OLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 14: 19-31
(OK, first of all, clear all images of Charlton Heston out of your mind.) Keep in mind that main themes of the Book of Exodus—liberation, law, covenant, and presence. Chapter 14 comes near to the end of the narrative of liberation. Once again we have an angel in the story, which has not happened since the burning bush. The cloud is both before and behind Israel as a sort of “protective screen.” The cloud takes the place of the fire of the bush, providing light as well as covering. Then, just as the Lord had commanded, Moses drives back the waters and creates a dry path for the escaping Israelites. Just as the waters were parted in the midst of Creation, they are parted here in this newness of recreation. In this moment, the Israelites are being liberated. And on top of that, the Egyptians are also forced to know that which even the Israelites had in some way doubted before. As Egypt comes to this confession, God is indeed acknowledged as the sovereign one. Then, also as God commanded, Moses unleashes the waters and chaos returns. They Egyptians are helpless against it.
According to this narrative, Yahweh has broken the power of Egypt and the power of slavery. The story is told in order to summon Israel to faith, even in the face of one’s enemies. And faith points to liberation and transformation. Jewish interpreters understand that Moses had asked for a three-day pilgrimage for the people and Pharaoh obliged. It wasn’t until they didn’t return at the end of the three days that the Egyptians began pursuing them. Perhaps even these people , enslaved for centuries, had a hard time imagining total freedom. Perhaps they needed to imagine it in what could be characterized as a tiny sound byte.
The truth is that this is a hard Scripture to stomach on many. We struggle with the image of one’s own liberation and freedom coming at the expense of others. Maybe that’s part of the point. Darkness is everywhere in this world. And so is beauty. There is an almost poetic juxtaposition of the two at every turn of our lives. And because of that, sometimes our salvation comes in the midst of another’s exile; and often our own exile comes in the midst of another’s salvation. I mean, how many times have you heard someone proclaim praise that our area was “spared” a hurricane? And yet, the hurricane grounded itself somewhere. The fire burned down some path. The waters closed over someone. There was someone that was not spared. God is not only present with those on the side of salvation. God is also present in the darkness. Don’t you think God was there in that water with the Egyptians just as God was there in those crumbling towers? We do not have to be “good” or “right” or even “spiritual”. God is always there. But true freedom, true liberation only comes with that realization.
So, as we remember a devastation much closer to home this coming week, it is good for all of us to remember what happened after the well-known parting of the sea: the waters returned to normal, crashing into each other as the Israelites realized that the chaos of life is always there. But just as the waters come together, we find ourselves standing on the other shore—transformed, liberated, free to move to a new place, to open up a world to the miracle of infinite possibility.
A few days ago I came across a note from a friend, an Episcopalian priest who had been run out of his parish by its leaders, the punishment voted upon him as a result of having faithfully done his job. “Your sermons are too political. We don’t want to hear what’s wrong with the world. And we don’t want to hear what’s wrong with us. Just tell us God loves us and leave it at that,” they told him. When he couldn’t leave it at that – anymore than Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesus could have before him, they insisted he resign. And his bishop supported their decision.
Being faithful to the gospel, having faith in himself meant heading for the Red Sea, not knowing what would happen next. Standing firm for the man he was and for the God who had called him – between the devil and the deep blue sea.
There comes a time for all of us when we must find out whether we have what it takes. That moment when we break free of the oppressive circumstances that have held us captive for so long and stand before an uncertain future. When matching the enemy blow for blow is not an option. When no one can see a way for us to the other side. When we must simply reach down within ourselves and find that source of fearlessness, dignity and integrity. The place that literally in-spires us to be more than we know.
It is then that a path opens before us in recognition of that which we were prepared to believe, a way out of what seemed an impossible dilemma into that new day that God alone can provide. (Excerpt from “Keeping the Faith in Babylon”, by Barry J. Robinson, available at http://www.spirit-net.ca/sermons/a-or24-keeping.php, accessed 8 September, 2011.)
- What is your response to this passage?
- How difficult is it for us to imagine “total transformation”? What, for us, does that entail?
- From what “exile” is it hard for us to leave?
NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 14: 1-12
This passage continues with the theme of God’s call to worship, holiness, and unity. The opening implies that Paul has become aware of disputes and dissensions within the community. He begins with the issue that probably lay at the heart of it all—the argument over whether or not the rules of Torah, the dietary laws, should be set aside. For Paul, these laws were probably no longer necessary. But he still warned against judging those who adhered to the laws. Rather, the Lord embraces all.
The next section has to do with the observance of special days, time-honored holy days. There seems to be an underlying warning against observing special days for the wrong reasons, something Paul would have attributed to paganism. He resolves that if anything is done to glorify God, it is rightly done. That is what living as a Christian means—to do everything that you do to honor and glorify God. The world will not know us by our perfect harmony; the world will know us by our love.
Paul is writing to people who despised each other, who judged each other based on their religious beliefs. They argued about holy days; they argued about proper food; they argued about whose belief was the “right” one. Can you imagine? But also keep in mind that, compared to us today, they were in the minority. Christians could lose jobs, become estranged from their families, and be vilified by the community. So fear was rampant. You know, fear does things to people. It’s hard to be the unified Body of Christ when you don’t trust each other. It’s hard to be the unified Body of Christ when rules and right beliefs become more important than our neighbors. It’s hard to be the unified Body of Christ when we can’t talk to each other or be with each other. In a sermon entitled “From Commandments to Commitments”, Rev. Ignacio Castuera tells this story:
A Rabbi and a Roman Catholic Priest were sitting next to each other at an Inter-faith event. When dinner was served someone thoughtlessly had placed a slab of ham in the Rabbi’s plate. The Rabbi did not protest but simply proceeded to eat other things his faith and physician permitted. The Roman Catholic padre leaned over in the direction of the Rabbi and said. “Rabbi Cohen, you and I know that the dietary laws from the Old Testament were developed at a time when pork meat was indeed dangerous due to lack of refrigeration and low heat in cooking. Of course trychinosis was rampant and your ancestors in the faith were right in prohibiting eating pork in order to save the lives of many Israelites. Those days are gone, pork is safe and there is no reason to cling to outmoded ancient practices. When will you eat your first mouthful of ham, Rabbi Cohen?” The Rabbi paused briefly and then responded, “at your wedding, Father Maguire, at your wedding” (From “From Commandments to Commitments”, by Rev. Ignacio Castuera, available at http://day1.org/717-from_commandments_to_commitments, accessed 7 September, 2011.)
Essentially, Paul is saying, “Fine, do what you want to do; Live out your faith in whatever way is best for you; Live by whatever rules you want to live by. Just remember that those are not your faith; they are window dressing, ways that we order our own understanding of who God is. They are fine for you and we applaud your commitment. But faith is about relationships. Faith is about being the Body of Christ.” No where in this passage does Paul proclaim a “right” or orthodox theology by which we should live. He just tells us to get out of ourselves and back to God. He just tells us to get back to being the Body of Christ.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What does it mean for you to “be the Body of Christ”?
- To what issues in today’s religious world could this speak?
- How do you hear this in light of our 09/11 remembrance of this week?
GOSPEL: Matthew 18: 21-35
This passage continues the broad section of the writer Matthew’s version of the Gospel that has to do with life together as a new community. First the writer reflected on the consideration of those who are “young in the faith”, then church discipline, and, now, the idea of forgiveness and grace. At the beginning, Peter’s proposal to forgive seven times sounds pretty generous, especially since there is not even a mention of repentance by the other party. But Jesus goes far beyond that. The Greek number hepta can be understood as “seventy times seven” or four hundred ninety times. The difference between the two proposals is not merely mathematical; it goes beyond that. It is a matter of grace, of mercy, of forgiveness. Whoever counts has not really forgiven at all. The forgiveness called for here goes beyond all calculation. Jesus then continues with a parable.
Here, the “servant” is not a household slave, but a subordinate official, perhaps a sort of supervisor or foreman. The debt, here, was incurred through mismanagement of the king’s resources, not by personal expenditures. The figure used is not a realistic one. A talent is the largest monetary unit, approximately equal to the wages of a laborer for fifteen years. The term for “ten thousand” is the largest possible number. We could translate it as “myriad”, something that can’t even be counted or calculated. The combination of the two (ten thousand talents) is the largest figure that can be given. The amount is beyond all calculation. The debt, then, is essentially unpayable. The servant’s situation is hopeless. He asks for mercy and beyond all expectation, the king shows him compassion.
The debt of the fellow servant, though, is microscopic. If you want to take it literally, a hundred denarii is about 1/600,000th of the first servant’s debt. The point, though, is that there is an infinite contrast. It’s still about 100 days labor and the servant cannot pay it. But the servant who had received such infinite compassion chose not to show even a tiny fraction of the same.
So the king takes back the forgiveness and condemns him to torment. The point is that in order to receive full forgiveness, one must be willing to forgive; otherwise it is invalidated. You could say that if one does not forgive, they have never really received forgiveness in the first place.
So what is the deal with all this math? It is because math depicts wholeness. In a book that he wrote about mathematical archetypes found throughout nature, art, and science, Michael Schneider contends that mathematics can be divided into three levels or approaches.
The first he calls “secular” mathematics. It is the math that is taught in school, that even within our limited scope, can be proved as true. It includes 2+2, calculating the amount of your change from a purchase, or telling time. This is the math approach that Peter was proposing: just count them—seven times.
The second approach is what Schneider calls “symbolic” mathematics. It is the understanding that numbers and shapes relate to each other in harmonious patterns. It is those patterns that make up all that is life.
The final level, as Schneider lays it out, he calls “sacred mathematics”. It is those things that move us beyond our own consciousness, beyond what is expected, beyond what we have been able to prove, or plan, or lay out as an accepted expectation. This is what Jesus was using. You see, seven is one of the most venerated numbers. In sacred understandings, seven is used to comprise completeness, a whole, a reconciliation. Think of the seventh day of Sabbath or the seventh year of Jubilee. And then on top of that, the multiplier of ten represents a new beginning, a new being beyond all limits. Seventy-seven times? It is a way of completing and beginning again. But you have to let it go to do that.
…What is forgiveness without reunion, or at least the possibility of reunion? And yet there are consequences to our actions. I was fascinated to speak with a Hindu colleague of mine about the concept of karma in her faith. “Every human choice has moral fallout,” she explained. “If you harm me, then there will be consequences for you as well as for me. You may have a change of heart later and ask me to forgive you, but even if I forgive you from the bottom of my heart, I cannot change your karma. You made a choice, which has had its effect. Eventually, you, too, will experience its full effect.”
This is a scary idea for some Christians who like to think of forgiveness as a giant eraser on the blackboard of life. But there is biblical precedent for the lasting effect of sins that have been forgiven. God forgave David for his murderous affair with Bathsheba, but their firstborn child still died. Jesus came to forgive the sins of the whole world, but according to this parable in Matthew 25, he will come again to separate the sheep from the goats.
Forgiveness is a starting place, not a stopping place. It is God’s gift to those who wish to begin again, but where we go with it is up to us. (Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin, p. 89-90)
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What impact on your understanding of forgiveness does this make?
- How do you reflect on this passage in light of our 09/11 remembrance?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t. (Blaise Pascal)
There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning. (Louis L’Amour)
We prattle about your sovereignty; all about all things working together for good, all about your watchful care and your severe mercies.
And then we are drawn up short; by terror that strikes us, in our privilege, as insane; by violence that shatters our illusions of well-being; by death that reminds us of our at-risk mortality; by smoke and fire that have the recurring smell of ovens.
We are bewildered, undone, frightened, and then intrude the cadences of these old poets: the cadences of fidelity and righteousness; the sounds of justice and judgment; the images of Sodom and Gomorrah; the imperatives of widows and orphans.
Even on such a day we are not minded to yield on your sovereignty. We are, we confess, sobered, put off, placed in dread, that you are lord as well as friend, that you are hidden as well as visible, that you are silence as well as reassuring.
You are our God. That is enough for us…but just barely.
We pray in the name of the wounded flesh of Jesus. Amen.
(“Even On Such A Day”, by Walter Brueggemann, written September 11, 2001, in Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, p. 37)