The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost -- Proper 19A (9/14/2008)

God's Furious Compassion

Lessons: Genesis 50:15-21 Psalm 103: [1-7) 8-13 Romans 14:1-12 St. Matthew 18:21-35 Semicontinuous Reading and Psalm: Exodus 14:19-31 Psalm 114           or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, merciful judge, you are the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness. Replace our hearts of stone with hearts that love and adore you, that we may delight in doing your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

18.21 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?" 22 Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 "For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 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. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 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.' 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 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. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

St. Matthew 18:21-35, New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

As was the case last week, forgiveness stands at the very heart of this week's Gospel lesson. Last week we considered what Jesus had to say about sin and division within the community of faith. When sin causes us to be estranged from one another, we are to confront the sin, and work towards resolution, so that grace and forgiveness might have the final word.

This week Peter responds. While he often gets it wrong in the Gospels, this time he gets it exactly right. He understands that Jesus is asking an awful lot of them, so he probes the issue a bit. "That's all and well, Jesus, but how far do I have to go? What if someone keeps sinning against me? Do I have to forgive every time? Even if it happens seven times in a row?"

Jesus' response to him is shocking: "Not seven times, I tell you, but, seventy seven times." (The Greek is unclear here. He may mean "77" times, or he may mean "70 times 7" times. In either case, Jesus is commanding Peter to travel a lot further down this road that Peter ever imagined would be the case.)

Jesus then goes on to tell a story about a king who decides to settle accounts with his slaves. He comes upon one who owed him ten thousand talents (an incredible amount of money - by various estimates worth between 150,000 years and 170,000 years worth of a laborer's wages). The king demands payment, but when the slave falls on his knees and pleads for mercy, the king is overcome with compassion, and releases this slave from his entire debt.

But the slave has hardly made his way out of the king's court, when he bumps into another slave, who owes him a hundred denarii (about 100 days wages - no small amount, but miniscule, compared with the first debt that Jesus describes). In an ironic role reversal, the first slave demands payment from the second slave. The second slave pleads for mercy (using almost identical words as the first slave used earlier), but the first slave refuses and has him thrown in prison.

Other slaves witness this whole affair, and are distressed. They report it to the king, who becomes filled with rage, and hands the first slave over to be tortured.

If you take it (as I do) that the king in this parable represents God, we are left with two distinct images of God. We are first presented with a God who is so filled with compassion, that all plans to seek restitution are scrapped, and grace wins the day. We are then presented with a God who is so enraged by a forgiven child who refuses to forgive another, that this unmerciful one is sent off to the torturers, to be brutalized until it is all even. (And Jesus says, "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you...")

So which is it, Jesus? Is God a deeply compassionate being, who responds to desperate pleas for mercy? Or is God a demanding being, who flies into a furious rage when someone misbehaves?

You and I may have a preference for the former, but if we are attentive to the Scriptures, we have to admit that there is truth in both of those depictions. Our God is, as the Psalmist says, "abounding in steadfast love." At the same time, our God is committed to righteousness and justice, and is deeply aggrieved when human beings act otherwise.

God delights in visiting grace upon us. But that grace is not designed simply to get us off the hook and give us a second chance. God's grace is transforming grace. It is grace, intended to take hold of our hearts and change us. When we despise that grace - when we receive it, yet won't embrace it - when we are pleased to be graced, but refuse to grace others - then we are left with nothing other than the furious wrath of God.

God is serious about grace. God is passionate about grace. God is determined that grace will win over all. Would we want to have it any other way?

When the grace that has touched our hearts so changes us that we begin to be, bit by bit, vehicles of God's grace for others, then all of heaven rejoices with God for us.

Let us draw near to the grace of God. Let us pray that it has its transforming way with us (no matter how frightening that is). And let us go forth as instruments of grace, wishing that all of God's people might receive the same grace that has shaped our lives.


David J. Risendal

Exploring This Week's Text:

  1. What lies behind the question that Peter asks in verse twenty-one?
  2. What is the difference between the king and his slave in this parable?
  3. Why is the king's reaction to the slave who wouldn't forgive another's debt so strong?

Connecting with This Week's Text:

  1. When has God's forgiveness been important to me?
  2. When have I received the gift of forgiveness from another?
  3. Who is in need of my forgiveness right now, and how can I make that happen?