A weekly look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.
Reading: Matthew 18:21-35
In Matthew 18:15-20, we saw that Jesus took the very human impulse to shun outliers from fellowship and urged his disciples to treat them as “pagans and tax collectors” – which seems harsh until you remember how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors! In this week’s reading, Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus’ teaching becomes more explicit as he first tells Peter to forgive sins “seventy times seven” (an infinite amount) and then cautions his disciples via the parable of the ungrateful servant to forgive as they’ve been forgiven.
Theoretically, we Christians should be great at this. We’ve experienced first hand (and daily continue to) the love, mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Yet it seems like we’re often the worst of the worst when it comes to mercy! We erroneously assign ourselves as the gatekeeper to the sheep pen rather than as sheep under the guidance of our Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and use this “gatekeeper” mentality to try and put up walls between people – imperfect people, people who don’t look, act or think the way we do, people we feel threatened by or superior over – and Jesus. It’s the height of arrogance, and I think it’s rooted in a very simple misconception: we think the debt is ours to forgive.
In the parable of the unforgiving servant, we learn that the servant owes a huge amount of money to his king – ten thousand talents, a talent being equivalent to twenty years of a day labourer’s wage. It’s an insurmountable debt. Jesus was using hyperbole to demonstrate how ludicrous the repayment of such a sum was and to show how much was being forgiven.
When the forgiven servant finds another who owes him a hundred denarii, or the equivalent of a hundred days’ of a labourer’s wage, he flies into a rage. But if we read this attentively, we realise that the money the forgiven servant was demanding back probably wasn’t his to begin with. He’d lent it from the coffers of his own fraud. That he’d demand back stolen money as if it was his own makes his cruelty and ingratitude all the worse.
Christians often act the same way. When we see people whose “sin” we don’t agree with (or aren’t guilty of in our own estimation) we put on the brass knuckles to pummel them…”for God”. Whenever we move into God’s judgment seat or attempt to take the reigns of his wrath, we’re laying claim to a debt that was never to us or ours to begin with. Like the ungrateful servant, we go around demanding back what doesn’t rightfully belong to us: God’s grace.
The Nashville Statement is a good example of this. A body of Christians used their brand of theology to “defend” God’s righteousness and salvation against anybody who doesn’t look, act or think the way they do. Rather than use the enormous gift of grace they received themselves to shine the beacon of freedom in Christ, they’ve used their reprieve to withhold reprieve from others.
Friends, how arrogant are we when we behave this way! The Nashville Statement is a very visible example, but opportunities to act as a debt collector for a debt that isn’t ours – to steal, in others words, much like him of the thieving and destroying – are everywhere. Proper 19A’s narrative reading is a great time and place to remind ourselves and those around us just what we have in God’s grace, and that our calling is to humbly enlarge this circle of God’s light, not to patrol its borders with exclusionary theology, fear and judgment.