Saturday, September 9, 2017

Mercy in the Air

Matthew 18:21-35, the gospel text appointed for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, has a clear message:  Now is the time to forgive.  Now!  We may discuss the various identities of all the characters in the parable, but the clear message remains.

(The following questions are provided in order to get at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers, foremost, "How does the text function for the hearer?"  If you'd like to explore the genre of Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This text has a strong word of Law, encapsulated by the master's rebuke of the unforgiving servant in verses 32-33:  "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?"  The text ends with a warning:  "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The word of Gospel is hidden here, although it is in plain view.  The Gospel word is that God is like the master who forgave the slave his entire debt, a debt that was far greater than anything he could have ever paid back.  Indeed, this complete forgiveness of the entire debt is wholly unexpected, bringing to mind the words of St. John, "If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (I Jn. 1:9)

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?   This is an interesting question.  Looking at the context of this parable, we might assume we are represented by Peter, the one asking the question about forgiveness.  If we identify with Peter, then we would be the unforgiving slave in the parable: the one who though having been forgiven everything, will forgive his fellow slave nothing.  This is certainly an appropriate way to go.  But we might try identifying with the other slaves in the parable.  What if we identify with the one who experiences the merciless action of his fellow slave?  Or what if we identify with the other slaves who tattle-tale to the master the sins of their fellow?  It might be interesting to explore our own self-righteousness by stepping into that perspective.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Living mercifully, the theme of this parable, is a call to obedience.  Like any call to obedience, this is one of the ways we live in response to the gospel. We do not forgive in order that we can be forgiven, but because we have been forgiven.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The theme is clear; couplets that describe it are innumerable:  unforgiving/forgiving; merciless/merciful; indebted/debt-free.

6.  Exegetical work:  There are any number of helpful commentaries on the parables of Jesus, and I would recommend the serious preacher avail him or herself of copies of each.  David Buttrick's Speaking Parables is particularly insightful in this parable.  He notes how this parable lifts up the fact that "if we refuse to forgive a neighbor, we are violating the merciful context of our lives." (p.111)  This suggests that we, like the unforgiving slave, often fail to see that as forgiven sinners, mercy is in the air we breathe, and when we fail to recognize this, our lives violate the context of  our life.  Luise Schottroff agrees with Buttrick's assessment and offers a rabbinic parallel to Matthew's teaching:  "Forgiveness between human beings is a sign of the presence of this God:  'Let this be a sign in your hand:  As often as you are merciful... the Almighty has had mercy on you.'" (The Parables of Jesus, p. 201)  "The content of the Gospel of Matthew is very closely related to the later rabbinic idea about the necessity of forgiveness between human beings and its basis in God's promises." (Ibid., p. 202)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Archived under Gospel A for 2011, Eric Evers reminds us that forgiveness is essential not only in personal encounters, but even more essential in our communal life in this post-9/11 world.  He speaks of the violence in our hearts that causes us to 'seize others by the throat' and demand they return to us what they owe.  Evers reminds us that if this is what we want, God will finally agree to this, which will in turn lead to our demise.  See the whole analysis at study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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