Tag Archives: Matthew 18

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 18: 1-10 A Community of Little Ones

By Carl Bloch – The Athenaeum: Home – info – pic, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25991809

Matthew 18: 1-10

 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

6 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!

8 “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire. 10 “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.[1]

The fourth block of teaching in Matthew continues to explore what embodying the way of Jesus in community will look like. I view the contours of this block of teaching different than many who comment on this section both in its length and in what is being communicated. Most scholars end this block of teaching with the seam at the beginning of Chapter 19, “When Jesus had finished these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.” The scholars who end the block of teaching at 19:1 are paying attention to a pattern in Matthew’s gospel (see 7:28, 11:1, and 13:53) where it is announced that Jesus has finished his teaching or parables, and while there is a distinct ending and transition in the previous cases, thematically and structurally I believe Matthew wants us to hear Matthew 18:1-20:28 as a unit: It begins and ends with a question of greatness, it allows the normal pattern of three in parables to be joined together, and it centers around questions of how the community of Christ is to live in relations to one another.

Just as the people of Israel were to be an alternative to the community which was built upon the practices of slavery and the acquisition of power by the great ones in Egypt, Babylon and Rome, so the community of Jesus’ followers is a countercultural community where the leaders are like humble children. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven will be like the least and the very question of greatness is a danger to the unity of the community. The disciples are still learning the ways of the kingdom of heaven and unlearning the ways that the kingdoms of the world have taught them. Jesus continues to teach them the type of life they are to embody for this new community of the kingdom of heaven.

The use of a child as a visual illustration in this teaching is instructive in several manners. First, it indicates that there were already children present in close proximity to Jesus and that they felt welcome being in close proximity to him. Children in both the ancient world and the modern world are often excluded from the working world of men for fear they will be underfoot. In the ancient world children began to have value when they could be ‘little adults’ adding value to the work of the family. Being a child becomes a metaphor for being a part of the kingdom of heaven, but also for being a disciple and I do think the thematic use of ‘little one’ and the frequent reference to the disciples as ‘little faith ones’ is intentional. The child is welcomed not for the value that they can bring to the kingdom of heaven, they are not like the rich young man we will meet in the next chapter who has resources to bring into the community, but the welcoming of the humble child is an act of grace. The disciples are to learn the humility of the child who is placed in their midst not for the benefit of the adults in the circle, but purely as a witness to the type of community of hospitality that the kingdom of heaven is.

In a previous block of teaching Jesus linked showing hospitality to little ones when he stated, “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of the little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (10:42) The community of Jesus is to be a community of hospitality, and now the act of welcoming a little one is tied to welcoming Jesus. The same practice of welcoming a righteous person or a prophet is extended not only to disciples, but to the little ones who the disciples are to model themselves after. The opposite of the greatest (Greek meizon) is the little one (Greek micron) and the disciples instead of striving to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are to learn the logic of this kingdom where the first are last and the last are first. They are to be an alternative to the communities where power and authority is lorded over others, instead they are a community where humble little ones are valued and cherished and placed in the center of the community.

Being a disciple of Jesus is not merely about learning the right things. Throughout the gospel we have heard Jesus instruct those who listen that the practice of righteousness is critical. While I have argued against a type of moralistic perfectionism in reading Matthew, I do think we need to understand Jesus’ call for a community that authentically practices a merciful reading of the law. As we come to Jesus’ words about placing a ‘stumbling block’ it is important to address to two aspects of the Greek scandlise which stands behind this. This is the word that is at the root of the English word scandal, and there is a call for those within the community not to scandalize the ‘little ones.’ The type of community that Jesus teaching points towards is undercut by those who either use their authority for self-glorification, who misuse those who are vulnerable (women, children, those who are either politically or economically vulnerable), or whose actions do not embody the values of the kingdom of heaven. Many throughout history have been ‘scandalized’ by leaders or members of the church whose actions did not embody they vision of Christ. But the other aspect of scandalize is the placing of a barrier towards inclusion. There are many groups who have been excluded from participation in the church, and the history of the community of Christ is full of times where the boundaries of the community had to be removed to embody the vision Jesus handed on to the disciples who followed him.

Ironically, there may be times where a member’s actions towards others in the community necessitate their removal from the community. This will be a theme throughout chapter eighteen, but one’s actions in relation to the community do have implications both to one’s relationship to the community and to the kingdom of heaven. Jesus uses hyperbolic language here, and throughout the gospel, to underline the importance of practicing righteousness. When one’s actions scandalize or exclude a ‘little one’ it is a matter of life or death in the community and for one’s standing in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus does expect God to judge the world and those who exclude, the Jesus in Matthew’s gospel does take the side of the ‘little ones’ who are vulnerable to those who claim the status of greatness, who scandalize, exclude or practice hypocrisy. Even though the practice of hanging a millstone (literally the millstone of a donkey, a stone large enough that it needs a pack animal to turn) and casting a person into the sea to ‘sleep with the fishes’ would be understood in both ancient and modern contexts, I disagree with Warren Carter’s assertion that, “Again Jesus bullies disciples into obedience with a threat that imitates imperial practices.” (Carter, 2005, p. 364) Jesus does use graphic language to communicate with the disciples the importance of their embodiment of these teachings: a millstone around the neck, cutting off a hand or foot or tearing out an eye. As I stated when addressing this language in 5:29-30, this language is probably not intended individualistically or literally. Regardless the disciples are not the ones who will give the sentence of death by drowning or casting a person into Gehenna, but they will be the ones who have to teach and maintain the practices and, when necessary, the boundaries of the community. There may be times where the community, after attempting to correct a member, has to cast them away from the community but there is also the continual desire for reconciliation and forgiveness.

Anytime we talk about ‘eternal fire’ or the ‘Hell of fire’ we enter into a discussion that carries a lot of baggage for Christians. I engage this topic in a fuller way when I discussed Gehenna, Tartaros, Sheol, Hades and Hell and while it is impossible to completely free ourselves of the long history of thinking about the concepts of punishment beyond this life, I do think we need to be cautioned before we import these ideas into Matthew’s gospel. Jesus does believe that God does judge those who stand in opposition to the kingdom of heaven. Our conceptions about ‘eternal life’ and ‘eternal damnation’ while pulled from Jesus’ words about ‘the life of the new age’ or ‘entering into the age of fire’ or our conceptions of ‘hell’ based on Jesus’ use of the place ‘Gehenna’ have heaped upon the original concepts 2,000 years’ of poetic imagination, hellfire preaching, and fear. Jesus does present people with a choice, to choose the way of the kingdom of heaven which is life, or to choose the way opposed to the kingdom which means judgment, but the details of the judgment are only pointed to metaphorically. Yet, the way one treats the ‘little ones’ is critical for the community because the ‘little ones’ are critical to God. The plight of the ‘little ones’ is continually placed before God in heaven and the hope of the followers of Jesus, like the hope of the Jewish people, is that God would judge on behalf of the ‘little ones’ who are vulnerable with righteousness. Ultimately for the followers of Jesus the questions of God’s judgment are not in their control. They may have to bind or loose actions and individuals in the community, but any punishment beyond life is in God’s hands. In our individualistic way of reading scripture we have often reduced passages like this to compliance out of fear for the salvation of one’s soul, but my hope is that learning to read these passages in light of the community can open us for the joy of practicing the righteousness of God in a community which practices hospitality towards the ‘little ones,’  protects and honors them, has the courage to correct members who are not practicing righteousness and even to ‘cut them off’ when necessary for the life of the community. Yet, even when one is ‘cut off’ there is always the hope of repentance and reconciliation. The community of Jesus, the church, may find itself continually removing boundaries which keep the ‘little ones’ out of the community and struggling with scandals which endanger the ‘little ones’ as it awaits God’s judgment of the world in righteousness.

 

 

[1] Verse 11 is omitted in most modern translations and is probably a later insertion into the text. The text of verse 11 would be For the Son of Man came to save the lost.

Forgiveness in a Graceless World-A Sermon

Depiction of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Scot's Church Melbourne

Depiction of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Scot’s Church Melbourne

Ernest Hemmingway tells in one of his short stories called “The Capital of the World” an episode about forgiveness which goes like this:

Madrid is full of boys named Paco, which is the diminutive form of Francisco, and there is a Madrid joke about a father who came to Madrid and inserted an advertisement in the personal columns of El Liberal which said: PACO MEET ME AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN PAPA and how a squadron of Guardia Civil had to be called out to disperse the eight hundred young men who answered the advertisement.

Now the joke is all about the ubiquity of the name Paco in Spain, but it also expresses a deep seeded truth that I think many of us can relate to about our desire for forgiveness to be received. For I think we all have those times where we wish we could change an action that hurt someone in the past, or to be able to take back the words that we said. We wish those words could be like the cartoon bubbles that we could pull back into our mouth to where they were never uttered in the first place. SFC Rubley who was my platoon sergeant while I was a platoon leader in the army used to talk about wanting to be able to lasso the words and say come back. But there is no bringing them back, there is no undoing the past, there is no way to go back and take back the words that were said or put in words that needed to be said. And the reality is that there is truly no future without forgiveness, there is no way forward without a new start. In fact, while forgiveness is one of the hardest things we are called upon as followers of Christ to do it is also at the very heart of our faith. It is right up there with loving the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself, in fact it is necessary for both of these for there is no way to love one’s neighbor without forgiveness. We might think that the world of the bible it might be easier to live into forgiveness, but that would be mistaken for you see the bible is written in the same world that we live in. The Old and New Testaments are full of stories of brokenness, unreconciled differences, and woundedness. Even very early in Genesis (Genesis 4) we encounter the story of Lamech which is the opposite of forgiveness, “I have killed a man who attacked me, a young man who wounded me. If someone who kills Cain is punished seven times, then the one who kills me will be punished seventy-seven times!” Or the very first family we follow for a long journey in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah or Abram and Sarai as they start out, is a story of brokenness-yet we don’t often think of it that way. God’s promised child had been a long time in coming and Sarai says to Abram ‘we’re not getting any younger, why don’t you sleep with my servant Hagar and have a child through her and that can be the child we have been waiting for.’ And so Abram does and Ishmael is born, and yet later-after God has changed their names to Abraham and Sarah and the promised child Isaac is born there is no longer, at least in Sarah’s view, anyplace in the household for Ishmael and Hagar and the image is from a sculpture of Abraham saying goodbye to Ishmael, Hagar is facing away and Sarah is watching from behind the rock to ensure this son of Abraham from Hagar will be sent away. Ishmael will never return until both Sarah and Abraham are dead and only then will Isaac and Ishmael be reunited to mourn the death of their common father. But just because the people that God works through in the bible don’t live out God’s vision of forgiveness-that doesn’t mean that is who God is.

Abraham_thumb

As Psalm 103 says:

6 The LORD gives righteousness and justice to all who are treated unfairly.

 7 He revealed his character to Moses and his deeds to the people of Israel.

 8 The LORD is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.

 9 He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever.

 10 He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.

 11 For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.

 12 He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west.

 13 The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him.

 14 For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.

The God who removes our sins as far as the east is from the west, who doesn’t remember them anymore and who is tender and compassionate as a father is to his children. This is the God that the bible points to again and again and again and yet it is so easy to try to transform God into something different, something less gracious and more judgmental. One of the things I find interesting is that there are a number of Christian theologies out there that try to understand God as somehow bound to a system of rules and laws that God must act in accordance with- and if anything the bible contrast God against the rulers of the nations around them that are like that.

Unlike King Xerxes in the book of Esther, who while he is drunk summons his wife Vashti to appear before him, a summons which Vasti refuses, and so he passes an edict that she shall never again appear before him. Then he wakes up the next day realizing what he has done, but it is now a law and he cannot break it-God is not like that. Unlike King Darius in the book of Daniel who loves Daniel and yet is tricked by his advisors to pass an edict where everyone is to pray to King Darius and when Daniel is caught praying to God, Darius has no choice-he is bound by the law to throw Daniel into the lion’s den. But God is not like that, no God is like a shepherd who has 100 sheep, and then when one is missing leaves the 99 in the wilderness in search of the one, or like a woman who has 10 coins and losing one searches the house until the one is found and then calls all her neighbors to rejoice. Or like a father who has two sons, and one of the sons, the younger one, says to his father in effect, ‘dad I wish you were dead, give me what is mine after you will be gone so that I may go away from you, away from my family, and away from all that has defined me.’ And the father grants him his request and when the younger son finds himself in a foreign land starving, feeding pigs (doing that which is completely against what he was before) and wishing for what the pigs eat and no one gives him anything and he says to himself, ‘you know my father’s servants are better off than I am’ and so he goes back home and he is expecting to be a servant-but the father seeing the son rushes out to meet him, wraps his arms around him, puts a robe on him and a ring on his finger, slaughters the fattened calf and throws a party to reestablish this son with the community. And welcomes him home not as a servant, but as a son-against every rule of the way things should be. Yet there is another son in the story, the older son, who knows the way things should be, the way the rules say they should be and so he stands on the outside of the party refusing to go in and enter the celebration. So the father goes out to this son who says in effect, ‘father, I wish you were dead, for welcoming back in this younger brother who brought so much dishonor, who broke all the rules, who did everything I haven’t done” and yet the father loves both sons. The son who has gone away, who was lost-who went away and who came home again and the son who never left but now stands on the outside of the party unwilling to go in, dealing with his own anger and unwillingness to forgive and his own woundedness.

Pompeo Batoni, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773)

Pompeo Batoni, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773)

We serve a God who relationships are always more important than rules and people are more important than ideas. Unfortunately, sometimes the very people who should be most receptive to this are the ones who understand this the least. Take for example the story of Jonah, Jonah is sent by God to go to Nineveh-but Jonah hates the Ninevites and doesn’t want them to turn but wants them to receive God’s wrath and so Jonah goes on a ship in the opposite direction towards Tarshish. But Jonah cannot escape the God who won’t give up and so in the midst of the storm Jonah asks the sailors to give him death, to throw him into the sea because Jonah would rather die than see mercy given to the Ninevites, and yet God refuses to allow that to happen and so God sends the fish and then places him back on land and Jonah goes to Nineveh and the people turn and Jonah pouts.

In the story of les Mis, whether you’ve read it in the novel or seen it as a musical or on the big screen there are two major characters throughout the story. There is Jauvert, the lawman whose life is bound to his dependence on the law for order. The main character though is Jean val Jean who begins the story in a prison camp having served twenty years for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon Jean val Jean’s release from prison he is defined by the reality that he has been a prisoner and that there is no one who will hire him, he is a thief-and to everyone it seems he will always be a thief until when he actually does steal from a bishop and after being captured the bishop says, ‘but you left the best’ and gives him the golden candlesticks as a part of the gift. A gift which allows him to start a new life with a new identity as Misseur le Mer, and yet in the eyes of Jauvert who continues to track him throughout the story he is always the thief, and even at the end of the story when Jean val Jean spares Jauvert’s life-Jauvert cannot live this new story, he would rather die than to forgive and live in a world where the law fails him and so he does die, he commits suicide rather than forgive.

There are many people who would rather die than forgive, who would rather carry their enmity to their grave rather than let go of it, rather than let something that they have that they can hold over someone else be given up. For that is what forgiveness is, forgiveness states that I refuse to let the actions which caused me harm in the past to define our relationship going forward. Forgiveness gives us freedom from having to seek a better past. It allows us not to be defined by the things that we have done, but rather to be defined by the relationships that have been opened to us. That’s what God does, God comes and brings that forgiveness that we need even before we are ready to accept it, in the hope that we will begin to live into it. But forgiveness is not easy for us, I know a person who is a Lutheran pastor now but she didn’t grow up in the Lutheran church and going for the first time to a Lutheran church she heard at the end of the brief order of confession and forgiveness, “as a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ and by his authority I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins,” and she turned to the person next to her and said, ‘that’s it!’ For God indeed, yes that is it, God has already made the journey of forgiveness, but for us many times the journey still lies ahead.

In our gospel today we hear Peter wrestling with this forgiveness that Jesus is talking about:

 Matthew 18 21 Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” 22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!

At seven times Peter probably thinks he is being generous, but Jesus’ response of seventy times seven takes the world of power and revenge and retribution and turns it on its head. The world of Lamech is reversed. And it is not a point of counting up to 490, the calling is to forgive.

and then Jesus also answers with this parable (Matt 18: 23-30)

23 “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars.

Now the millions of dollars is actually downplaying the size of the debt owed, in modern conversion we are probably talking billions, it was as one scholar put it the amount of money a worker could expect to make in 150,000,000 days-and if you want to figure out how many years that is-it is far more than you will ever live. It is a debt that is so large it could never be paid and this man find himself in a crisis. The story continues on:

 25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold– along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned– to pay the debt. 26 “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27 Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.

He didn’t do what the man asked for, the man asked for more time ‘give me more time and I’ll pay it back’ but the master released him from this debt and gave him a chance to start over

 28 “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. 29 “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

So many times I believe that is the way we may want to react, what’s in my best interest. It allows me to be the insider and the other person to be the outsider. Frequently the biggest critique of Christians is that they act, not like God, not like the Father in the parable of the prodigal son, but rather like the older brother or the forgiven slave. Forgiveness is good for me but these other people are still sinners, they still owe me, the things they have done still define them as people who need to be punished, shunned, set aside. I’ve got to be honest that in a lot of my conversations with people outside the church the most common reason they are no longer a part of the church has nothing to do with any philosophy, or anything on TV, radio or the internet and everything to do with how they were not met with forgiveness by others within the church. Somehow they were marked as the sinner, the outcast, the untouchable. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that the story continues with Matt 18:31-33 and the horror of the other slaves seeing how this forgiven slave acted in light of the incredible forgiveness he received.

 

31 “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’

You see God wants to meet us in grace, God wants to meet us in justice and it goes back to us not living out the love and grace we have been given. And I think it wounds God when we abuse the gifts that have been given to us, when we set ourselves up as better than everyone else. When we receive grace and turn to the rest of the world in judgment. And I think God wants to meet us in grace, but I also have come to believe that if the only place we can meet God is in law, justice and judgment, then God will meet us there as well. The parable concludes:

 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. 35 “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”

I’ve got to be honest, I don’t like the end of this, it makes me uncomfortable. Yet, I know that there are times where God has to come to me and remind me, ‘Neil this is not the life you are called to.’ ‘This is not who you are called to be, you are called to be on the journey of forgiveness.’ And it is a journey, and there are times where you may say ‘I forgive something’ and then something comes up and you realize you are still viewing your neighbor in terms of things they have done in the past. I had to learn this in my own life and journey, and I still bear scars from where I have been wounded. The reality is that there is a risk that comes with forgiveness, that you are opening yourself up to the possibility of being hurt again. And what happens if the other person doesn’t accept the forgiveness you offer. That doesn’t exempt you from the calling to be forgiving, and to be on that journey yourself. Forgiveness opens the possibility of reconciliation happening. And I know that there are wounds that may be too deep to forgive at that moment, but we are called to be on that journey. A person who I’ve learned a lot from is a man who grew up in the former Yugoslavia and is Croatian in background, a man named Miroslav Volf, and those who know a little of the history of Europe in the 1990s, this was the area of Bosnia and Kosovo where the Serbians and Croatians were in a conflict, an ancient conflict that had its roots hundreds of years earlier that was brought to the forefront in the 1990s when the Serbians were in power and began to move towards wiping out the Croatians, destroying entire villages, committing incredible atrocities and killing thousands while displacing tens of thousands. Sometime shortly after the events in Bosnia, Miroslav was working on his PhD in Germany working through the idea of forgiveness and embracing the enemy when another well known scholar, Jürgen Moltmann, said to him Miroslav could you embrace a chětnik, the very soldiers who had done all this to your people? And Miroslav’s answer was I believe an honest one, “No, but I don’t believe that is where God calls me to be.” Even genocide requires forgiveness. Doesn’t mean it is an easy journey and there may be something that is so horrible where our answer is also, “No, but I don’t believe that is where God calls me to be.” As Archbishop Desmond Tutu could say in the midst of the Truth and Reconciliation committees after Apartheid in South Africa, ‘There is no future without forgiveness’.

Forgiveness is the one thing we are called upon to do in the midst of the Lord’s prayer: to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, or forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Or as one of my friends who is a pastor in Washington State related a story to me of a young girl learning the Lord’s prayer, and not knowing what trespassing was she said, “Forgive us our trash-passing as we forgive those who trash-pass against us.” The wisdom of children, so forgive us our trash-passing as we forgive those who trash pass against us.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com