September 11, 2011 ~ Sermon
Message for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 11, 2011
Texts: Exodus 14: 19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
May the grace and peace of the resurrected Christ come to you in these words.
There are marks of the Christian life that are familiar to us – hospitality, generosity, no vengeance, no coveting, Sabbath rest. When we talk about no vengeance, we are talking about how we deal with conflict – whether we repay wrong-doing with an act of violence or hurt in return, or whether we can take a moment to consider how we might want to be “repaid” if we had committed a hurtful act or found ourselves in debt to another.
A short story. (from Rev. Randy Faro)
Earl “the Squirrel” had been wronged; flagrantly, violently, unjustifiably wronged. The nickname “Squirrel” was spit at him like a bullet . . . meant to harm. “ Girly squirrely” was not in the “in crowd.” And sometimes he reacted to this with name-calling of his own, which only exacerbated the situation.
They jumped him on a path behind the school one day. Knocked him down, kicked him, and smashed his 64GB iPhone. All Earl could think about for weeks was how to get even; how to pay them back. And he did . . . pay them back . . . big time.
The boys were drinking beer around a campfire on a Saturday night. Earl crept through woods and hurled a gasoline-filled balloon into their midst. It hit the campfire, exploded, and sprayed the six hooligans with liquid fire. All went to the hospital with third degree burns. One young man was permanently blinded.
Earl got ‘em back all right . . . and they never even caught him. But something happened . . . or didn’t happen. It didn’t help. There was an initial euphoria, but which morphed into guilt, shame, and fear. For years he tried to tell himself they had it coming. Eventually he had to undergo extensive counseling for mental and emotional issues, the root of which was a recurring dream of a young man screaming with his eyes on fire . . . literally.
The point: revenge didn’t work. It did not accomplish what Earl thought it would.
If not revenge? What?
We tend to be inclined towards revenge – it seems to have a just, and fair, notion about it. “You did something to me, now I’m going to do something back to you” – but what if I kick you back harder, then maybe you’ll want to have at me again… and where does it stop? This is retributive justice.
Our faith invites us to see the world differently. It always does. It always calls us to an alternative way of living and being with each other. If not vengeance – if not seeking justice in the retributive sense – then what? Forgiveness.
Here is how the stage is set in Jesus’ time… In an honour-shame society, sin is a breach of interpersonal relations. In the Gospels, the closest analogy for the forgiveness of sins is the forgiveness of debts, an analogy drawn from pervasive peasant experience. Debt threatened loss of land, livelihood, and family. It made persons poor, that is, unable to maintain their social position. Forgiveness would thus have had the character of restoration, a return to both self-sufficiency and one’s place in the community.
Since the introspective, guilt-oriented outlook of industrialized societies (like our own) did not exist in the first-century Mediterranean world, it is unlikely that forgiveness meant psychological healing. Instead, forgiveness by God meant being divinely restored to one’s position and therefore being freed from fear of loss at the hands of God. Forgiveness by others meant restoration to the community. Given the anti-introspective attitude of Mediterranean people, “conscience” was not so much an interior voice of accusation as an external one – what the neighbours said. It was blame from friends, neighbours, or authorities. …An accusation had the power to destroy, while forgiveness had the power to restore, (Malina, Rohrbaugh; Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p.364)
The requirement to forgive a fellow follower of Jesus is constant (“seventy-seven times” means “always”). Reconciliation is a primary social feature of Matthew’s understanding of the teaching of Jesus. Obviously, reconciliation (“forgiveness from the heart,” 18:35) requires forgiveness. This point is brought out in the following parable.
This passage offers a good example of the interpersonal notion of “sin” in honour-shame societies. Sin is shaming another person, hence an offense against another. “Forgiveness” is the restoration of the offender to the community. The considerable group pressure on an offender being proposed here makes the community’s role clear.
The Parable of the Forthcoming Theocracy: [the kingdom of heaven is] Like the Forgiveness of Debt. This parable continues the theme of forgiveness and maintains the analogy between debts and sins. Here living in the forthcoming theocracy is like the following scenario: A king calls in his bureaucrats (“slaves” who are members of the royal household) for an accounting. The one slave owes an impossible amount. A talent was the equivalent of six thousand denarii. A denarius was about one’s day’s wage (6000 divided by 365 – that’s working every day in a year, without weekends – is sixteen and a half years); hence the sum owed by the first debtor in this story is enormous. The hyperbole is typical of peasant stories and serves to heighten the contrast on which the story depends.
To recoup his losses, the king orders the slave and his family sold, but upon a request for patience, the king goes a step further and decides to act in terms of “mercy,” that is, an appeal to his royal honour to pay debts of interpersonal obligation to a “household” member. On the basis of such “mercy,” the king forgives the debt.
On the other hand, the slave-bureaucrat refuses to forgive the truly insignificant debt of a fellow slave-bureaucrat of the same household. In other words, the debt-free slave refuses “mercy,’ that is, he refuses to pay his debts of interpersonal obligation to an equal. The king, upon being informed of this, is forced to maintain his honour since the behaviour of the slave whose debt he cancelled makes a mockery of the king’s behaviour. The slave acts in such a way as to proclaim to one and all that he is so “wise and clever” as to be able to take advantage of the king with impunity. The king has no choice but to take “satisfaction,” by delivering that bureaucrat to the jailers. (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptics, pp.94-96)
Can you imagine, ten years ago, if there had been a desire – even action – to try to restore a global community ruptured by an act of hatred and violence? On September 20th, 2001, we heard the fighting words of a president set on taking vengeance:
“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” (September 20, 2001)
Even this past May, we heard the declaration of another president giving what was supposed to be the “good news” of vengeance finally being carried out in the death of Al-quaida’s leader, Bin Laden.
Can you imagine, now this decade on, had the president invited his country into an act of mercy and forgiveness? Instead of waging war, calling for peace – and seeking understanding. How might that have shaped our world differently? The cost of armed conflict and “security” to afford the carrying out of retributive justice which was the choice made by the American Empire – the lives lost, the lives that have been hurt as a result (directly through loss of loved ones, but also indirectly through loss of funding for health and education and such social programs) has been enormous! Over a trillion dollars, by some estimates.
And in Canada, it’s been said that $92 billion has been spent on national security spending over and above the amount it would have spent had budgets remained in line with pre–9/11 levels. That’s money that could have:
- rebuilt public transit systems for our 10 largest cities,
- provided $10-per-day child care for every family that wanted it, or
- paid for all medications prescribed by a doctor to you and every other Canadian. (Rideau Institute)
In the ten years since the day of horror in New York, we have asked ourselves – as a society – “What if?” repeatedly. …perhaps we need to ask, “what now?”
We have put off the cancellation of debts of the poorest countries. In July, 2000, the BBC reported:
In its 1997 report, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) said that governments in Africa alone, if relieved of their debt obligations, could use the funds “to save the lives of millions of children by 2000”.
While every country in the world, including the USA and Japan, owes money to someone, 41 countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia have been identified as “heavily indebted”.
Many have struggled for years to repay only the interest on loans that are, in some cases, decades old.
The sums involved are vast: The main pressure group advocating “dropping the debt” wants between $160 billion and $300 billion in “unpayable” debts wiped out by the end of the year 2000.
The debts are mainly owed to three groups: western governments; global financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank; and private lenders.
The world’s wealthiest countries exert great influence over the decisions of the institutions, because voting power is set according to financial contributions.
At the IMF, for example, the USA has 18% of the votes, while Mozambique has just 0.06%.
At the forefront of the campaign to “Drop the Debt” is Jubilee 2000, a coalition of non-governmental organisations and religious groups.
It has been highly influential, persuading the Group of Eight leading industrial countries to promise to write off $100bn of debt at the Cologne summit in July 1999.
However, the G8 summit in Japan this year will be the last push by the Jubilee 2000 coalition before it disbands at the end of the year.
Campaigners say progress has been unacceptably slow, and they are not optimistic about achieving their objective of full debt cancellation.
Religious leaders have also joined calls for debt cancellation, including the Archbishop of Cape Town, the Most Rev. Njongonkulu Ndungane; the Chief Rabbi in Britain, Dr. Jonathan Sachs and the Rt. Rev. Theodore McCarrick of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in the USA.
Many stars of music and show business have openly supported to “Drop the Debt”. Among them are David Bowie, Beck, Peter Gabriel, and Robbie Williams.
At the annual British music industry awards in February 1999, Bono, the lead singer of the Irish rock group U2, took the stage with the former World heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali, who is an International Ambassador for Jubilee 2000. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/special_report/1999/06/99/debt/353608.stm)
While the movement of debt-cancellation has continued in a few different forms since the 1990s, most recently the Make Poverty History campaign, there has been no canceling of debts, but rather some occasional “debt relief,” as it’s been called, by the richer countries. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jubilee_2000)
This notion of retributive justice is the one that gets the press, the support, and the one by which our society ends up operating – it’s slick to “get the bad guy,” it’s popular to be powerful, it’s touted as the fair way to do things. And we justify supporting this with statements like, “if only people would work harder, they wouldn’t find themselves in debt in the first place,” or “my way is the right way, and we can decide who’s right with muscle and might.”
BUT… as Christians, we are called into a different form of just living. We are not called to engage in vengeance, nor are we called to justify consumer habits that leave so many with so little… in fact, we are to work towards distributive justice in our lives. That is: that all have enough. We are to seek the well-being of all – to live compassionately, but also to act. When there is injustice, we are to speak up, to engage, to show how mercy and forgiveness might be lived out.
There’s a group called “Syracure Cultural Workers” in New York that produces justice-themed posters, t-shirts, and so on. One of their posters is “How to build global community” – perhaps you’ve seen it. Take a look at some of the statements on building global community: Think of no one as “them”; Don’t confuse your comfort with your safety; Listen to music you don’t understand; Question consumption; Acquire few needs; Look at the moon and imagine someone else, somewhere else, looking at it too; Never believe you have a right to anyone else’s resources; Be skeptical about what you read; Know where your water comes from and where your wastes go; Pledge allegiance to the earth – question nationalism; Know that no one is silent though many are not heard, work to change this.
We are called to restore people to the community – to show forgiveness, to work at just-living where all have enough. And it means that we all pitch in: we all have a part to play in sharing what this earth provides for life; we all have a part to play in sustaining life and seeing to the needs of others, that none are left out. This is what we are reminded of every time we share from a common loaf, a common cup, even as we are baptized in the living waters, all of us as equals, all of us having worth.
Always show mercy. Always be forgiving. This is justice in God’s world.