Tag Archives: Reconciliation

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.

Exodus 34: Restoring the Covenant

 

Hebrew Letters for the Name of God

Exodus 34: 1-10 The LORD Reclaims Identity Post Betrayal

The LORD said to Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke. 2 Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on the top of the mountain. 3 No one shall come up with you, and do not let anyone be seen throughout all the mountain; and do not let flocks or herds graze in front of that mountain.” 4 So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. 5 The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, “The LORD.” 6 The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed,
“The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
 forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.”

 8 And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped. 9 He said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”

 10 He said: I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the LORD; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.

This chapter represents a remarkable turn in the story. In chapter 32 the people turn away from the way of the LORD and for the LORD this is an incredible betrayal which plunges the LORD into intense emotional pain and causes the LORD to distance from the people. The LORD’s wrath threatens to consume Israel, but Moses stands between God and the people. In chapter 33 Moses attempts to reconcile the people and God, and here, as we begin this chapter, the healing begins with God reclaiming God’s identity. There will be a new covenant, a new beginning and God will be who God will be despite of the peoples’ disobedience.

Pain can threaten to obscure our identities and can cause people to act in ways that seem discordant to the way they would normally act. In Exodus, the LORD’s merciful and gracious nature is threatened by the other portion of the LORD’s identity that expects faithfulness and obedience. The LORD’s emotions in Exodus are surprisingly human in nature. Yet, here after a time of grieving and making sense of the broken relationship the LORD moves in the direction of forgiveness and reclaims the identity the LORD chooses.

The name of the LORD is proclaimed multiple times and there is an almost joyous quality in this proclamation. This seems to be a moment of rediscovery for God and then we for the first time hear what is known as the Thirteen Attributes of God. These attributes are repeated fourteen times throughout the Hebrew Bible and alluded to many others. (Myers, 2005, p. 264) Within God’s identity lies a paradox: forgiving iniquity, transgressions and sins yet also accountability for iniquity. The LORD chooses to be both gracious and just. The LORD chooses to be slow to anger and yet to remain in Ellen Davis’ words a ‘fool for love’ (Davis, 2001, p. 153) God chooses the path of being vulnerable to the people of Israel.

Many people I have talked to question the final portion of these thirteen attributes where it talks about visiting the iniquity of the parent upon the third and fourth generation. On the one hand, this contrasts the steadfast love that goes until the thousandth generation which attempts to contrast the expansiveness of God’s steadfast love with the limited nature of the judgment of God. It also is something that God will respond to in Jeremiah 31: 29-30 where the children will no longer be held accountable for their parent’s sins but instead everyone will be accountable for their own sins. Finally, it is also something that I have seen play out within family systems where an iniquity, violation, brokenness or sin has impacts not only on the person who commits it but for generations to come. Regardless this is a part of the paradox of God’s identity, a God who refuses to be taken for granted, a God who cares enough to be wounded by the brokenness of God’s followers and yet chooses to be merciful, gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

God has chosen to reclaim God’s own identity and now God chooses to reclaim the people of Israel. God again moves towards them, restates that God will provide for them and go with them as they move toward the promised land. This is one of the steps toward a renewed relationship. God chooses the people again and reenters into the covenant with them. God moves beyond God’s pain and back towards God’s people.

Exodus 34: 11-28 Restating the Commandments

 11 Observe what I command you today. See, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 12 Take care not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you are going, or it will become a snare among you. 13 You shall tear down their altars, break their pillars, and cut down their sacred poles 14 (for you shall worship no other god, because the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God). 15 You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice. 16 And you will take wives from among their daughters for your sons, and their daughters who prostitute themselves to their gods will make your sons also prostitute themselves to their gods.

 17 You shall not make cast idols.

 18 You shall keep the festival of unleavened bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib; for in the month of Abib you came out from Egypt.

 19 All that first opens the womb is mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. 20 The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem.

 No one shall appear before me empty-handed.

 21 Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest. 22 You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year. 23 Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the LORD God, the God of Israel. 24 For I will cast out nations before you, and enlarge your borders; no one shall covet your land when you go up to appear before the LORD your God three times in the year.

 25 You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven, and the sacrifice of the festival of the passover shall not be left until the morning.

 26 The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the LORD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

27 The LORD said to Moses: Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel. 28 He was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.

Several portions of the exposition of the law are revisited here as the covenant is reestablished. Verses 11-16 restate and heighten the words of Exodus 23: 20-33 where the commandment not to have other gods is highlighted in the context of their coming occupation of the promised land. Here in addition to making no covenant with the people of the land they are also told not to intermarry with them. The people have already shown a predisposition to copy the practices of the other nations and this serves as another reminder that they are to worship the LORD alone. After the command not to create idols is restated there is a reminder of the festivals of Exodus 23: 14-19, the reminder of the dedication of firstborns which is outlined in Exodus 13: 11-16, the essential nature of Sabbath in Exodus 23: 10-13. While I could restate much of what I have written before exploring these commandments here I think it is important to highlight the necessity of restating them as the covenant is being renewed. With the new tablets which bear the ten commandments (or ten words of God, see Exodus 20) there is also a renewal of the expectation of living in obedience to these commandments. There is a new chance for the people to order their society in a manner that reflects the justice of a covenant people. Restating the expectations for the relationship between the LORD and the people becomes another step in restoring the relationship.

Statue of Moses at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Exodus 34: 29-35: The Radiance of Moses

29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34 but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

The time spent by Moses in the presence of God has a transforming effect upon Moses. While the changes are invisible to Moses they are clearly seen by Aaron and the people and it is a cause for fear. This time in God’s presence has made Moses different from the rest of the people, he continues to stand apart. In his role as mediator between God and the people he seems to have brought a little bit of God’s presence back with him.

The presence of God does change people. Moses enjoys a far greater intimacy with God than any other person among the Israelites. Moses has shown great faithfulness to God and to the people as well. Moses is more than an emissary for God or even a prophet of God but one who God trusts and speaks to like one speaks to a friend. Moses has something that even Aaron will never have. Aaron and the priests will need things to announce them before God and will only be allowed to enter God’s presence rarely. Moses dwells both with God and the people. Yet, Moses seems to belong more with God now than the people. Among the people Moses needs to wear a veil to fit in, but in God’s presence Moses doesn’t need to hide the radiance of who he is.

Exodus 33: Repairing the Relationship Between God and Israel

“Ten Commandments by Anton Losenko – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Exodus 33:1-6 The LORD’s Separation from Israel

The LORD said to Moses, “Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’ 2 I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”

4 When the people heard these harsh words, they mourned, and no one put on ornaments. 5 For the LORD had said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, and I will decide what to do to you.'” 6 Therefore the Israelites stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward.

Trust was broken when the Israelites cast and worshipped the golden calf. Perhaps it is my own experience of a broken relationship as well as helping others deal with broken relationships that makes me hear this passage between the LORD and Israel being like the struggling attempts of a couple after trust was broken. The God of the Bible is not the unmoved mover that many Christians imagine, the LORD the God of Israel was passionately invested in this covenant. We see here and many other places in scriptures a wounded God nursing broken dreams and beginning the long journey to the place where trust can be rebuilt. It is not only a journey from Mount Sinai/Horeb to the promised land, it is a journey of rebuilding trust between God and God’s people.

At this point the LORD needs some space from the people. Like a couple who needs to live in separate places after an affair because the presence of the other is a continual reminder of the brokenness that exists between them, the LORD needs space and time to deal with these emotions. The Israelites too in their own way go into mourning. Their ornaments were once removed to cast the golden calf and now they are removed as a mourning of the pain and grief they caused for the LORD and for themselves. They are a people who have lost their God’s trust and who exist in the hope that in the future that trust can be rebuilt, and the relationship restored.

God has not completely walked away from the people or from hope. An angel, and emissary continues to lead and go with the people but the LORD’s desire to dwell among the people has been for a time shattered. The previous focus on the tabernacle is temporarily set aside amid the pain of the broken relationship. Moses still stands between the LORD and the people, clung to by both. For now the people and God journey in parallel paths and Moses’ job will be to bring healing to both God and God’s people.

Exodus 33: 7-11 Separate Camp

7 Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. 8 Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand, each of them, at the entrance of their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. 9 When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. 10 When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tent.11 Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent.

Much as adults going through a strained portion of a relationship often separate because the immediate presence of the other causes too much pain, now the LORD meets with Moses outside the camp. Moses’ role as the mediator between the people and God in now intensified as Moses still has the LORD’s trust. The people who are longing for reconciliation, those who seek the LORD, wait and watch Moses’ departure to the tent of meeting and return hopeful for some sign that the relationship will be renewed. This is not the desired state of things for God. The LORD’s desire was to be in the center of the camp but now God’s place of meeting is beyond the borders of the camp.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his theological exposition of Genesis 1-3, Creation and Fall, talks about Adam’s original orientation of God placing God in the center of existence. (Bonhoeffer, 1997, p. 88f) In a similar way, the intent for the tabernacle was to echo this place in creation where God is symbolically and theologically in the center of the people of Israel’s life. Both Adam and the people of Israel were to realize their dependence on the LORD’s providence and protection. Yet both would eventually by their disobedience push God to the margins (using Bonhoeffer’s theological metaphor). Yet, God also withdraws to the margins as an act of grace. In the creation narrative it is a grace which overcomes the threat of death to Adam and Eve for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In Exodus it is a grace which prevents the people from being consumed by the wrath of God over their betrayal with the golden calf. Moses as the mediator will now continue to work to bring the people and their God back together and to move God away from the margins and back to the center.

Exodus 33: 12-23 The Presence of God

love me forever by syntheses on deviantart.com

12 Moses said to the LORD, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”

17 The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’;1 and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21 And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

For a beautiful description and meditation on this scene see Ellen Davis’ chapter ‘A Fool for Love: Exodus 33’ in Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament. (Davis, 2001, pp. 153-159) Even though I will be coming at the scene from a different perspective she has some beautiful insights into this scene and suggestions about the character of the LORD. Moses is, “disgusted with the Israelites, betrayed by his own brother, and now even God has bailed out, leaving him alone with a job he never wanted in the first place” (154) and yet he is the one who is caught between a people and their God attempting to make peace. Moses asks for a demonstration of the LORD’s favor and trust in this place where Moses feels abandonment. The LORD attempts to reassure Moses that Moses is seen and known and that the relationship between Moses and God remains strong, but Moses is not willing to allow things to remain as they are. God promises to be present and to walk with Moses (the Hebrew is second person singular-Hebrew has a singular and a plural you unlike English). Moses refuses to allow God to only journey with him, if God will not go with the people Moses asks him to return to the original intent of journeying with the people. For Moses sake God consents to journey with the people and to be vulnerable to the pain that they will cause God along this journey.

God grants Moses request based upon the relationship with Moses, not the people. Moses becomes the one whose prayer is heard when the prayers of the people are not. Moses is one who is righteous for the people, who stands in the gap between the people and God and who holds the relationship together.

Moses makes a bold request of God, to see God’s glory. Moses has been the one who seeks after the LORD throughout the Exodus journey and the LORD grants this request as fully as possible. Moses continues to be the one seeking after God and God consents to be seen in a manner that Moses can endure. God is not insulted by Moses’ request and, as Ellen Davis highlights, God seems to be flattered by it. (157) God has been taken for granted by the people but not by Moses and the LORD has stated that the LORD is a jealous God who will not be taken for granted. Yet, God is willing to show Godself to those who seek and to enter into the relationship with those who are willing to be open to God. Moses’ faithfulness to God’s vision for the relationship between the LORD and the people pulls the LORD back to the LORD’s original dream. Moses’ intercession for the people and desire for God becomes instrumental in the process of reconciliation.

Exodus 22: Boundaries, Trust and Reconciliation

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Exodus 22:1-15 Expanding the Commandment on Stealing

 When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.1 The thief shall make restitution, but if unable to do so, shall be sold for the theft. 4 When the animal, whether ox or donkey or sheep, is found alive in the thief’s possession, the thief shall pay double.

 2 If a thief is found breaking in, and is beaten to death, no bloodguilt is incurred; 3 but if it happens after sunrise, bloodguilt is incurred.

5 When someone causes a field or vineyard to be grazed over, or lets livestock loose to graze in someone else’s field, restitution shall be made from the best in the owner’s field or vineyard.

 6 When fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, the one who started the fire shall make full restitution.

 7 When someone delivers to a neighbor money or goods for safekeeping, and they are stolen from the neighbor’s house, then the thief, if caught, shall pay double. 8 If the thief is not caught, the owner of the house shall be brought before God,1 to determine whether or not the owner had laid hands on the neighbor’s goods.

 9 In any case of disputed ownership involving ox, donkey, sheep, clothing, or any other loss, of which one party says, “This is mine,” the case of both parties shall come before God;1 the one whom God condemns2 shall pay double to the other.

 10 When someone delivers to another a donkey, ox, sheep, or any other animal for safekeeping, and it dies or is injured or is carried off, without anyone seeing it, 11 an oath before the LORD shall decide between the two of them that the one has not laid hands on the property of the other; the owner shall accept the oath, and no restitution shall be made. 12 But if it was stolen, restitution shall be made to its owner. 13 If it was mangled by beasts, let it be brought as evidence; restitution shall not be made for the mangled remains.

 14 When someone borrows an animal from another and it is injured or dies, the owner not being present, full restitution shall be made. 15 If the owner was present, there shall be no restitution; if it was hired, only the hiring fee is due.

We no longer live in a time where cattle rustlers and sheep stealers are our greatest concern, but concerns for the integrity of one’s property and household continue to actively consume our daily life. We live in an age where we attempt to insure our property and livelihood is protected by paying an agency for insurance but in the ancient world the community and family was the insurance that the individual and family invested in. Theft, irresponsibility, and inter-family strife threaten the bonds that hold the community together. As we look at the way the book of Exodus attempts to structure the communal life of the people of Israel I will also attempt to bring in some parallel concerns for our own age.

I have followed the NRSV in rearranging the Hebrew verses in verses 1-4 in a way that keeps the themes of restitution for a lost animal together. The way it is arranged above (vs. 1, 3b, 4, 2, 3a.) unites the themes about if the animal is lost with if the animal is found alive in the thief’s possession. The penalty for a slaughtered or sold or otherwise unreturnable animal is four or five-fold, while a returnable animal is two-fold. Note that the justice is restorative-intended to restore the property and repair the relationship between the thief and the person whose property is stolen.  Contrast this with our system where a person who has stolen something is incarcerated by the state without restitution being made to the individual whose property has been lost. The system in Exodus is dedicated to restoring relationships between individuals in community. In our system, the loss may be borne by insurance agencies (if a person can afford appropriate insurance) and the state pays the price of holding a person. In ancient Israel, a person unable to pay their debt to their neighbor could, as outlined in the previous chapter, sell themselves to be a slave of the offended party and their debt to their neighbor was worked off in their service. In an age where our rate of spending on prisons is outstripping many other important functions that the state oversees. At least in the state of Texas, it costs more per day to have a person in prison than to educate a student. If for only economic reasons, it would be worth looking at ways in which at least some crimes could be settled in a way that kept a person out of prison and as an active part of the community and society. If you look at restorative justice systems they are focused on attempting to have the offender make restitution for the crimes they have committed and have a path for returning the trust to the community.

In the United States, several states have passed Stand Your Ground laws which give an individual permission to defend themselves with force, even lethal force, when they feel threatened. The Castle Doctrine, which allowed this type of self and property defense within the home was extended by the Stand Your Ground Laws to anyplace a person has a legal right to be. The Castle Doctrine does parallel, at least partially, the provisions for a thief breaking in. Here it is assumed that thievery will happen at night and that in the confusion of night a person could be beaten to death but in the daylight the ability to identify someone clearly and how they were endangering life and property could be more easily discerned. Legislating these things takes wisdom, something that is sadly lacking in our time. In our society, we have inverted the concerns of the people of Israel. For us the debates center around personal security while in Israel they were about community relations. Note that the limits are placed on the bloodguilt that the family of the invader could claim. The ability to claim that one’s neighbor was threatening as a justification for killing would not have been acceptable for Ancient Israel.

The model of restitution continues throughout the passage as it addresses property damage by irresponsibility, disputed property, safekeeping of money or goods, safekeeping of livestock and loss while borrowing of livestock. If one causes a field or vineyard to burn (the future prosperity of the individual) one is responsible for restoring that loss. Although things are more complex in our world it does make me wonder if there is some wisdom in looking at how restitution could be made when the actions of a person ‘playing with fire’ endangers the future income of another. Throughout my lifetime I have heard countless stories of people’s retirement income being bet on risky investments by an investor and lost. While it is challenging to imagine how the debt could be repaid in these situations it is an interesting situation to ponder. In cases where property ownership is disputed we often see the courts involved, and I’m not advocating a return to religious courts that deal with this litigation-but the system in ancient Israel was about restoring relationships and taking the issue before God perhaps provided a less costly and less antagonistic process for restoring those relationships. The issues related to safekeeping goods, money or livestock there is a quick examination to see whether the person safeguarding is at fault: if an animal is attacked by a wild beast or a thief carries off the money or goods and is caught the person safeguarding is not at fault. In other cases, the fault may be more difficult to discern and this involves wisdom and therefore the parties are brought before God. Similarly, when an animal is borrowed while the owner is present and dies the borrower is not responsible, but if the owner is not present there is restitution made.

These commands are not as developed as a modern legal system but they do begin to unpack the commandment on stealing and illustrate how they are to build a community that live out this vision of justice and community. Without justice, the community quickly breaks down. Yet, justice needs a human face. There are times where a unique situation must be considered and therefore these cases are to be brought before the LORD. The wisdom of the system in Exodus is in how it attempts to reconcile the parties and to rebuild community. Just as in their time, we too need wisdom as we attempt to construct a society that is just and where neighbors can live in harmony.

Exodus 22: 16-31 Community Prohibitions and Safeguards

 16 When a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to be married, and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. 17 But if her father refuses to give her to him, he shall pay an amount equal to the bride-price for virgins.

 18 You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live.

 19 Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death.

 20 Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the LORD alone, shall be devoted to destruction.

 21 You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. 23 If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; 24 my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

 25 If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. 26 If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; 27 for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.

 28 You shall not revile God, or curse a leader of your people.

 29 You shall not delay to make offerings from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses.1

The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. 30 You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.

 31 You shall be people consecrated to me; therefore you shall not eat any meat that is mangled by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.

When you attempt to construct a society, there are things that you allow and encourage and there are limits that must be set. The vulnerable within the society must be protected, certain individuals who are deemed a danger to the community are eliminated or excluded and certain behaviors are expected. Some of these come from a worldview that is very different from our own but they still are worth wrestling with, even if we would disagree with them, because they place values on certain types of security and relationships.

I wrestled with placing verses 16-17 in this discussion: whether to include them in the previous section, cover them independently or to link them with this later section of prohibitions and a good argument could be made for any of these options. A man who has sex with a virgin who is not engaged could be viewed as a person who has threatened the property of the household of the father and therefore restitution is to be made to the father and security provided for the woman. This could also be viewed as an unfolding of the sixth commandment on adultery and therefore separate from the discussion of theft and individual property and this could be one illustration of how to deal with individuals who transgress this boundary. Finally, non-betrothed women could be looked upon as one of the vulnerable in society along with the resident alien, widows and orphans who require legislation to protect them from becoming victims to a man’s irresponsible actions.

Wrestling with these verses in a very different context where issues like consent would be central it is difficult to imagine a world where a woman’s consent is not an issue of consideration. As discussed in Deuteronomy 21, 22 and 24, talking about captive women, women of Israel and divorce respectively, the perspectives of the writers understood women, their role in society and their rights much differently than we do today. Here, if a man sleeps with an unspoken for woman he can buy her as his wife regardless of her desires as long as her father permits it. As I mentioned, this probably ensures some security for the woman but it is at least uncomfortable if not distasteful to modern hearers. But in a time where men and women marry later and consensual sex before marriage is accepted by much of the society we still need to question what is the responsibility of the man and the woman as well as the families for people who engage sexually outside the security of marriage. When these unions result in pregnancy, what obligation does the man to the future mother and to the child? How are women protected and provided for in these relationships?

Female sorcerers are singled out here for death. As in Deuteronomy 18: 9-14 where a whole list of different predictors of the futures or practitioners of magic are outlawed there is a concern that these other options would lead people away from trusting in the LORD their God. This along with the reiterated prohibition about sacrificing to other gods is to remind the people that they are to be a people centered on the LORD their God and only the LORD their God. In a society where these other gods or practitioners of magic were attractive alternatives they are strictly forbidden.

Bestiality is also highlighted as one of those things that merit a death sentence in Exodus. This is a boundary violation, crossing the boundaries of species and what is permitted for the people of Israel. These boundaries, as I discuss in Deuteronomy 14 with relation to what food is not eaten, become marks of who is a part of the community. To be a part of the people of Israel means to do certain things, like celebrating the Passover and removing the leaven from their houses for that time, and not doing certain things, like lying with an animal or eating certain animals. Transgressions of those boundaries are viewed as direct threats to the holiness of the community.

The vulnerable of the community must be protected for a just society. Here the resident alien, the widow, the orphan and the poor become the examples of the vulnerable. Narrative reminds the people that they are to deal with the resident alien in justice since they themselves were resident aliens in Egypt. They are to be a society that models a different way of treating the vulnerable in society than they experienced in their slavery. They are to care for the vulnerable and God chooses to stand on the side of the vulnerable. If the resident alien, the orphan or the widow cry out to God, God promises to hear and act as a judge on their behalf. The threat to those who are comfortable is that if they become a society that does not care for the vulnerable then God will ensure they become a society of vulnerable people again: aliens in a foreign land, widows and orphans without men for security, and poor with no one to care for them. They are not to utilize the poor to increase their wealth: they are their neighbors to be cared for rather than exploited. Ultimately one’s view of society’s good is supposed to override one’s drive for personal profit.

Not reviling God of leaders among the people are linked together. Leaders in Israel are the one’s anointed by God. This is not a democratic society where the people choose their leaders. Ultimately there was a trust that there was some divine hand in the structure of society. In our time, we struggle with this type of hierarchical worldview. For us the pendulum has swung the other direction where faith in the pillars of society (political, social or religious) is at an all-time low and the individual is the primary basis for judging right from wrong. Yet, there does need to be people who fulfill leadership roles in society and while the Hebrew Scriptures will be critical of leaders, priests and kings they also did not want an anarchical society without structure.

Setting aside firstborns echoes Exodus 13: 11-16. This small reminder echoes the larger context of the final plague in Egypt and the consecration of the first born for the LORD. Just as the first born are set aside as the LORD’s portion, so they among the nations are to be the LORD’s portion-a holy nation as stated in Exodus 19: 6. Being holy, or consecrated, they are to refrain from unclean things and here that list expands to included meat from an animal that is killed by a beast. As a boundary marker, this is a practice that the people of Israel do not do.

Winners and Losers

We’ve created a culture of antagonism and agitation, of winners and losers
Where words can cut deeper than spears and pierce our enemy’s armor
We refine and polish our arguments like swords to gut our opposition
Trained in a culture of savage warfare to transform opponents into enemies
One who was once a brother or sister now becomes something less than human
A demon in my eyes to be cast out and slain, their bodies and reputations annihilated
Rather than walking a mile in their shoes I doggedly pursue their retreat
Hunting them down in their refuge and taking captive their allies and families
Dividing the world into camps and erecting walls of dogmatic certainty
Turning plowshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears
We ignore the costs and the civilian casualties incurred in the onslaught
As we raise our standards and blow the bugle to assemble the amassed armies
There to fight a war that never needed to be waged if we could learn a different way
 
In a world of winners and losers there is no need for reconciliation and healing
History belongs to the victors and the losers are a part of the casualties of time
Or become the terrorists of tomorrow fighting a lost battle because it is all they know
But maybe there is another way where the conflict never evolves into combat
Where swords can be returned to the forge to become the instruments of harvest
Where the enemy becomes my brother and my opponent my sister
And I walk in their shoes and begin to see the world through their eyes
Where instead of tracking my enemy down in their home I welcome them into mine
My righteous indignation can be set aside at the mote in my neighbor’s eye
And there can be a future together in the dawning light of forgiveness
And the world gasps a sigh of relief that its forests are no longer consumed
Building walls and siege engines to fuel a conflict which never ends
 
And perhaps in our culture of agitation and antagonism we are all losers
Caught in perpetual cycles of conflict, continually training for the next fight
Unable to be at rest under our own vine feasting with our friends and companions
Perhaps in our string of victories we may ignore the tremors of our own trauma
We may justify our own unending nightmares of the past or the wounds we carry
For in a world of harsh justice where wound cried out for wound, scar for scar
And eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a heart for a heart, a life for a life
We all come out broken and hurting too tired to focus on the fields of harvest
Perhaps there is a time to end the pouring out of our neighbors and our own blood
As some sort of sick libation to the cruel gods of conflict we choose to serve
And it is a time to live, a time to be born, a time of peace
A time when brothers can live together in harmony if only we can learn another way
 
Let us Beat Swords Into Plowshares, a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, given by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959

Let us Beat Swords Into Plowshares, a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, given by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959

The Need to Remember Rightly

170px-911_Tribute_(perspective_fixed)

On a day when there will be a number of calls to ‘Never Forget’ I want to add a caution that we need to be willing to remember rightly. The destruction and violence of September 11, 2001 cost the 19 hijackers and 2,977 victims their lives and impacted the lives of many others physically, emotionally and economically. Remembering rightly we can pause and remember the emotions of the day, the sadness the confusion, the fear and the desire to put things right that many people felt, in fact you cannot remember an event rightly without the emotion that goes with the event. However, sometimes the call to ‘Never Forget’ can be transformed into a call to ‘Never Forgive’ and as a follower of Christ that is a place that I cannot remain. In Christ I am called to love my enemies, to pray for those who persecute me so that I may live into my identity as a child of God. (Matthew 5.44f) ‘Never Forget’ can also become transformed into ‘Never Again’ where any numbers of actions are justified by the fear of some other entity or individual causing harm or destruction. Remembering may have the function of a shield to protect us from easily allowing harm to come to us again, but as Miroslav Volf insightfully says:

It is because they remember (emphasis original) past victimization that they feel justified in committing present violence. Or rather, it is because they remember their past victimization that they justify as rightful self-protection what to most observers looks like violence born of intolerance of even hatred. So easily does the protective shield of memory morph into a sword of violence. (Volf 2006, 33)

If we are to remember, to grieve, to mark the day then let us also remember who we were on that day. The events in our life matter to our identity but we should never allow an act of senseless violence to transform our identity into something different. We have had a dozen years of acting on the memory of September 11, 2001 and having the memory act upon us, of stealing our attention for both good and ill. But we do not need to allow the beast of this tragic memory to shape us in its image or allow it to impact our own ability to interact with others, to love and to trust. If we do that terror has won, and in attempting to ‘Never Forget’ we become trapped into a cycle of violence. If we remember September 11, 2001 we also need to reflect upon our own reactions to that day as a people. In our responses in many ways (militarily, economically, security, etc.) we need to examine: are we allowing the fear that the events of that day to transform our identity as a people into something different?

Our memories and stories define us as individuals and as a people and as important as the events of September 11, 2001 are they are not the central events in either our nations’ story or specifically to me as a Christian and as a pastor to the story of our lives in Christ. To allow the memories of September 11, 2001 to take over that central part of our identity would be to neglect the other central stories of our identity. Within my own calling I follow a God who is both just but who justifies the ungodly, who can love me and my enemy, who meets me most concretely at the very point of injustice and rejection (in the crucifixion). As Martin Luther said in The Freedom of a Christian:

A Christian lives not in himself (sic), but in Christ and his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor. Yet he always remains in God and in his love. (Volf 2006, 198)

So as we remember this day may we remember in the light of love and reconciliation. May we remember rightly in light of our own identities and not allow the terror of the day to redefine who we are.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

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.

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