Sermon on Exodus 14:10-13, 19-31 & Matthew 18:21-35 for Pentecost +14 A, Sept. 14, 2014
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 should 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 should 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.”
On the surface it may not appear that there is much in common between the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt across the Red Sea, and the story Jesus told about the forgiving king and his unforgiving servant. I believe, however, that at a deep level, the two tell one story; they are both about bondage and liberation. God desires liberation for people in bondage. And we are all in bondage; not to the Egyptians, but to something as strong and as dangerous.
There is great hope in these texts because God is constantly at work, providing a way out of our bondage. But God has trouble here. There are obstacles in the way. There are enemies, strong ones, that seek to keep us enslaved and miserable. God is able to overcome these enemies, as surely as God overcame Pharaoh and his army in the Exodus story. But the final obstacle is the one that gives God the most trouble, and it is us, ourselves. We are the ones who make the walls that confine us.
If we do not understand the nature of our own bondage, then perhaps we will not seek freedom. If we do not trust God’s way out, then perhaps we will not take it. If we turn back out of fear, we may miss out on the liberation God wants for us.
The Israelites almost missed it. As the story is told, on the verge of the great miracle they experienced, they begged to go back to being slaves. Listen again to the way the bible describes their situation:
“As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? …it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14:10-12)
Fear makes self-preservation at any cost seem preferable to the risk of trusting God’s way out. This is a deeply human reality. The enemies seem too great, too powerful, and too close. And the truth is that many people would prefer to die in Egypt as slaves than to take the risk of trusting God’s way out.
It must be said, in their defense, that God’s way out of bondage does seem dangerous and counter-intuitive. For the Israelites, the sea they faced ahead, and the pounding of approaching hoofbeats behind, were the undeniable “facts on the ground.” It was neither likely nor even easy to imagine a way out.
But there was a way out because God desires liberation for people in bondage. This is the greatest theme of the Jewish story. It is the theme of Jesus’ message. God has always been at work to set his people free.
Un-forgiveness is Bondage; Forgiveness is Hard
It is time to be clear about what I mean (and this is the link between the two texts we read). Insofar as we are unable to forgive, to that degree, we are in bondage. This is why the final enemy that keeps us in bondage is so powerful; the enemy is ourselves. This is what gives God the biggest problem: God does not force our hands. God offers a way out; only our sense of self-protection and fear keep us from taking it.
Forgiveness, is hard. It feels like lowering the sword in your hands just when your opponent is swinging his. It makes you feel vulnerable. Nobody wants to be the rug that people wipe their feet on. Nobody wants to be the one that gets taken advantage of. We want to be the kind of people that others take seriously and respect. Forgiveness seems to undermine all of that. We think forgiving makes us look weak. It leaves us open to being hurt again.
That was exactly the kind of thinking that provoked Peter’s question to Jesus:
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
So, Jesus answered with the story of the forgiving king and the unforgiving servant. It is a famous story, we know it well. In typical Jesus-fashion, it is filled with wild exaggeration to make the point. The servant owes the king a fortune. The king hears his plea for an installment payment arrangement, and unexpectedly forgives all of the enormous debt at once. Grace is scandalously extravagant.
That servant, however, finds a colleague who owes him a trivially small amount, hears him make the same plea for mercy he had just made to the king, but refuses to forgive. It is as if the guy who won the lottery has you arrested for owing him a beer. The comparison is intentionally ridiculous.
The point is plain: we have all been forgiven everything; how could we possibly withhold similar forgiveness?
And yet, we do. We get hurt, so we become resentful. We mentally replay events, conversations, and conflicts, reliving the pain each time. So we hold grudges, act passively aggressive with silent treatments and sarcasm, and seek out vengeance.
At least, that is what we do when we are living under the bondage to the illusion that we are between the chariots of Pharaoh and the deep blue sea (or Red Sea) without a third option.
The Way Out
But there is a third option. We need to hear what Moses said to the fearful Israelites who wanted to return to slavery, just before the great crossing miracle:
“But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; …The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
Jesus told us a story about how absurd it is not to forgive, but did not give us any how-to advice. Moses did. When the enemy is looming down on you and seeking to keep you in the bondage of resentment, bitterness and vengeance, there is a way out; there is hope. Did you hear it? Moses said,
“The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
Keeping still is the key. Keeping still is the exact opposite of the ruminating mind that keeps narrating the hurt and the offense to us, jabbering away in our minds about how justified we are and how deserving of “justice.”
Keeping still is what contemplative prayer-meditation is all about. It is a powerful key to silencing the voices of vengeance in our heads and setting us free to be forgivers. I love what Richard Rohr said:
“Contemplation is the key to unlocking the attachments and addictions of the mind so that we can see clearly. …some form of contemplative practice is necessary to be able to detach from your own agenda, your own anger, your own ego, and your own fear” (from the CD “Hierarchy of Truths: Jesus Use of Scripture”)
When we sit down and keep silent as a regular practice, we bring a stop to the chatter of our own minds. Rohr continues,
“We need some form of contemplative practice that touches our unconscious conditioning, where all our wounds lie, where all our defense mechanisms are operative secretly. Once these are not taken so seriously, there is finally room for the inrushing of God and grace!”
That is liberation from bondage. The “inrushing of God and grace” is like flinging the windows and doors open onto a dim, dank, smoke-filled room. Suddenly it is bright and fresh.
Now, mercy and forgiveness can replace bitterness and resentment. Practicing contemplative silence allows us to live as our true selves, as we are, not as our tender, vulnerable egos, but as children of a loving, liberating God.
This is exactly the kind of life Jesus lived. Jesus practiced frequent silent spirituality, and he practiced the ability to forgive enemies, all the way to the point of death.
Jesus modeled for us the life of complete trust in a caring Heavenly Father who can be relied upon to meet our needs. In the end, he did not take up the sword in his own defense. Jesus practiced forgiveness, taught forgiveness, and we can say, requires his followers to be forgiving people.
So the question for all of us is: where are we still in bondage, needing release? Who are the people in our lives that we are keeping an open tab on? Who are we unwilling to forgive?
Forgiveness does not mean that we force ourselves to believe that the wrongs we have suffered were okay. It simply means that we stop seeking or fantasizing revenge. We leave it up to God. When we remember the ones who wronged us, we wish for their redemption instead of for retribution. We pray for their healing rather than for more suffering. Forgiveness cuts the cycle from spinning around again.
We pray, as Jesus taught us to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” That is, we pray to be forgiven exactly as much as, as often as, and as completely as we forgive our debtors. This is true freedom. This is the transformation we all desire.
It is never too late to begin the daily discipline of silent contemplative prayer. In fact, it is the one thing we will always be able to do, right up until we breath our last. And it is the one thing that will let us reach that point without regret.
Peter asked, how many times should we forgive? How do we manage to forgive even once? The answer is here:
“The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”