Proper 19 (September 11-17)
Texts: Matthew 18:21-35;
Ex. 14-15; Rom. 14
CHOOSING TO LIVE IN THE WORLD OF FORGIVENESS
Wouldn’t it be great to be able to choose the world you live in? If you could choose, what kind of world would it be? What would your ideal world be like? Perhaps the theme of this afternoon’s rally would describe it: “No more violence!” We fear for our children and the world in which they are growing up. The statistics cited in the bulletin insert are staggering. Every school day…at least 100,000 students tote guns to school…160,000 skip classes because they fear physical harm…and on and on. This is not only the violent world are children are growing up in. It is the violent they already face each day at school. Then what happens when we start to include the domestic violence statistics, the violence they face at home? Yes, the ideal world would be one in which there is no more violence.
When we say “violence,” it means more than physical harm. To say that we want to live in a world without violence, we want to include all those ways in which we hurt one another. Jesus seemed to ‘up the ante’ on violence in just this sort of way, when, in the Sermon on the Mount, he said things like, (Mt. 5:21-22) “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Yes, we hurt each other in so many ways. The ideal world would be one without any kind of abuse: physical or emotional.
It would also be missing the violence of broken relationships, the terrible pain we suffer when we are unfaithful to one another. Again, Jesus painted that picture, too, in the Sermon on the Mount, when he said, (Mt. 5:31-32) “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Yes, Jesus knew that the ideal world would also be absent of that kind of violence, the tearing apart of relationships and the terrible hurt involved. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our children could grow up in a world where all families were bound together in love?
But we can’t choose to live in such a world. Can we? So why torture ourselves with such thoughts of a world with no more violence of any kind? Right? It only adds to the torture of already living in this world which is filled with so much violence, with so many myriad of ways in which we hurt, or even kill, one another.
Believe it or not–and that, of course, is what faith is about, believing it or not–we do have that choice! We do have the choice to begin living in a new kind of world! That is what I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about: the choice to begin living in a new kind of world–the Kingdom of God, Jesus called it–a whole new world in which we can begin to live without violence. Our gospel lesson today, I think, presents us with this very choice. It presents us with a servant who was faced with this choice of which world he wanted to live in. As the parable opens, we can see that he lived very much in this world in which relationships can be based on the violence of indebtedness. If he didn’t pay his debt, the consequences were going to be very bad: slavery for he and his family. This is the kind of relationship typical of this world in which we live. Debt. We all know what it’s like to live under the shadow of debt.
Well, this servant goes to his master, to whom he owes a very large debt, and he begs for mercy. Now, it’s important to understand, here, that this servant is seeking mercy within the rules of the game. He doesn’t ask to not play the game of paying off debts; he simply asks for more time to pay it back. But what happens might have been beyond his imagining. The mercy that his master extends to him is to suspend the rules of indebtedness altogether! He forgives the debt. He removes it as if it didn’t exist. In short, he offers him a whole new world, one without debt. This servant is invited to choose to live in a whole different world, the world of forgiveness.
But then what happens? Does this servant choose to live in this new world? No. Either he didn’t fully understand this choice he was presented with, or he decided that he had to give up too much to live in this different world. What would he have to give up? Why, the debts that others owed him. And sure enough. Immediately, he is presented with the consequences of this choice. A fellow servant comes to him begging for the same kind of mercy, and this now “unforgiving servant” shows his choice. He’d still rather keep the debts that others owe him and live in this world of debt rather than forgiveness.
What are the consequences of such a choice? Again, we see the immediate results: the debts that you owe others remain unforgiven, too. The king comes back to this “unforgiving servant” and basically says, “I gave you the choice of beginning to live in a whole new world, the world of forgiveness rather than debt, and by refusing to forgive your fellow servant you have apparently declined to live in that gracious world. Very well, if your choice is to live in the world of debt rather than forgiveness, then here are the consequences: Bailiff, take this man away until his pays his debt to me.” That’s what I think this parable is about. The servant had the choice to live in a whole new world, and he turned it down and so lived with the deadly consequences.
And that, I believe, is the choice of faith in Jesus Christ: to live in a whole new world, the world of forgiveness. In introducing the parable, Jesus says, “This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.” “Kingdom of heaven,” a whole new world. Jesus came to offer us a whole new world of forgiveness rather than the world of the debts of hurt we keep with one another. The only way out the vicious circle of debts of hurt is to forgive one another. And Jesus brought this new heavenly world into this earthly world and made it a real option for us. We can truly choose this new world. It can really happen–as truly as he spoke those words of forgiveness from the cross to us who put him there. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Now, of course, this is just one parable, and it doesn’t answer all our questions. In fact, I think that it shows us how complicated forgiveness really is, for it means stepping into a whole new world. In this earthly world in which debts are typically unforgiven, we tend to minimize forgiveness as having warm fuzzies again toward someone who harmed you, even if all those debts and hurts are still in place. The world of forgiveness is so much more than simply someone saying, “I’m sorry,” and another responding, “I forgive you,” and then the two of them embracing one another again. That can be a nice start when it happens. But living in a whole new world of forgiveness means more than just those isolated instances of one person forgiving another. It means living in a whole new world, structured in a whole new way. That servant apparently didn’t understand that, or didn’t want to. His master forgave him, but he didn’t understand that that meant he couldn’t continue to live in the world of debt when it was convenient for him–like when someone owed him money–and to live in the world of forgiveness when that was convenient for him–like when he owed someone money. Likewise, choosing to live in the whole new world of forgiveness that Jesus offers us, means making that commitment as wholeheartedly as we can. None of those old debts and hurts can be left in place.
Thank God that in Christ Jesus we are baptized into a community of people who struggle to live in that new world of forgiveness. Gathered in Word and Sacrament, we can sort out together all that living in this new world means to our everyday lives. We can guide and encourage each to put this love and forgiveness into practice. We can celebrate the healing; we can lift each other with the hope and promise. We can comfort one another in times of suffering…
And that raises the other question: why there still is suffering, why there is still so much violence and hurt. If Jesus started a whole new heavenly world among us, then why does this earthly world seem to have changed so little? The answer, I think, begins with the fact that God does present these two worlds to us as a choice. God created as free creatures to live either in God’s world, or to think we can make a better one on our own. Unfortunately, if we believe in the cross of Jesus, I think that also comes down to believing that that choice is the one we have outlined this morning: two different worlds: either God’s world of forgiving love, or this human world of our making, a world of violence, and debts of violence, and death. And, tragically, most of us still choose the latter. If we chose to live in God’s world of forgiveness, then Jesus wouldn’t have had to die at all. And other people of faith wouldn’t have had to die, either. So the violence and suffering continue.
But the Good News, the glimmer of hope, comes from the fact that Jesus was also raised from the dead, both as an assurance that we are forgiven, and as a promise that someday forgiveness will win out. Those first disciples who beheld Jesus on Easter morning were burdened down with the guilt of having run away and abandoned their master at his crucial hour. Yet he came to them again to forgive, even as he continues to come to us each day with that offer of a new world of forgiveness. What is most important for us again today is to hear the promise of the resurrection, that Christ’s new life is the promise that God’s world of loving forgiveness will someday win the day. This new world of forgiveness is here, it’s real, and it will remain a choice for us, no matter how often we unwittingly turn it down. We come here again this morning to embrace the offer Jesus makes to us: “this is my body given for you; this is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you, for the forgiveness of sin. Do this in remembrance of me.” Taste this new life. Begin to live with its strength and healing and hope. Yes, hope for the day when surely violence will be no more, and death will be no more, and tears will be no more. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, September 14-15, 1996