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“As We Forgive Our Debtors”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 6:34-35
Matthew 18:21-35

 

Luke 6:34-35

If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”

 

Matthew 18:21-35

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?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

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

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I listened to an interesting podcast by Radiolab this week that showcased the power and disconnect of words.  The interviewee had spent years in Africa and there learned that the word, “Seriously” means something quite different there than in America.  Here, we use the word to explain that we are not joking, there’s no nonsense, we are serious.  In Africa, he most often encountered the word used when a bribe was expected.  Someone would say, “Are you serious?”  or “How serious are you?”  And so he quickly learned.

Zooming out from his own experience, he witnessed John Kerry’s diplomatic statement in Africa, over a breach of faith and national cooperation.  And when Kerry opened the floor to one question from an African Journalist, that person asked if Kerry was “up there doing lip service” or if he was “serious.”  Kerry immediately sounded a bit perturbed, as he felt himself to be quite serious about the matter.  But this journalist was found after-the-fact and asked about his use of the word, “serious.”  And in fact, he was asking whether or not there would be financial implications – sanctions or what-have-you – because of the incident.  The word serious was referring to money…yet again.

 

This story was told to highlight the nuance and subjectivity of language, from culture to culture, from ancient times until today.

And this example so beautifully illustrates the same need we, as Christians, have:  to research and understand the culture and language of our Biblical texts.

 

Today’s reading quotes Jesus as telling Peter to forgive his neighbor that sins against him, “seventy-seven times.”  And this sticks out to us like a sore thumb because it is odd.  It seems so random:  why seventy-seven?!  But a closer look at the culture of ancient Hebrews reveals meaning, hidden in various numbers.

The number seven was perhaps the greatest power number of ancient Judaism.  It alluded to creation, good fortune, and blessing.  And reinforcing this belief-system, two Hebrew words for luck – gad and mazal – actually mean 7 and 77 respectively.  All things 7 were powerful, lucky, blessed.

And so this opens to us a much greater understood meaning of Jesus’ words here to the listeners of his day.  Hearing that he was to forgive his offending neighbor seventy-seven times would immediately cause him to think of luck and blessing, power and creation.

 

Could the subtle message then be that when one forgives, again and again, that such a one is blessed, lucky, powerful? 

Does this not sound like something Jesus would say?

 

Jesus was continually challenging conventional wisdom – debunking it, turning it on its head.  And here it appears he is doing no differently; people have always felt more powerful when holding a grudge against someone else, but Jesus is instructing that power and blessing come through forgiveness. 

That is radical.
That is world-altering.
This sounds like Jesus!

And then Jesus goes on to share the parable of the Unforgiving Servant.  This servant owes a great deal to his lord and cannot yet repay it.  Though the lord plans to sell he and his family, the servant begs for mercy – asking for more time to repay the debt.  The Lord has compassion on the servant and forgives the servant his entire debt!  But then the servant leaves that place and goes to demand payment from those below him, who owe him money.  So when the lord gets wind of it, he reprimands the servant for not extending the mercy he has received to his own debtors.  The servant was shown great mercy for his debts.  But the servant does not extend mercy to his own debtors.  And this decision to follow greed over mercy leads the servant to a worse fate than before…

 

And I am intrigued here because Jesus has gone from talking about forgiveness to talking about debts. 

 

Now in my mind, those are two different things.  Forgiveness might be for a debt, but it might also be for a lie or an accident or an injury.  Forgiveness is much broader to me; whereas, a debt is usually just financial.

But recall the language in our own Lord’s prayer – also the words of Jesus:  “Forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  Forgiveness is again tied to debts.  And so we garner a larger definition of debts.  The Greek word for debts refers not just to financial obligation – thought it certainly does cover that.  Debts also refers to something owed, an offense, or a sin.  …and thus we have the various renditions of our Lord’s Prayer!

So putting all these insights in context, we find Jesus instructing Peter to forgive, time after time after time, with the understanding that blessing and power will be his, as he forgives.  And Christ then gives them all an illustration to show that because we have been forgiven, we must also forgive.  We are called to forgive sins, offenses, and actual financial debts – as the lord of the parable has done.

 

And so what does this mean for each of us? 

 

Psychology has long claimed the destructive power of holding a grudge.  But psychology has not yet ventured into comment on the power of holding a financial debt, of remembering what one owes us.

In Luke 6:34-35 we read:

“ If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”

 

God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
GOD is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked…

 

Again we have Jesus’ words, and again Jesus speaks about money.  And this time the meaning is not so veiled, as in the special Hebrew number 77.  Jesus outright says, “Lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great…”  Wow.

Jesus is speaking clearly about the power of NOT keeping a debt…even to those least deserving. 

 

It is easiest to relegate Jesus to the disembodied, spiritual realms of our lives, but Jesus was alive, flesh and blood.  Jesus spoke about hunger and greed.  Jesus spoke about sin and unfaithfulness.  Jesus spoke about taxes.  Jesus spoke about money.

And Jesus is stating – both in powerful, cultural subtleties and in direct form – that blessing lies in forgiving others of what is owed us. 

THAT is where power is.
THAT is where luck is.
THAT is where blessing is.

 

This message is still just as counter-cultural as it was when Jesus spoke it.
This message still makes us uncomfortable.
This message still rubs up against our financial strategies and wisdom.

But this is Jesus’ message:  forgive all those who owe you – money, an apology, a service – and see if blessing and luck and power do not follow you! 

 

The Kindom of God is made real among us
When we forgive, as we have been forgiven.

 

Halleluia!!!
Amen.

“The Oppressed Shall Go Free”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Exodus 12:1-14
Romans 13:8-14

 

Exodus 12:1-14

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

 

Romans 13:8-14

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.


 

We have been following this story of Joseph – how he was sold by his brothers as a slave, how he was falsely accused and thrown into prison for years and years, and how he finally got out because of the way he used his gifts of interpreting dreams and because he believed God’s Word spoken through dreams.

Joseph was placed as something of a Father to Pharaoh of Egypt, and when Joseph is reunited with his family, he entreats them all to come to Egypt – to survive the long years of famine with him there.

And that is where they have remained….until the days when the new Pharaoh does not know them and feels their growing numbers and prosperity to be a threat.  And this is when we hear of baby Moses narrowly escaping infanticide – rescued from a basket among the reeds, along the Nile river.

Then we heard of Moses who – having fled Egypt after lashing out and killing an Egyptian, who had been beating an Israelite, and marrying and setting up home in the dessert – sees a bush burning in the wilderness and hears the voice of God calling him beyond his every excuse, to be a part of God’s liberation of his people from Egypt.

What a journey!!!

 

 

And here we find the Israelites on the eve of their great liberation – having endured all the plagues sent upon the land of Egypt, and bracing for the worst one yet, the death of all the eldest Egyptian boys in the land.

We have reached this point in which the heart of the Pharaoh is so hardened that nothing less than the death of his own eldest son, will cause him to stop murdering and enslaving the children of Israel.

What a terrible place to be.

 

Isn’t this how every war begins? …When the cost of doing nothing exceeds the cost of doing something?

 

And so this most terrible plague of all, the death of the first born males of Egypt – the pride joy, the economic back-bone, the seat of power – these young ones are struck down…

And it is terrible.

 

 

And here on the eve of this most terrible plague of all, God is instructing the people to be prepared.  …to be prepared because their liberation – long out-of-reach, will come (and go) swiftly

…for God knows that Pharaoh’s own brokenness and openness will be but momentary.

After his moment of heart-broken surrender, Pharaoh pendulums right back to his former position of hardness toward the Israelites and will send his entire army after them, a people fleeing on foot, from a nation chasing them on horse and chariot.

And what a staggering and terrifying position in which to find oneself…

 

All of this lies just ahead, and so God instructs them to eat up – dressed, sandals fastened, staff in hand.  Whatever perishable food they cannot consume is to be burned.  THIS shall be their new beginning – their first of months, their start to a new year…and a new life.

Their deliverance will come in a flash.
And they must be ready to seize it.

 

For God will free them mightily and powerfully, as those on the wrong side of love and justice, are brought to their knees…to consider the evil they have wrought and the lives they have pressed and taken.

A reckoning is here.

 

I am intrigued too at this verse in Romans today:

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

The very point of all the laws that God would give the Israelites, through Moses, was love.  For GOD IS Love.  GOD IS LOVE.

…The point all along was LOVE.

 

The Israelites are called to be God’s embodiment of love – that God’s love might shine into all the darkest places, setting creation free in the knowledge of God’s own delight!

“Love does no wrong to a neighbor.”

Love does no wrong to a neighbor.
LOVE does no wrong
To a neighbor.

 

Can we say that we have done no wrong to a neighbor?

 

We have taken moments to collectively remember our national sins of the genocide of Native Americans, the kidnapping of their children, and the stealing of their lands.

We have taken moments in these past weeks to collectively remember our national sins of the enslavement, of the oppression, of the lynching, of the discrimination, of the criminalization, and of the mass-incarceration of our fellow citizens and neighbors of color.

 

Can we say that as a nation, we have been on the right side of Love?
Have these actions embodied the love and deliverance of Christ?

 

When God again moves swiftly to let the oppressed go free, will we be swimming in the swift current of God’s saving LOVE?

Will we stand – fighting the current, clinging to our former positions of power and ease, comfort and stability – losing our souls to save our “lives”-as-we-know-them?

Will the flood have to overtake us,
Or those we love,

Before we let go and allow God to set God’s beloved people free? 

 

I know many among us have long worked and fought, spoken out and sacrificed, that the oppressed might go free.  I know many of you live lives that embody the LOVE of Christ, in so many acts of generosity and loving compassion.

 

God is alive.

And God is still writing the stories of history.

God is making wrong things right:
setting the prisoner free,
     giving sight to the blind,
     and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. 

 

Where will OUR lives stand,
Where will we AS A CHURCH stand,

 

When God swiftly rights the wrongs?  When God swiftly delivers?  When hearts and economies and powers must be broken wide open, to finally make room for the Spirit of God – just as the hearts and economies and powers of the Egyptians were to broke wide open, that justice might flow down like the mighty rivers…

Where will WE stand???

 

Our actions and inactions have consequences.
And LOVE calls us to account.
LOVE calls us to right the wrongs.
LOVE calls us to join with Christ in proclaiming,

 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 

Paul declares in Romans,

“…it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light”

 

 

Let us pray: 

Holy and Mighty God,
Lover of Justice,
Protector of the Weak,
Deliverer of the Oppressed,
Lover of our Souls,…

Hear these our prayers. 

You have woken us.
We are awake.
We were blind, but now we see.
The night is gone.  The day is near. 

Help us…
to systematically
and completely lay aside every work of darkness
and to clothe ourselves in your love,
your armor of light.

 In Christ’s name we pray,
Amen.