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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.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

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 More, The Better”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 2:1-21
Numbers 11:24-30

 

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

 

Numbers 11:24-30

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.


 

Just before this part in Moses’ story among the people of Israel journeying in the wilderness, the people have been complaining.  For though God has been supplying them with manna – simply forming on surfaces early in the morning – for which they had neither to plant nor reap, some among them are disgruntled as they recall how they ate in Egypt: the fish, leeks, garlic and chives,…and on an on and on.  They feel sick of manna and want a change.  They crave meat.

And this sends Moses into his own complaint to God.  He rants:

“Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child, to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors’? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.”

 

Moses doesn’t hold back all!  This must be some trust – to be able to just throw his own tantrum on the floor, as it were, before God Almighty.  But God responds with compassion toward Moses and a measure of anger at the behaviors of those disgruntled and ungrateful among the people.

God tells Moses his will to have others among the people to also help carry the burden of the people.  Moses is to select 70 of the elders and officers over the people.  They are to gather with the Moses in the tent of meeting, and God will speak with Moses there, putting some of God’s spirit on the elders.

 

And so this is what Moses does.  He calls and gathers the elders and officers in the tent of meeting.  And when God’s spirit rests on the elders, they begin to prophesy.  This is the only time they prophesy.

But most surprising, two of those selected (but who do not make it to the tent of meeting) …they also began to prophesy…but in the camp, among the people.  And so, a messenger is sent to tell Moses of the goings-on in the camp – how the two are prophesying.  And before Moses could respond, Joshua, Son of Nun, is indignant on Moses’ behalf saying, “Stop them lord Moses!”

But to their surprise, Moses replies,

“Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

 

“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” …

What a blessed desire.

 

Moses does not want to hoard or control the Spirit of God.  If he has any controlling tendencies in his bones, the sheer emotional and physical exhaustion at bearing the weight of responsibility for all the people is flat wearing him out!  He yearns for more to carry the burden with him.  He yearns for others to also hear God, for others to also prophesy, for others to also speak truth, discern solutions, resolve dissent, and lead this wandering people.

And so God’s response of putting the Spirit on the elders is in direct response to Moses’ human desire and limitation.  Moses needs help!!

So when this young man runs to alert Moses to the two elders in the camp, who are prophesying too, Moses is not threatened at all.  He is elated.  He only wishes ALL the people would be filled with the Spirit of God!

 

And how poetic, that this is exactly what God does, as Jesus returns to heaven.  God sends the Spirit out upon all God’s children – children not by blood, natural birth, personal righteousness, or position, but God’s children because the undeserved grace and mercy, love and redemption of Jesus Christ.  We have only to receive this unbounded gift, that we might enter into the joy and freedom and salvation of our God.

God pours out the Spirit on ALL God’s people. 

 

I am struck by this story.  For one, in all my years growing up in church and studying scripture, I’d never before noticed this passage.

  • I love how Moses rants at God.  I relate.
  • Complaining, venting, and ranting are quite often looked down upon in our Christian culture.
  • I am filled with gratitude that God does not shame Moses but helps him.
  • I appreciate seeing how another servant of God reaches his own limitations. I also relate. Moses give us an example of asking for help.
  • And in God’s response we see compassion and understanding. It gives me hope that we too can ask for help…even through our rants.

I love Moses’ response when Joshua wishes to restrain the Spirit, in order to preserve Moses’ status within the community.  Joshua is concerned that this prophesying might endanger Moses’ respected position.  But Moses is not at all concerned with this political move.  He does not play the game.  He does not grasp to control or restrain the Spirit.  He doesn’t discredit the two men who begin prophesying outside of his purview.  Rather, he is concerned that the people hear truth, receive guidance, and walk in God’s ways.  The more true guides, the better.  The more workers for the harvest, the better.  The more who are led by the Spirit of God, the better.

 

Do you know how many generations of Christians have sought to restrain the Spirit of God?  Though we might not call it that, that is exactly what we have done.  We’ve attempted to define and control who is in and who is out, just as the earliest Jewish Christians did when some required that all Gentile believers be circumcised, refrain from eating meat, and observe all the holiness rituals.  It is what Jonah did when he refused to follow the Spirit of God and sailed in the opposite direction, rather than go and preach repentance to the people of Nineveh.  It is what Peter was tempted to do, when he was called by a Gentile family to come and preach the gospel among them.  It is what the church has done, when it has placed ritual upon doctrine upon confession upon giving – as a requirement for salvation – diminishing the gospel, making it conditional, and in fact, not very good news at all!

Even if you and I, per say, have not participated in these particular efforts to quench and control the movement of the Spirit of God, our own Christian culture, our ancestors who came before, and generation after generation of believer has been tempted in this same way.  And I suspect that when we are truly quieted and listening, we too will discover ways in which we have participated in efforts to limit the expansive love of God, and God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.  For God is moving through-out the world, to seek out and save the lost.

 

Are we?

Are we listening?
Are we following?
Are we obedient?

 

Are there actions we have taken,
prejudices we’ve carried on,
things we have left undone,
words we have said or left unsaid
– even unbeknownst to us –
for which we need to ask forgiveness?

 

Will we set down our temptations to control?
Will we surrender our ego
and take on humility?

 

Will we take our cues from the movements of God by the working of the Holy Spirit, rather than expecting God to follow our strategic plans and secret desires?

 

“Would that ALL God’s people be prophets and that the Lord would put the Spirit onto them!” Moses imagines.

 

Thanks be to God!

For God has anointed you and anointed me!
God has put the Spirit into child and grandparent,…
Men and women and those non-binary,…
The powerful and the powerless,…
God has poured out God’s Spirit upon ALL flesh!

 

What wonder!  What goodness!  What honor!  What opportunity!

May we take this long-desired, unparalleled gift – this pouring out of the Spirit of God – and may we be about the work of our God:

Grateful to share in this gospel work,
Shining our light into the darkness,
Proclaiming freedom to those oppressed,
Doing justice, and thereby ushering in the Kingdom of our God, and
Announcing the mercy and grace of our God.

Thanks be to God!