9/13/2020 Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Matthew 18: 23-34.
This is why Heaven’s imperial rule should be compared to a secular ruler who decided to settle accounts with his slaves. When the process began, this debtor was brought to him who owed ten million dollars. Since he couldn’t pay it back, the ruler ordered him sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, so he could recover his money.
At this prospect, the slave fell down and groveled before him: ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll repay every cent.’ Because he was compassionate, the master of that slave let him go and canceled the debt.
As soon as he got out, that same fellow collared one of his fellow salves who owed him a hundred dollars, and grabbed him by the neck and demanded: ‘Pay back what you owe!’
His fellow slave fell down and begged him: ‘Be patient with me and I’ll pay you back.’
But he wasn’t interested; instead, he went out and threw him in prison until he paid the debt.
When his fellow salves realized what had happened, they were terribly distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had taken place.
At that point, his master summoned him: ‘You wicked slave,’ he says to him, ‘I canceled your entire debt because you begged me. Wasn’t it only fair for you to treat your fellow slave with the same consideration as I treated you?’ And the master was so angry he handed him over to those in charge of punishment until he paid everything he owed.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
On this second Sunday in the “Season of Creation” series of preaching topics, the theme is centered on “protecting the commons”. Wikipedia defines “the commons” as; the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. Commons can also be understood as natural resources that groups of people manage for individual and collective benefit. Commons can be also defined as a social practice of governing a resource not by state or market but by a community of users that self-governs the resource.
Well, so much for self-governance when we talk about the plight of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, as Moses recounts for us this morning. There is no more an uneven relationship than that between slave and master. One holds the very power of freedom, life, and death over the other. Thus, when the Israelites in bondage had endured all they could and God sent the ten plagues to Egypt they took the chance to flee, to escape their brutal overseers.
And things seemed to be going pretty well until they found themselves between the proverbial “rock and a hard place”. The Red Sea in front of them, Pharaoh’s mounted soldiers bearing down on them from behind. Now, much has been written concerning whether their crossing to freedom was a miraculous parting of the Red Sea or something somewhat less impressive. Many modern scholars postulate that the area the escaping Israelites found themselves pursued to was actually the Reed Sea, a marshy, muddy swamp at best. And that the original translations were a bit generous when referring to this as a “sea”. And some argue that the crossing of this marshy area would have been difficult for people on foot and their herds of sheep, muddy and slow but achievable. But that this environment would prove nearly impossible for heavily armored soldiers on horseback and riding in chariots, who would be bogged down and unable to give pursuit.
No matter whether you hold to the parted sea miracle or the muddy swamp theory, the end result is the same; God provided for the salvation of his chosen people, leading them from enslavement to the promised land. This is an example of God “protecting the commons”; that is, ensuring that this group of faithful, desperately fleeing people were provided for. And this poses the question, who provided for, who protected the welfare of the Roman soldiers who were lost in this engagement? Certainly, not Pharaoh; for he sent them off to recapture these formerly enslaved people whom he had earlier released from their bondage in Egypt. God provided for his chosen people, while Pharaoh callously discarded his soldiers, many of whom were conscripts, draftees in order to soothe his bruised ego at the exodus of the Israelites, the loss of his enslaved pyramid builders.
Yet the Jewish descendants of these ancient Israelites remember with sympathy the misfortune the Egyptian people suffered from the plagues that Pharaoh caused to be brought upon them. As our Jewish brothers and sisters bemoan this tragedy at the Passover seder today, we ought to recall that Jesus would have done the same as he and the disciples met in the upper room as they celebrated their Last Passover Supper together. A portion of the Passover liturgy is a remembrance with sympathy of the suffering of the Egyptian people. The institution of the Eucharist that came to be at that Passover meal was, and is a celebration of universal compassion and forgiveness; to include, as Jesus stated “all people”, Israelite and Egyptian, slave and master, fleeing escapee and pursuing soldier. Current day sinner and saint; you and me. The love of God extends to all; this is the ultimate expression of “protecting the commons”. Our God has created one family, one humanity. We are joined together in our common suffering; and our salvation and liberation. The bread and the wine are given “for all people”.
In this bonding together as children of God it is incumbent on us that we strive to emulate this desire for everyone to have a share in all that the Father has provided. And that basically comes down to treating everything and everyone as equal; in worth, in stature, in value. If we aren’t all on the same page in mission to protect what is valuable to us as individuals, it becomes impossible to safeguard that which is dear to the whole of creation. The enormously wide gap that exists between and among different groups is contrary to God’s will, and often precludes meaningful achievement of anything of worth. This morning Matthew recounts Jesus’ telling of the parable of the “ungrateful servant”. The ten-million-dollar debt of the first servant is forgiven, while that same servant refuses to allow the one indebted to him the opportunity to repay the paltry hundred bucks he owed. There’s that wide gap of inequality again. This story is meant to teach us that we ought to always be willing to forgive the wrongs that have been done to us and work toward a successful and fair resolution to the issue.
The one who was owed the impossible sum was compassionate and forgiving. The other, who was owed a small sum was perfectly willing to have the debtor imprisoned; while the ruler in the first instance was willing to overlook the debt. The deeper meaning reveals that God cares so much for his children that he is willing to forgive the impossible debt that we all owe, that of our sinfulness. By the Father’s grace we are forgiven for entire lives enmeshed in unfair actions towards those around us. In the parable, the incredible sum owed is meant to portray the forgiveness of something of inconceivable value. It was an amount that could never be obtained. And as valuable as the sum is, it is as nothing when compared to the reward that the Father promises us in God’s willingness to overlook our debt; that of our sinful thoughts, words, and actions.
We are assured life eternal where all debts owed, paltry or enormous have been overlooked, through the work of Christ on the cross. And if our Savior was willing to give up his life for our debt, are we then not compelled to work together to ease the burdens of all? To gather together to “protect the commons”? Jesus’ parable highlights the value of the individual, in that forgiveness should be shown to everyone, small or enormous debtor. While God’s deliverance of the Israelites, and our Jewish brothers’ and sisters’ willingness to weep for the tragedy of Pharaoh’s foot-soldiers, expands the circle of forgiveness to include all of Creation.
In a few moments, the Words of Institution will be spoken, in remembrance of that Passover meal 2,000 years ago. Jesus’ announcement of forgiveness is intended “for all people”. And as we partake of this immeasurable gift of grace, let us remember that it is our responsibility to at least attempt to offer others some amount of graciousness in response to it. God forgives all; we ought to at least try to forgive a little. For when we release others from that which burdens them, only then do we really strive toward the redemption of the whole of Creation. If each of us is willing to do one tiny part of what we are called to do to support the common good, the result becomes greater than the sum of our individual efforts.
Seek out the need that surrounds us; you won’t have to look to far to find it. God’s people are suffering; the command to feed, clothe, and shelter Christ’s people has not diminished since Jesus first gave us this charge. And every time one of our siblings’ burdens is eased, a contribution is made to the betterment of all; the commons is uplifted and protected. Go forth intending to make a difference in the kingdom. Don’t be a “stick in the mud”!
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, we fail to recognize the needs of the world you created. So much so that we often don’t see the suffering of your individual child right before us. Help us to contribute to the common good, remembering that our tiny efforts may be added to those of others. And that overall, your will for Creation will be fulfilled. And we pray these things the name of Jesus Christ, who on the cross secured forgiveness for the debts of the world. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.