowing for people to become bondservants into perpetuity. The life of the community is not to be tied to the ability of the people to acquire more property and wealth at the neighbor’s expense or parsimoniously trying to address the need of the neighbor because a time of remission of debt is near. Their identity is tied to the story of the Exodus, they were once enslaved and were liberated by the LORD of Israel and now they are not to return to the economic system of Egypt that they were liberated from but rather are to liberate their fellow Hebrews every seventh year. Also they are not to send them out empty handed but rather to give them the resources they need to not immediately be returned into slavery.

The demands of Deuteronomy 15 were a challenge for the people of Israel to enact. The enticement of being able to secure one’s own wealth and future by increasing one’s holdings or having more slaves to bring in more agricultural produce in ancient times (or the ability to keep people perpetually indebted through high interest in many people’s lives today) are difficult issues to address. An example from the book of Jeremiah tells about the people of Judah releasing their slaves only to enslave them once again during the days leading up to the exile in Babylon (Jeremiah 34: 8-22). It is much easier to allow amnesia to set in and believe that “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” (Deuteronomy 8:17). Yet for the people of Israel, and Christians who are also bearers of this story and message it is the LORD who provides. As the Lord’s Prayer can remind us we are to forgive our debtors as we want our debts to be forgiven.

What does this look like in a contemporary secular setting? This is a challenging question since the society that Deuteronomy envisions is not a secular society but a unified society where the people shared in a common covenantal identity. But perhaps in the secular and privatized society there is a great need for people of faith who take seriously the need to advocate for a just society. There will be disagreements about what this type of society might look like and there will be those who advocate for similar things for non-religious reasons. Yet, this vision that Deuteronomy shares (which may or may not have every been realized) is a vision that echoes throughout both the Old and New Testament and still continues to come back into public discourse today.  Yet even more than advocating for humane policies, which is important, perhaps we need to learn to be humane people. Rather than giving up because “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth,” as people of faith perhaps the first response is learning to “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

 

Deuteronomy 15: 19-23 Giving the Best To God

19 Every firstling male born of your herd and flock you shall consecrate to the LORD your God; you shall not do work with your firstling ox nor shear the firstling of your flock. 20 You shall eat it, you together with your household, in the presence of the LORD your God year by year at the place that the LORD will choose. 21 But if it has any defect– any serious defect, such as lameness or blindness– you shall not sacrifice it to the LORD your God; 22 within your towns you may eat it, the unclean and the clean alike, as you would a gazelle or deer. 23 Its blood, however, you must not eat; you shall pour it out on the ground like water.

 

Sometimes working in a church you get used to receiving castaways. A friend told a story how a woman drove up to church, dropped off a box and was irritated when they flagged the woman down to find out what was going on. The woman had dropped off a large box of water damaged books and very ratty toys figuring they could go in the church library or nursery. They were not good enough to be in her own home anymore but maybe they were good enough for the church. Yet, one of the reasons this discussion about sacrifices comes up multiple times throughout the book of Deuteronomy is to address various issues around the eating of these animals. While the animals are to be eaten together in community as a part of the festival, it is also not to be done with the ‘runt of the liter’ or the animal that is damaged in some way. The people were charged to bring their best to God and the community. Their actions in celebration and worship were to model their calling to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul and might. (Deuteronomy 6:5)

 

Forgiveness

There is no better future without letting go of the sins of the past
Without being willing to see others not as a summation of debt unpaid
For we all walk around carrying the burdens and baggage of our lives
Fearing that someone might see the scarlet letter we cover with a coat
Or the identity we hide behind the masks we wear for the world to see
Pinned within boxes far too small to fit our frames constricting our freedom
And our shame is a garment that makes it too hard to breathe the thin air of life
For until we learn to forgive and love ourselves we will be enslaved to shame
Unable to feel the love we desire or the compassion we seek
 
Forgiveness is such a simple word to say and a hard life to live
Love would be so easy if only it didn’t involve letting down my walls
And when one has pierced my heart to let them close again
To offer peace to one who acted in war, to offer friendship to an enemy
To love one who I would rather label as unloveable, unforgiveable
And yet rather than picking up the blade that pierced my heart
Turning once again to use it on its previous wielder,
To demand an eye for an eye and a heart for a heart
Perhaps I can learn to see the wounds they already carry
And in my own healing begin to point the way to a new future
Where swords are put aside in favor of the surgeon’s needle
As lives become stitched back together and hearts are make whole again.
Neil White, 2014

The Prodigal Son, Marble Statue by Joseph Mozier (1857)

The Prodigal Son, Marble Statue by Joseph Mozier (1857)