the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…except when it can’t!

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 18.21-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017

To be human is to live in relationships. To live in relationships is to know the joys of love and acceptance and the sorrows of disagreement and disappointment, hurt and anger with others and with one’s self. To know sorrow is to face, at times, to fight with the need for forgiveness of others and of one’s self.

Peter raises (unbeknownst to him, on our behalf!) this life-essential issue of forgiveness with Jesus. He proposes a limit of seven times; a magnanimous act, doubling an ancient standard of three, adding one for good measure! Jesus, as we’ve grown to expect, takes the matter to another, supernatural level, expanding the economy of forgiveness beyond the bounds of human imagination: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven” (meaning infinite) “times.”

I visualize Peter’s face, perhaps ours, too, frozen in shock as he and we struggle to comprehend limitless forgiveness. Quickly we might object: “Jesus, are you crazy? The world, yours then and ours now, doesn’t work this way! Our relationships are built and balanced on scales of give and take and our judgments of right and wrong, and, frankly Jesus, some things are terrible and can’t be forgiven and, if so, only after a long time!” But before we can stammer out our protest, Jesus holds up a calming hand, saying, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”

Jesus tells a parable of a king who forgives a pleading servant unable to pay a massive debt. That servant then condemns a fellow servant who owes, in comparison, a pittance. Other servants report this ingratitude to the king, who furiously reverses his decree of amnesty, sending that unmerciful servant to his doom.

Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art

A traditional Christian interpretation considers this parable a symbol of God’s grace. The king represents God who, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, has forgiven our sinful debt of disobedience that we could not pay. Therefore, we are to share the kindness of God’s forgiveness with our fellow human beings, whose wrongs, no matter how great in human terms, from heaven’s standpoint, cannot compare.

However, there are problems with this view…

Chief among them, the king, in revoking his pardon of the unmerciful servant, implies that there are limits on God’s illimitable forgiveness, which, at best, is a conundrum and, at worst, a contradiction…

And even if we view the torture of the unmerciful servant through a psycho-existential lens, perceiving it as the ill of bitterness that we inflict on ourselves when we refuse to forgive (though I believe that’s true!), it remains a penalty initiated by the king, who, again, represents God…

And the parable is built on a foundation of earthly inequality of authority and power between the king and servant and between servant and servant…

And, from there, the parable progresses on a worldly arc of the injustice of servant to servant and the vengeance of the fellow servants, desiring punishment, reporting the misdeed to the king who, again, revokes his pardon, therefore, imitating the cruelty of the unmerciful servant.

Limited forgiveness, inequality, injustice, vengeance. No, no, no, no! This is not, cannot be a depiction of the God Jesus reveals. This is not an image of love. Therefore, as I believe the kingdom of heaven may not be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants, this parable is a correction, verily, a condemnation of a world, our world where we humans limit forgiveness and worse, when hurt and angry, oft fall prey to the temptation to make God in our image as one whose judgments are like ours, thus not set on a scale of gracious and merciful love. (How many times has someone done another wrong and the offended party or a sympathizer said words to the effect: “God has a day of reckoning in store for that person!” or more bluntly, “God’s going to get that person!”)

Yes, some things in this life are terrible. And when terrible things, especially when wrought by human hands, happen to others and to ourselves, we would do violence to the souls of others and ourselves to demand that forgiveness, theirs and ours, be swift and absolute. Sometimes forgiveness takes time. Yet forgiveness alway is our calling that we, as God, may live in unlimited liberty, unfettered by the bonds of bitterness.

 

Illustration: Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art. Note: The painting depicts the moment in the parable when the king (on the left, pointing, his countenance creased in anger) scolds the unmerciful servant (on the right, gazing at the king, his brow furrowed, his hands clasped in a pleading gesture, his mouth partially open as if speaking, seeking to make his case): “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?” (Matthew 18.32b-33). The two other figures in van Hemessen’s portrayal of the parable are the king’s record keepers; one counting coins piled on the table and the other, with pen in hand, looking to the king for direction. In the background, a man is being dragged into an underground chamber by soldiers, representing the soon to come fate of the unmerciful servant: In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured… (Matthew 18.34).

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Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

A conversation…a confession about race

Two men.

Different as different could be. Save for gender. And age. Both 60-something. And stage of life. Both retired. And, both Episcopalians, religious upbringing.

One. White. An attorney. The child of an old Southern family with roots tracing back to mid-17th century English colonists. His mother, a painter of note and an author. His father, a prominent attorney from a long, generational line of prominent attorneys.

The other. Black. An Episcopal priest. Midwestern born. His mother, an elementary school teacher. His father, a postal clerk.

Two men, largely different as the proverbial day and night, in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) encounter in a quiet corner of a coffee shop of a local bookstore, engaging in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) conversation about race…

A conversation that, once he discovered my vocation, became his chosen opportunity for his confession. “I’ve wanted, I’ve needed to share this with someone for a long time…”

He sat forward, clutching his coffee cup in his hands, first, looking down, averting his gaze, telling me of his formative years. His parents had taught him that his privileged life bore an obligation to care for those who were needy, which, he acknowledged, as he understood their instruction, meant those who were lesser endowed with the material blessings of life, which, he further admitted, meant those who weren’t white. His parents, “Good people,” he quickly asserted, did not teach him that they were “better than other people.”

Still, certain moments in his childhood were indelibly, painfully imprinted on his memory.

His nanny, “a lovely, kind lady”, who cared for him from his earliest days, wasn’t allowed to enter their home through the front door. One morning, he, then at the age of 8, seeing her approach the house and turning, preparing “to go around to the back”, opened the front door, happily welcoming her; an impertinence, his parents made clear, that prompted an unpleasant scene of his being corrected and of her being chastised…

On another occasion, he, accompanied by his nanny, rode the bus downtown. He could not understand why she had to leave him and go to the rear when there were plenty of empty seats in the front. When he asked her, she declined to say more than, “That’s the way it is.” When he later asked his parents, they simply affirmed, “She is right.”

But somehow, even as a child, he knew it wasn’t right. “What is right,” he looked up at me, his lips trembling, yet his voice firm, “is that we’re all equal because God made us that way.”

Then, as best as I can recall, he said something like this: “For a long time, I’ve thought about Jesus on the cross asking his Father to forgive those who were killing him. I finally decided if he, who died for me, could do that, I needed to forgive my parents for their ignorance. But,” he held out his hands to me, “I need to be forgiven for my silence. All these years, I’ve known what was right and I never said or did anything to make it right. I promised God I would do something, whatever I can, but right now I want you to ask God to forgive me. Please.”

Taking his hands, we said the Confession of Sin that Episcopalians pray every Sunday. Then, making the sign of the cross, I pronounced the absolution of sin. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He mouthed a silent, “Thank you,” stood, and departed.

For a while, I sat motionless; moved, stunned by the experience of his transparent honesty, his naked humility, his patent sorrow, and his evident need, and by the swiftness of our entry into the depths of our encounter and the abruptness – yet, in its own way, timeliness – of its end. I do not know whether we will see each other again. It’s doubtful, I think. But, if we do, I will say to him, “Thank you.”