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Grasshopper Theology

Grasshopper Theology

Isaiah 40:21-31

Daniel J. Ott

Good morning little grasshoppers!  Are you ready to do some theology?  Imagine:  There you are one fine day in a field of tall grass, doing whatever it is that grasshoppers do – going about your grasshopper business.  Suddenly, the thought occurs to you, “I wonder what’s beyond.”  So, you decide to take a look.  You rouse your strength and take a leap up beyond the grass-line.  You strain your gaze upward and to your amazement you see the most brilliant, beautiful blue – as far as the eye can see is magnificent bluishness.  When you land back safely in the field you think to yourself, “What a wonder!  Surely this must be the divine.”  Smitten, you decide to make another go of it.  With all your might you leap up and look out toward the horizon.  There you see great rock formations thrust up into the sky.  Their purple hue mesmerizes and you only come to your senses after you’ve been returned to the field for some time.  Another time you leap up and in the distance you see a field of color – yellow and purple stretching out across the earth.  You’re ecstatic as you return.  “Surely God is sublime.  What a God of beauty and grandeur.”  Drunk, you leap again with reckless abandon.  But this time the wind catches you, upends you, spins you.  The colors whirl and flash.  The shapes become horrible.  The fantastic becomes frightening.  You’re disoriented and thankful when you land with a jolt back in the safety of the field.  You decide that looking for God might be riskier than you first thought and so you cease your leaping into the beyond for the day.

The next day is wet.  The earth rumbles in the distance.  With the new day, your courage is renewed and, though hesitantly, you leap up.  Immediately, you wish you hadn’t.  God is dark and imposing.  There’s a crack.  Light rips down from above.  God booms!  When you return to earth, you are perplexed.  Does God have a dark side?  Is God angry today?  You decide not to jump again, lest God notice and take a crack at you.

The field dries quickly the next day.  You spend the day trying to put the pieces together – the blue, the field of color, the booming God.  Soon you decide you need another look.  Now you leap and find yourself in the presence of blinding light.  The light is hot.  It is not possible to be in God’s presence today.  The light is inaccessible and the heat is consuming.  You land and wonder:  Which is the true God?  Why is God so absolutely complex?  Who is this God?

And so it goes thereafter.  You can’t not leap, for your curiosity is piqued.  It’s more than curiosity really.  It becomes a drive.  You must know this God.  You long to be in God’s presence.  But every encounter is inexplicable.  Every attempt to understand falls short.

Isaiah says, “God sits above the circle of the earth and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.  To whom then will you liken God?  To what likeness will you compare God?”

A sixth century mystic puts it this way, “The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that as we plunge into the darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing.”  The understanding “now rises from what is below up to the transcendent, and the more it climbs, the more language falters, and when it has passed up and beyond the ascent, it will turn silent completely, since it will finally be at one with [the one] who is indescribable.”[1]

Grasshopper theology teaches us that God is great – great beyond measure.  God is so great that God is indescribable – our experiences of God ineffable.

This is Isaiah’s message today.  God is great.  God is great in mystery.  AND God is great in power.  Isaiah reminds us of God’s great power by reminding us of the creation.  God sits above the circle of the earth and stretches out the heavens.  “Lift up your eyes on high and see,” Isaiah says, “Who created [the stars]? It is God who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because God is great in strength and mighty in power.”  Surely, any good grasshopper will understand God’s strength and power when she looks on the wonders of creation.

But Isaiah doesn’t leave it there.  God’s might is not only witnessed in creation.  We see God’s might in destruction too.  “God brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.  Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.”  God is the indescribable one, mighty to create AND destroy.

Sometimes we Christians want to smooth this idea over a bit.  Hinduism takes it very seriously, though.  The Trimurti, or Hindu Trinity consists of three gods that represent the functions of the ultimate.  Brahma is the creator God. Vishnu is the sustainer.  And Shiva is the destroyer or transformer.  Shiva is a strong warrior who vanquishes the forces of evil.  Shiva is a fierce roaring storm that consumes worlds.

And as if that weren’t enough.  Shiva has a female consort, Kali.  Kali is the goddess of time, death and annihilation.  Kali is as black as the darkest night.  Her eyes are red with the intoxication of rage.  Her tongue juts out over her fangs.  Around her neck is a garland of human heads.  In her four hands are a sword, a trident, a severed human head and, of course, a bowl to catch the blood that drips from the head.  She marks vividly the fact that ends and death are part of the divine, just as creation and preservation.

Isaiah wants us to know this.  God is great in power.  God creates.  God sustains.  And God destroys.  God is great in mystery – indescribably, unknowable.  And God is great in might.  He creates the stars and destroys the nations.

But why does Isaiah want us to know this?  Why does he so carefully craft such a beautiful ode to God’s greatness?  He does it because he wants us to know exactly who this God is who cares for us.  He wants us to know how great this God is who regards us.  Do not think, O Israel, that your way is hidden from God.  Do not think that God has disregarded you.  For God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.  The great God comes low.  The God of power regards the powerless.  Even though God is great beyond description – even though God is mighty beyond understanding, God cares.  This is what Isaiah wants us to hear and know this morning.  And this is what I want you to hear and know this morning as well.

And in order for you to hear this message well, I’d like to do something a little different this morning.  I’d like to end the sermon by leading you in a time of meditation.  The form of meditation that we will use is called Lectio Divina.  Lectio Divina means sacred reading and it’s been practiced by Christians for more than a thousand years.  The practice is simple.  We will take the last few lines of the passage and read them several times.  Each time I read them, you will ask yourself a different question.  The first question is “What does the passage say.”  The second is “What is God saying to me through the passage?”  The third is “What do I want to say to God about the passage?”  And the fourth is “What difference does the passage make in my life?”

So the first question:  “What does the passage say?”  In just a second, I will read the passage again and then give you some time to let the words soak in.  A couple of things to remember:  First, remember the first part of this sermon.  The God that were are hearing about is the great God that Isaiah extolls in the verses that precede these.  Second, think about the situation that Israel is in as Isaiah proclaims this message.  The people have been driven out of their homes.  Their homes are destroyed.  Their place of worship has been destroyed.  They’ve been taken captive to a foreign land to do forced labor for their conquerors.  They are wondering what this experience tells them about their God.  They are wondering if they can maintain their faith.  They are wondering if they have the strength to go on.

Close your eyes and hear these words:  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Holy One is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.  God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Holy One shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.”

 

Now I invite you to hear these words again.  What is God saying to you in these words?  Imagine yourself seated before God.  Imagine that God speaks directly with you: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Holy One is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.  God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Holy One shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.”

 

 

Now I invite you to consider what you would like to say to God in response.  What burdens do you need to share with God?  What confessions do you need to make?  What words of love do you want to tell God in response to these words: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Holy One is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.  God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Holy One shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.”

Finally, I invite you to consider what difference these words can make in your life.  What work of transformation can God do in you through these words?  What action will you need to take?  What attitude in you needs to change?  What new thing does God want to do in you through these words: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Holy One is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.  God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Holy One shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.”

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Pseudo-Dyionysius, from Mystical Theology, as found in Louis Dupré and James A. Wiseman, Light from Light: An Anthology of Christian Mysticism, (New York:  Paulist Press, 2001), pp. 89-90.

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This is the first exorcism story in Mark’s gospel.  Jesus encounters a man who is possessed by a demon in the synagogue and he casts the demon out.  Talking about demons and the demonic is tricky business today.  I’m sure as soon as I mention the word demon some images come to mind.  We’ve all seen the cartoons of an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other.  Perhaps we’ve read fantasy books or watched movies that featured some sort of demonic characters.  Talking about demons is also tricky because many fundamentalist and pentecostal Christians think and talk about demons in a very literal way.  When I was in college there was a pretty popular book by Frank Peretti called This Present Darkness.  I never read it, but one reviewer said of it, “Nearly every page of the book describes sulfur-breathing, black-winged, slobbering demons battling with tall, handsome, angelic warriors on a level of reality that is just beyond the senses.”[1]  I remember a young woman in the Christian Fellowship with which I was involved read the book.  She started seeing all of these demons that were just beyond our senses.  She even saw demons in our church.  She decided the pastor himself had a demon lording over him.

So understandings of the demonic can range from the silly to the absurd and can even sometimes be quite dangerous.  But there have been some theologians who have argued that we can’t altogether abandon the language of the demonic.  Daniel Day Williams argued that demons are not “supernatural beings flying about the world at the command of an archfiend.”[2]  Rather, the demonic refers to evil structures that emerge in society and in history.  Following Paul Tillich, Williams defines the demonic as “the meaning-destroying eruption of power that splits the personality and that fastens itself upon a society in such a way that freedom begins to be lost.”[3]  Williams identifies five structures of the demonic that will help us understand what he means.

“The first is fascination. The demonic quickens interest and excitement.”[4]  A boring demon is no demon at all.  The demonic draws us in.  It demands our attention.  It captivates us.  I’m always amazed when I see footage of the Nazi rallies in Germany.  People would line the streets ten and fifteen rows deep to watch the German army and the Fuhrer on parade.  As Hitler took the podium, thousands of hands would fling into the air in salute; “Sich heil!”  And then Hitler would begin to speak with sharp rhetoric and strident tone to which the crowd would answer in thunderous applause.  Now remember, these were an educated people – a cultured people.  But the demonic captivated them – fascinated them.

Secondly, the demonic begins to distort our perception.  Demons tell lies that pass as truth.  Their rhetoric infests our culture and we begin to see things differently, sometimes even against our own better judgment.  Think for a minute at how well our culture has shaped us into consumers and materialists.  The constant bombardment of advertising of products and services leads us to believe the lie that these things can make us happy.  We come to believe that we are indeed homo economicus – that stuff, a healthy economy, a leisurely life are the keys to happiness.  We begin to believe this so deeply that we even forget to question it.  These lies become the water in which we swim.

“The third characteristic face of the demonic is aggrandizement.  The demonic ecstasy feeds upon itself and demands more and more.”[5]  The leader becomes a tyrant.  The tyrant sees himself as the savior.  Before long, everyone regards him as not much lower than God.

The fourth structure is what Williams calls “the inertia of established systems of control.”[6]  We start to think that it’s always been this way.  We start to think that resisting the power of the demonic would be futile.  What is, just is and always will be.

I’ve been thinking and writing about peace lately.  And the main thing that I’m trying to argue is that peace is possible.  It’s not probable when we look at where we are today.  It’s certainly not immanent.  But can we at least agree that it is possible?  If not, how will we ever get there?  I believe it’s a demonic lie that violence and war are inevitable.  Our perception has been distorted and so we think that war has always been and will always be.  The inertia of war has taken hold.

The final characteristic of the demonic is that there is a depth to it.  I said earlier that the demonic is never boring.  It’s also never banal.  The demonic speaks in a distorted way to the very core of our being.  It lures us in with promises of security, or happiness, or power.  Remember how the demon tempted Jesus in the desert.  His offers were not trivial.  He offered bread when Jesus was hungry.  He tempted him with power and riches.  The demonic speaks to our deepest needs and desires offering treasures that are ultimately destructive.

Now, in our story, the demons clearly stand for the scribes and the temple leaders.  Mark artfully parallels the contrast of Jesus with the scribes and the confrontation with the demonic.  It’s Jesus’ authority vs. the scribes’ authority – holy authority vs. evil authority.

As soon as Jesus started to speak in the synagogue, the people recognized that he had a special authority.  They were astounded for he taught as one having authority.  But they also recognized immediately that his authority was very different from the scribes.  Now, to be sure, the scribes had some kind of authority.  First, they had the authority of the word.  They were the ones who could read and write.  They were the ones who knew what the holy books said.  They had the authority of the books.  They also had the authority of position.  They were connected.  The scribes were connected with the high priests who were supposed to be the most connected to God.  And if that’s not enough, they also had connections with the Romans.  If the temple authorities turned you into the Roman authorities, then you were in real trouble as we find out at the end of the book.  But even though the scribes seem to have all of this authority, as soon as Jesus speaks, the people recognize him as the authority and contrast him with the scribes.

But notice too that as soon as the people recognized Jesus’ authority something else happens.  Immediately a man with an unclean spirit cries out to him.  The demon says, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  The demon recognizes Jesus immediately.  AND as soon as the people recognize Jesus’ authority they also recognize the demon.  There was no mention of the demon before Jesus’ authority came into play, but as soon as Jesus’ authority is evidenced, then, immediately we know about the man with the unclean spirit.  Jesus’ authority shows the demons for what they are.  Finally, Jesus evidences his authority fully as he rebukes and casts out the demon.  And the people were again amazed.  They could sense that there was something deep within this man that made his teaching different.  It was a new teaching – with authority.

Mohandas Gandhi, the great liberator of India, also had and taught this kind of deep spiritual authority.  He called it satyagraha, or soul force.  We might also translate it soul authority or soul power. He told the Indian people that if they wanted to be free from British imperialism then they first had to be free in their minds and hearts.  When they were free in their minds and hearts, then they could begin to act as if they were free.  And once they started to be free in their hearts and their actions, then their actual freedom from British authority would follow.

So freedom begins with soul authority, soul power.  This is the soul authority that Jesus had and the soul authority that following Jesus offers us.  Jesus was a satyagrahi and by following him, we too can be satyagrahi.  Gandhi describes the satyagrahi as one “who is ever forgiving, who is always contented, whose resolutions are firm… who is not afraid of others, who is free from exultation, sorrow and fear… who has a disciplined reason… who is pure.., who has dedicated mind and soul to God…”[7]  The satyagrahi is the one who is ready to fight evil with good, who is able to fight hate with love, who counters the demonic with the divine.  The satyagrahi is the one whose sole authority is soul authority.

And when your sole authority is soul authority, then all of the other authorities have no power over you.  The scribes can’t control you.  The religious leaders can’t control you.  The government can’t control you.  The culture can’t tell you who you are.  The media can’t control what you think.  All of the demonic forces are seen for what they are and they lose their authority over you.

So the question for us today is what are the demons that we face.  And how will free our selves from them?  What are the fascinating lies that have power over our lives – that are gaining momentum, demanding more and more, appealing to our deepest needs and desires?  I’ll leave that question for you to answer.  I’m sure you see some demonic forces at work in our culture and in our world.  I’m sure you also encounter some demons in your own personal life.  There are lies that you’ve taken for truth that need to be cast out.  What are the demons that we face today?  That’s an important question.

But let me end by encouraging you to be strong and courageous.  You and I, can have this soul authority, too.  By dedicating ourselves – heart and mind – to God, we too can find this power within ourselves to face the demons, to rebuke them, and to cast them out.


[2] Daniel Day Williams, The Demonic and the Divine, (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1990), p. 3.

[3] Ibid., p. 5.

[4] Ibid., p. 7.

[5] Ibid., p. 9.

[6] Ibid., p. 10.

[7] Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi, ed. Louis Fischer, (New York:  Vintage Books, 1962), pp. 62-62.

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 This is more of a confession than a sermon.  Earlier this week I received an email from a good friend whom I met in seminary.  He’s a pastor in Maryland.  He was writing to catch up a little and ask about some theological resources.  I tried to address his needs, but then in the end, I too realized that I needed a little help.  Here’s what I wrote:

“I’m really struggling in my preaching (did you know that I’m supplying a little church here?).  When I read the gospel, it just seems so radical to me.  The way I read it, only people like Jesus, Francis of Assisi, etc. are really true to what is being said.  I’m not really ready to respond in full obedience and I don’t think the people of my church are either.  Really, I think most of us are neither as desperate as the Galileans were, nor as corrupt as the Herodians and Temple Priests were.  We need a gospel for the people in between.  But I’m not sure what that looks like – especially when we read this radical gospel every Sunday.  Any suggestions?”

Now you may be wondering why I had this crisis this week.  We’ve wrestled with some fairly tough texts over the last six months.  Why did this familiar text about Jesus calling his first disciples throw me into a tizzy?  Well, the fact is that I’ve been having this struggle all along, so it’s not really new.  But the other part of it is that this text is not nearly as benign as it appears at first blush.  Let me share with you just three features of this passage that make it extremely radical.

First, the setting:  The story takes place after John the Baptist was arrested.  Pause there a second.  John, the great prophet, a hopeful figure of a new day and new way, has been arrested.  And he’s not just going to spend a few days in jail.  Like so many before him, before long he will be killed by the people in power for the truth that he spoke.  So the time is after John is arrested and the place is the Galilee.  Now in many ways to say that the story takes place in the Galilee is to say that the story takes place in Nowheresville.  Nobody important lives in the Galilee and nothing important ever happens there.  It’s far from Jerusalem.  It’s even farther from Rome.  It’s not important geographically, economically, religiously or otherwise.

But in another way to say that Jesus came to the Galilee is to say that Jesus went straight to the heart of the heartache.  The Galileans were sorely oppressed.  They’re economic and social lives were being upended by Roman imperialism and local rule.  Herod Antipas who ruled the Galilee for Rome was a horrible ruler and drunk on taxes.  In addition to the Roman taxes, Galileans were paying taxes to Herod so that he could build two cities from the ground up.  They were attempts to impress the Roman occupiers, so they included Roman style buildings and stadia and other things that the Galileans simply could not afford.  The poor economy and high taxes were driving Galileans out of their villages and off their farms to take part in the imperial economy in the cities and by the Sea of Galilee.

This leads us to the second feature of this passage that is more difficult than we usually think.  Often we have romantic notions about these scenes of fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee.  This is no doubt due to the beautiful bucolic paintings that we’ve seen in illustrated Bibles or on Sunday School walls.  And the truth is that not long before Jesus’ time, fishing may have been a rather wholesome, communal endeavor.  It probably was the case that before Roman rule, fishing was done predominantly by farmers who would band together and fish for a season to augment the food supplied by the fields.  But by the time that Jesus called out to his first disciples by the Sea of Galilee, the imperial economy had changed all of that.

Bible scholars, Horsley and Silberman, explain that recent archaeological evidence shows that fishing had become a huge production.  The Roman occupiers brought with them techniques for salting and pickling fish.  They established salting and packing plants near the Sea of Galilee so that large quantities of sardines and carp could be processed into sauces called garum and chopped pieces called salsamentum.  These were then shipped all over the Roman Empire.  Horsley and Silberman write, “And anyone who thinks that fishermen on the Sea of Galilee in the time of Jesus were just picturesque peasants in rowboats does not appreciate the sheer weight of fish flesh that had to be hauled in ever day and transported to [the] processing centers to be salted, pressed, fermented, and refined to produce even a modest output of garum and salsamentum.”[1]

So when Jesus asks Simon and Andrew and then James and John to drop their nets and follow him, he is not only asking them to leave behind their livelihood and home, but also to stop participating in the imperial economy.  Their rejection of the job is a rejection of Roman occupation and therefore a prophetic political act.

And this leads me to the third and final point I want to make about the radical nature of this text.  The line, “I will make you fishers of men,” or “I will make you fish for people” as the NRSV has it, has always been a favorite of American Evangelical Christianity.  It’s been something of a motto for our evangelizing efforts and we’ve even made it into a catchy children’s song.  But we may have missed its full meaning by quite a bit.  The phrase really can’t be reduced to telling people about Jesus or inviting them to church.  The phrase has prophetic overtones and the original Jewish hearers of the phrase may well have thought of a text like Jeremiah 16:16 ff:

I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Holy One, and they shall catch them; and afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks.  For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight.  And I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.

 

So when Jesus calls the disciples to follow him and become fishers for people, he is calling them to a prophetic vocation.  Like John the Baptist, they will leave everything behind and risk everything in order to speak truth to power.  Yes, they will share good news with the Galileans, but the Galileans’ good news will be a threat to the Romans and the Herodians and the Judean religious elite.  Jesus’ call to be fishers for people is a call to leave everything and take up the cross.

So, do you see now, why I was troubled by this text?  As I said in my note to my friend, the problem is that we are neither in the situation of the oppressed Galileans nor condemnable as their oppressors.  We’re somewhere in between.  Now perhaps we do contribute in some ways to the poverty of others or the oppression of others in as much as we participate in a materialistic and militaristic culture.  But are we, you and me, really called to drop our nets, drop everything and take up the prophetic way of the cross?  Well, I don’t know about you, but even if I’m called to do so, I’m far from ready.

So what do we do?  What is the gospel for the people in between?  Well, I’m thinking that perhaps we can take just a little license with Jesus’ proclamation in verse 15.  Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”  The kingdom of God has come near.  What does the “near” mean?  Well even Bible scholars are divided on the issue.  Some say it means that the kingdom of God has come in Jesus but is not yet wholly fulfilled.  Others say it would be better to read it as “the kingdom of God is at hand” suggesting that the word is about the kingdom’s immanence – it’s right here, near at hand.

I’d like to suggest that maybe the “near” gives us a little latitude.  Maybe we don’t have to drop everything and live completely in the kingdom.  Maybe we can allow the kingdom to come near.  If nothing else, perhaps coming nearer to the kingdom will allow us to be better prepared to eventually answer the kingdom call more fully.  In any case, for my part, I think I might be ready to draw a little nearer, even if I’m not ready to drop my nets completely.

So, I’ve thought this week about what I’m willing to do and what I might be able to invite you to do with me.  And I’ve come up with three suggestions.  We’ll keep the list short and simple so that we actually have a chance of accomplishing it.

First, I suggest that we try not to smooth over the radical nature of the Gospel.  I will commit to conveying to you what I think is the best Biblical scholarship and trying to tell you what the text really says – radical or not.  You will have to commit to listen with patient ears and an open mind.  We may often find that the text doesn’t speak to us as directly as we had hoped or that the text offers more challenge than inspiration.  I will still try to be hopeful and inspiring in my sermons, but let’s not smooth over the rough nature of these texts merely to satisfy our own comfort.  When the Gospel is radical, let it be radical.  And we will work together to figure out what we do with that radical Gospel, even if we’re not fully ready to heed it.

Second, let’s get our hands dirty.  I was glad to hear that you were thinking similarly when I mentioned this at our recent congregational meeting.  Let’s do some things together.  If we’re not poor and oppressed like the Galileans, maybe we can understand the Gospel a little better if we get to know some folks who are.  Maybe we’re not ready to drop our nets and become prophets, but we can at least do some more to serve the least and to ease suffering and pain.

So, I will commit to organizing a couple of opportunities for volunteer work over the next couple of months.  We’ll go to the Jameson Center or to the Armory and help out a little.  I also think that Linda’s idea of a garden to grow vegetables for people who can’t easily afford them is fantastic.  When the weather breaks, let’s get to it.  That’s getting your hands dirty.

Finally, let’s put our money where our mouth is.  Now I know that whenever the preacher starts talking about money, some people get very nervous.  But, rest assured, I am not necessarily asking you to give more to the church.  From what I’ve seen, our church finances are pretty well in order and if folks continue to give as they have been we should be just fine.  What I’m asking of you and committing myself to do, is to look at your spending and giving and consider if you might be able to make some changes that would allow you to reallocate your money to better promote justice and peace.

Actually, in some ways I think we could learn something from our Muslim sisters and brothers when it comes to stewardship.  One of the five pillars of Islam is zakat or almsgiving.  But zakat is different from offerings and tithes in the Christian tradition.  Zakat is a requirement that every Muslim give 2.5% of their total worth to the poor each year.  They give it to the poor – not to the mosque.  The mosque is run like any other non-profit organization.  The mosque does fund drives and the like to pay for its building, staff, etc., but this has nothing to do with zakat.  Alms are given to the poor and oppressed.

Now of course, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give money to the church, nor am I discouraging you from giving more money to the church.  But I am encouraging to think again about your finances and see if there’s a little more that can be put to better use.  Maybe you give a little more to the church.  Maybe you give a little more on mission Sunday.  Maybe you give to the Presbyterian peacemaking program or hunger program.  Maybe you give directly to a local agency or some other benevolent society.  Maybe I’m preaching just to myself and you’re doing all you can.

What I’ve tried to do with these three suggestions, though, is to think about how we can let the Gospel be the Gospel and let the kingdom of God come near – at least near.  Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  What will we, the people in between, do with this good news?


[1] Richard A. Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom, (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1997), p. 25.

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Hell’s Vestibule, Investments and a Hard God

Matthew 25:14-30

Daniel J. Ott

 

The parable of the entrusted money is a really tricky one.  I’m not real sure who the good guys and the bad guys are here.

Well of course we know who the baddest bad guy is.  That must be the one who is called a “wicked and lazy servant.”  But I have some sympathy for the poor guy.  First of all, he’s the underdog, and I always want to root for the underdog.  When the boss doles out the cash at the beginning of the story, he gets the least. One gets five bags of gold, another two bags, and to the last one bag of gold.  Now it sounds like all of these are pretty goodly sums, but still, the last servant kind of gets the shaft.  And what’s more, the parable tells us that the boss gives to each of the servants in proportion to his abilities.  So, the boss from the start doesn’t expect much from the poor guy.  Why is he judged so harshly, then?

Well, we might think it’s because he takes the money out and buries it.  Who just buries money, right?  I’ll tell you, I’ve been thinking about burying a few bucs the way the stock market’s been lately, but never mind that.  It actually was pretty acceptable practice at the time to burry money.  Banking wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today and it sure wasn’t insured by the government.  Any kind of investment, even with ‘the bankers’ wasn’t a sure thing.  And evidently this boss is a hard case.  The last servant is scared.  He’s probably already been flayed by this guy a time or two.  So the poor schlep goes the easy rout and finds a good hiding spot in the back yard.  Who can blame him?  Not me.

But the guy telling the story and the boss in the story sure let the last servant have it:  “You wicked and lazy servant!  Take the money from this servant and give to the first servant. I don’t care if does already have ten bags of gold.  And throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Ouch!

This reminded me of a couple other passages where the not-so-bad go in for pretty harsh treatment.  You might remember John the Revelator’s message to the church in Laodicea.  “I know your works; you are neither the cold nor the hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot.  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”  Ancient writers didn’t like people who play it safe, evidently.

And neither did medieval writers.  Dante reserves a special place in hell for the lukewarm or those who lived life with no blame or praise as he calls them.  Actually, they’re not quite in hell, but in the vestibule.  He writes, “these wretches have no hope of truly dying, and this blind life they lead is so abject it makes them envy every other fate.”  So, they might rather be in hell, but instead they’re in the vestibule caught in a rushing, whirling wind chasing a banner that never takes a stand.  Get it? – never takes a stand?  Dante describes them as “an interminable train of souls, so many that I wondered how death could have undone so great a number… These wretches, who had never truly lived, went naked, and were stung and stung again by the hornets and the wasps that circled them and made their faces run with blood in streaks; their blood, mixed with their tears, dripped to their feet, and disgusting maggots collected in the pus.”[1]  Perhaps I should have read this last week for Halloween.

But the message is clear, if overstated in all three cases, to take the easy road, to be lukewarm, to never take a stand, really is to not live at all.  The one who buries his treasure will never gain anything.  The one who is neither hot nor cold, really has no temperature at all.  Only the one who does nothing with her life can avoid all blame or praise. If I were going to play it safe with this parable, I would tell you simply not to play it safe and end the sermon here.  But there is some sort of irony here that begs me to press on.

Let’s consider the first two servants for a minute.  We’re clearly given a clue that these are the good guys in the story.  The boss praises them, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your master.”  We’ve all heard these beautiful words at the funeral of a faithful loved one.  What fitting words they are on such an occasion.

But what did these servants in the story do to earn such praise.  Well, they took the money they were given and put it to work.  And they did so quite eagerly.  The first servant “began immediately to invest the money and soon doubled it.”  The second servant “went right to work” and doubled his too.  Surely this is good service.  This is certainly the kind of behavior we want in a financial advisor or a stockbroker.  Put that money to work!

But does it translate easily or well to the life of faith?  Should we be looking for a return on our spiritual investments?  Should we expect the boss to reward us for faithful service?

I have known people who think about service and giving in this way.  I’ve had more than one person tell me that they truly believe that when they give generously to the church, God will bless them.  And they mean financially!   The more money they put in the plate, the more money God will put in their pocket.  Unfortunately, I’ve never had the heart or the guts to tell them that I think such a philosophy is at best wrong-headed, and at worst delusional.  This is not why we give to the church.  We give to give, not to receive.  We give because we have already received so much, not because we have expectations of reciprocity.

And even if we translate the giving into giving of our time and talents – after all the word talent finds its origin in this story – even then the theology is all wrong.  Surely we don’t mean to say that those of us who preach, or make soup, or serve on the session, or come to church every Sunday, have any corner on God’s blessings.  Surely nothing that we do earns us God’s blessing, right?  God’s commendation, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” is not reserved for the ones who gave the most money, or had the most talent, or spent the most time at church.

I’m not at all sure that God and the boss in our story tally up the sheet in the same way at all.  In fact, I think we better hurry up and say that the boss of this story and God cannot be the same person.  The third servant describes the boss as a hard man, who “harvests crops he did not plant and gathers crops he did not cultivate.”  That sound like not just a hard man, but a thief to me.  And the boss makes no effort to deny it.  In his rebuke of the “wicked” slave the boss exclaims, “You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  Then you ought to have invested the money I gave you and brought me the interest.”  And then he says the most damnable thing, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”  God cannot be the hard man that says that.  God is not a hard God.

God does not reap where he does not sow.  God sows and sows and sows some more.  God does not harvest a crop for which he doesn’t care.  God cares and cares and cares some more.

God does not say, “To those who have much more will be given.”  Instead God says, “The last will be first and the first will be last.”  God says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  And blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  God is not a hard God, like some suppose, blessing the noble and damning the wretch. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God is ready to pardon our iniquities and forgive our transgressions.

In the end, surely it will be the lowly servant, the humble and mean slave to whom God says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your master.”


[1] Mark Musa, trans.  Dante, The Divine Comedy:  Volume 1:  Inferno, (Penguin Books), p. 90-91.

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On Idolatry

            I think it was Karl Barth who said that we should do our daily reading with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.  Sometimes it’s almost spooky the ways in which they overlap.  This week my Bible was open to Exodus and the story of ‘the golden calf,’ while news headlines where dominated by images of the bronze bull that stands near Wall Street.

The pictures of Wall Street’s bull this week of course had protestors lying beneath it or, later, barricades around it with police officers standing guard.  The Occupy Wall Street movement actually began a few weeks ago, but it has somewhat unexpectedly picked up steam this week and people are taking notice.  And as people take notice, one of the things that people are wondering is what exactly these protestors want.  Protests that we’ve seen before have had identified spokespersons, clear goals, and practicable demands.  This movement seems to lack all of the above.  Instead, this protest seems to be more of an expression of dissatisfaction and uncertainty.  It may be that the protestors are so uncertain that they can’t even quite put their finger on what would make the situation better.  So, they’ve gathered around the bull in search of some direction, or a leader, or a solution.

Interestingly, the bull itself was erected amidst uncertainty.  A New York artist created the bull in response to the 1987 stock market crash.  He said it was a testament to “the strength, power and hope of the American people.”[1]

I guess there’s something deep within humans that says when in doubt make a bovine statue, because the Hebrews, too, decided to construct a bull and hold a rally.  And they, too, did it amidst uncertainty.  Moses had led them out of Egypt and into the wilderness and they had been in the wilderness for some time.  Now Moses had gone up to the mountain where he was receiving the covenant and the law.  He’d been gone for a while and the people are growing restless.  “Is he coming back?  Where did he go exactly?  And why?  Are we left here without a leader?  Are we just going to camp here and wait for him forever? And where is God?  I thought God was going to take us to a great and fertile land, but here we sit in the middle of nowhere.  When is God going to do something?”

The people are uncertain and it is this uncertainty that makes them begin to act strangely.  They gather around Aaron and they make an interesting request.  “Make gods for us, who shall go before us.”  Now surely even ancient people understood that you just can’t decide at the drop of a hat to “make” a god.  You can fashion an idol or an icon, but that icon refers to something beyond itself, something transcendent that already exists.  You can’t just “make” a god.

But the people are desperate.  They’re scared.  They’re uncertain.  They want something tangible.  They want some assurances. And who can blame them?  It indeed can be frustrating to worship an intangible God.  It can be scary to try to follow God who is invisible.  We too find ourselves asking, “Where did God go?” When we lose a job, we ask, “Where did God go?”  When the economy is tanking we ask, “When is God going to do something?” When tragedy strikes, we ask, “Where is God?”  When we’re in the wilderness and not sure what the future holds, it’s almost natural to ask “Where did God go?”

Aaron must empathize with the people’s desperation and frustration, because without objection he quickly commences fashioning the calf out of gold.  And notice what happens next.  When the calf is done, the people say, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  Now that’s a classic statement of idolatry.  It’s almost a definition.  The people have put something that is not God in God’s place.  But keep reading.  Aaron hears this and builds an altar and calls for a festival.  But notice what he says, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.”  The Hebrew reads, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to Yahweh.”

When we think of idolatry we usually think of someone turning their back on God and devoting themselves to something else.  But here the gods that Aaron fashioned have not replaced Yahweh.  Instead they are set beside Yahweh.  And this may be how most folks engage in idolatry.  I suspect that this is the way that we church folks usually engage in idolatry.  We don’t completely turn our backs on God, but we may from time to time set something along side of God.  We hedge our bets.  In God we trust, but maybe we could also hold on to some things that are a little more tangible.

I remember very vividly the Sunday after 9-11-2001.  We had held a short, impromptu prayer service on the evening of the disaster.  But by Sunday things had settled in our minds a little more and we were all struggling to come to terms with these events.  I was very nervous about my sermon, because I knew people would want some help in making sense of it all.

I remember entering the church at the back of the sanctuary and seeing immediately that the American flag had been brought forward and placed right next to the pulpit.  My whole being cringed.  In my mind, whoever moved that flag was hedging their bets.  They had placed the flag, a symbol of national pride, next to God.

Now don’t hear me wrong.  I’m not saying that we can’t be religious and patriotic, too.  I’m not saying that the flag itself is an idol.  I’m not saying that all nationalism or national pride is idolatrous.  What I am saying is that we need to remember that we are a nation under God.  What I am saying is that it is “In God we Trust,” not in the United States of America.  What I am saying is that we may take great pride in who we are as a nation, but as soon as we set nation alongside God, we are dangerously flirting with idolatry. When we set economic boon alongside God, we are dangerously flirting with idolatry.  When we set our own success or happiness alongside God, we are flirting dangerously with idolatry.  When we set anything alongside God, we are flirting with idolatry.

Paul Tillich, the great theologian of the 20th Century, wrote “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned…”[2]  Faith is centering your life on something.  Faith is placing something at the center of your life around which everything else orbits.  And Tillich warned that the danger is that we may find ourselves ultimately concerned with something that is not ultimate.  This is idolatry.  Idolatry is putting your faith in finite things.  It’s centering your life on something that is not ultimate, not eternal, not lasting, not from above, not Godly.  Idolatry is placing something limited and passing at the center of your life.

And when we do this, we may very well feel God’s wrath.  In our story, God’s wrath is characterized in narrative form.  God gets angry and mocks the people.  He says, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.”  God tells Moses, “Step aside!  Stay out of my way, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”

This is a powerful scene.  But we can see the results of God’s wrath even without imagining such a heavenly conversation.  You see… nations rise and fall.  Economies boom and bust.  Jobs begin and end.  Love is fleeting.  Happiness passes.  And this is why we cannot center our lives on such things.  We see the tyrant fall with the state.  We’ve seen one too many stock-broker or vice-president commit suicide when the stuff hits the fan.  We see people lose their sense of self-worth when they lose their job.  We see that divorce not only breaks homes, but often breaks people.  We see this because what we’ve done in all of these cases is centered our lives on something finite.  We’ve put our faith in something that is passing.  And when that thing is no more, then we are crushed.  We’re lost.  We’re consumed by God and feel the heat of God’s wrath.

But, thanks be to God, this is not the end of the story.  Moses intercedes.  He starts begging for God’s mercy on behalf of the people.  He asks God to remember.  First, he asks God to remember all the good that God has done for the people already, how God delivered them from Egypt and brought them through the wilderness this far.  Then, he suggests that God consider what others would think, if God were to bring them this far only to destroy them.  Finally, Moses asks God to remember the promises that God made to Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob and all the people of Israel.  And God does remember.  God remembers the works, and the people and the promises and God repents.  God’s mind has changed.  God chooses to remember rather than destroy.

And the psalmist is quick to point out the irony.  The people forgot, but God remembered.  When enslaved in Egypt, the people forgot God’s love and power.  But God remembered and delivered them from the hands of their oppressors.  The people forgot again in the wilderness and grumbled against Moses and God.  But God remembered and gave them manna to eat and water to drink from the rock.  The people forgot and exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass.  But God remembered, had mercy on them and brought them into the Promised Land.

We forget, but God remembers.  When things go badly and we feel uncertain, we forget and so we start to hedge our bets. We put our faith in finite things and center our lives on that which is passing.  But God remembers. God remembers, breaks down our idols and breaks loose our chains.  God has mercy upon us and forgives us for forgetting.  When we forget, God remembers.  Thanks be to God.

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“No Bargain At All”

Matthew 20:1-16

Daniel J. Ott

We’re all looking for a bargain, aren’t we?  My father-in-law and I are big internet shoppers.  We often compare notes when we get together.  “I found a universal remote for twenty bucks that lists for $89.99.”  “I got some new speakers for my computer – 70% off.”  We’re all looking to pay less and get more, right?

Maybe we’re even looking for a bargain when it comes to work.  Sure we say that all we want is a fair wage for a fair day’s work, but working a little less and earning a little more wouldn’t hurt.  You have to haggle a little when you take a new job.  You have to ask for a raise now and again.

The first group of workers in our story knows this.  They may be a little down on their luck.  They’re trying to scrape things together as day laborers, but they’re far from stupid.  The landowner comes around and they know that they should agree on a price ahead of time.  They’re about to work a twelve hour day and they want to make sure that they get what’s coming to them… or maybe a little more.  So they bargain a little, but I guess the landowner was better at the bargaining game, because they settle for the usual day’s wage.  Can’t blame them for trying, though.  Give less – get more.  That’s our motto.

I have the impression that some people live by that motto even when it comes to religion.  Their religion starts with one simple prayer that earns them a spot in heaven.  They like churches where not much is required:  Just go hear the band, a sermon that’s easy to understand, and slip out the back.  They like to hear the preacher talk about forgiveness and grace, not so much holiness or service.  Religion for them is a private matter, a personal affair.  Just a little talk with Jesus now and again and everything will be alright.  Give less – get more.  Who can blame them?  We’re all looking for a bargain.

But if we can’t get a bargain, then I guess we’ll settle for what’s fair.  That’s what the next sets of workers do.  The landowner keeps going back to the marketplace every three hours to get more workers.  I guess the harvest was plentiful that year.  And unemployment must have been up, too, for all those workers to be standing around.  Perhaps that’s why they don’t bargain.  The landowner simply tells them that he will pay them what’s fair and they go quietly to get to work.

That’s a good Midwest mindset, right?  We like a person who just keeps her head down and does her job.  We all just kind of expect that if you work hard, things will work out in the end.  Just do your job and take care of your business and everything will be alright.

And this mindset can bleed over into religion too.  He says, “I’ll be alright.  I never drank much or gambled.  I’ve always put food on the table for my family.  I went to church when I could.  I’m sure the Lord will be alright with me.”  She says, “I’ve always tried to be nice to people.  I’ve helped out when I could.  I took care of Mom when she got old.  Surely, God will see that I’m basically a good person.”  It’s just what’s fair, right?  We live a pretty good life and God should give us what’s coming to us in the end.  There’s no reason to bargain or haggle.  Just give us what’s fair, God.

Well, amazingly, the landowner goes back to the marketplace one last time, just an hour before quitting time.  And wouldn’t you know it, there are still some poor schlepps standing around.  He asks, “Why are you standing here all day.”  They state the painfully obvious, “Because no one hired us.”  And he sends them out to work in the field.  These must really be some desperate folk.  Maybe they figured the landowner might at least feed them supper for doing a little clean-up work.  I guess when you can’t get what’s fair, you’ll take what you can get.  Maybe they’ll at least get a scrap or two.  An hour’s work is better than nothing.

During my time teaching at St. Andrews in North Carolina the make-up of my classes became pretty predictable.  I would always have pretty similar sets of students.  I would have the religious studies majors and the students planning to go to seminary.  I would have a handful of zealots, who were often new to their faith and wanted to learn more about religion.  Of course, there were always some who just needed to fill in a space in their schedule and thought that a religion course might be interesting or easy, or both.  But for a couple of years I had another group that were following me around that left everybody wondering, including me.  I called them my motley crew.

They weren’t bad students, but not the cream of the crop either.  It was well known that several in the group probably smoked a little too much weed.  None of them had any interest in majoring or minoring in religion.  They were far from churchy or even religious, really.  At first, I thought it was just that they enjoyed a little banter about God and my conversational teaching style.  Then I began to learn their stories.  One of the young women had lost her brother at a very young age.  Another was in the process of coming out of the closet and dealing with a family that wasn’t very accepting of her sexuality.  One of the young men had a very difficult relationship with his father.  They all had big questions and lots of them.

Thinking about them through the lens of this parable, I think they were just looking for a few scraps.  The church was offering way too much and not nearly enough all at the same time.  They weren’t looking for any churchy bargain.  Some of them also probably thought that they weren’t worthy of a fair deal.  So they took a few religion courses.   Slowly they started asking their questions and wrestling with them.  They spent their hour in the field and were happy to do so.

Back in our story, when the last hour was up, the pay was doled out.  They lined up last to first: the one-hour laborers in front looking for scraps, next were the the three, the six and the nine, looking for a fair shake, and last the twelve-hour laborers ready to get what they bargained for.  Everybody looked on as the drama unfolded.  The one-hour laborers were given a full day’s wage!  Can you imagine the surge of energy in the room?  The motley crew must have been bowled over.  I’m sure they sheepishly collected their pay and disappeared as fast as possible, before anyone had any opportunity to change their mind.  The other workers must have been a buzz too.  “If these schlepps got a full day’s wage, what’s in store for us?”

Well, we soon find out.  The three-hour laborers come forward and receive a full day’s wage, too.  The six-hour laborers – a full day’s wage and the three-hours received the same.  We’re not told what, if anything, these laborers had to say, but I’m sure they went away murmuring something.  You certainly cannot call this ‘fair.’  But which way does ‘fair’ cut here?  That those who worked nine hours received the same as those who worked three is certainly an injustice.  But can you complain if you receive twelve hour’s pay for nine hours work?  Isn’t that a bargain?  Those promised fairness were left to wonder just what fair is.

Finally, the first laborers come forward and they probably could imagine where this was headed.   True to form they received what they bargained for – one full day’s wage for one full day’s work.  But they were indignant.  “This, decidedly, is not fair!  These last schlepps worked only an hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  They’d forgotten about what they bargained for and now they were all about what’s fair.  And we can’t blame them, can we?  Obviously this is bad business.  You can’t pay people the same who don’t work the same.

And it’s bad religion, too.  Does this imply that the old drunk who makes a confession in the eleventh hour will be rewarded just the same as us?  Does that mean what we do in this life doesn’t matter?  Maybe we should live it up.  Why labor in the field and make sacrifices and work so damned hard at being faithful and living a decent life if this is how it comes down in the end?  Wouldn’t we be ticked, too, if this is how it worked?

Well, what comes next in the story is probably the most startling part.  The landowner fights back.  “I’ve done you no wrong.  I gave you what you bargained for.  Take what belongs to you and go.”  In effect, the landowner says, “If you don’t like it, get out.”

Now throughout the sermon we’ve been making the analogy explicit in its application to religion, so it wouldn’t be fair to stop short here.  Imagine it:  We get ticked and start wagging our fingers at God about the fairness of this whole exchange.  “This is no bargain, God, no bargain at all.  We labor all day and the one who comes in the eleventh hour gets the same reward.  It’s just not fair.”  And God responds simply, “If you don’t like it get out.  I do what I want with what’s mine.  Go on.  Get out!”

I thought about ending the sermon there.  That’s where the parable ends.  But I’m convinced that it’s not where the message ends.  You see, it really is no bargain at all.  In the end all of this talk of transactions and fair wages falls on its head when what we’re trying to talk about is grace.  Grace is no bargain at all.  There’s no hiring and haggling, no bartering and bargaining.  Grace is a gift, it’s not a wage.  Grace isn’t measured in more or less or when or under what conditions.  Grace is immeasurable.  Whether we’re looking for a bargain, or a fair shake, or just a few scraps, when grace comes we get much more than we bargained for.  Grace is the air we breathe and the life we live.  It’s the love we share and the forgiveness we’ve been given.  Grace is a precious, precious gift – no bargain at all.

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“On Forgiveness”

Matthew 18:21-35

Daniel J. Ott

 

We all know that we should forgive.  But the question remains, “Just how much?”  If you’re like me, I’m sure you can think of many times when you have forgiven.  I think of myself as basically a forgiving person.  But I also can think of things that I have not forgiven.  There are some wrongs that have been done to me that I just can’t let go.  Some of these wrongs just seem too great to be forgiven; or they caused too deep a wound in me; or the person who did the wrong never did try to right the wrong, leaving me feeling as though the person was not worthy of my forgiveness.  Sure we all know that we should forgive.  But isn’t there some limit?  Do we have to forgive always?  Do we have to forgive everything?

Matthew’s parable wrestles with these questions.  And Matthew himself may get a little tangled in the answers.  And so may we.

Let’s start with the servant.[1]  In my study Bible the heading to this story calls him the “unforgiving servant.”  But is he really so bad?  A co-worker was having some trouble.  He loaned him a few hundred dollars.  So far so good, right?  Time goes by and the co-worker never pays him back.  Finally, he happens upon the guy and says, “Hey, what’s doin’?  Where’s that money I leant you?”  The co-worker says he can’t pay and asks for a break.  The servant has had enough, though, and decides to take the matter up in the courts.

Now I guess we could call this “unforgiving.”  But would any of us act so differently?  We all need to be responsible for our debts, right?  Our whole banking system, our whole economic system is based on this basic assumption.  We take loans and we pay them back.  If we don’t pay them back, there are legal ramifications.  What would happen if banks and mortgage companies just started forgiving debts left and right?  Are they “unforgiving” when they insist on repayment?

Of course, the reason that this servant seems so unforgiving is because of the contrast set up by the parable.  Just before the servant demands payment from his co-worker, he himself has been forgiven a great debt.

The story goes that the boss was reconciling his books.  He comes across our servant and sees that he owes ten thousand talents.  Now when I first read the story I thought to myself, “Oh, ten thousand talents, sounds like a goodly sum.”  But Matthew’s audience would have gasped at hearing that number.  A talent is worth fifteen years of a laborer’s wages.  Ten thousand talents is like a billion dollars.  How’s a regular schmoe going to pay back a billion dollars?  How in the world did he end up a billion dollars in debt?  What’s wrong with this guy?  So the boss comes to a fairly logical conclusion for the day.  Sell everything he’s got, including his family and him and get what you can.  What else can you do with such a deadbeat?

So the servant makes a scene and falls on his knees blathering and begging, saying, “Just give me a little more time.”  “Really?,” the boss thinks to himself, “Just a little more time and you’ll pay me back a billion dollars, eh?”  The boss has a flash of pity and decides to let the poor schlepp go.  He wipes the books clean and sends him on his way.

And this is the reason why we get so indignant about the servant’s unforgiving attitude toward his co-worker.  How can you receive forgiveness of such a huge debt and turn right around and harshly demand payment on a much smaller debt?  The servant had been forgiven an immeasurable debt, but did not learn forgiveness from this experience.

This is the ‘gotcha moment,’ of course.  The finger that wags and points at the servant turns right around at us.  How can we who have been forgiven of so much not forgive others?  God forgives us all of our sin.  God forgives the wrongs that we have done to God and the wrongs that we have done to each other.  God demands no payment at all for these sins.  When our account comes due, God simply wipes the books clean and sends us on our way.  And when we fail to forgive each other, we are that unforgiving servant who has been forgiven so much, but cannot see fit to forgive a little.

The force with which Matthew drives home this point is startling.  The boss hands the servant over to be tortured and Matthew puts these words on Jesus’ lips, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your sister or brother from your heart.”  Well, that’s not very forgiving is it?  The message can’t really be that if we don’t forgive, God won’t forgive.  This forgiveness business is tricky.  It’s hard to get our minds around the great mercy of God.  But I believe the message that Matthew was shooting for, even if he didn’t quite hit the mark, remains:  God’s forgiveness is limitless and so should ours be.

Two stories (ripped from the headlines as it were):

On October 2, 2006, a man named Charles Carl Roberts entered the one room West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster, County, PA.  At about 10:36 that morning the first call was made to 911 explaining that the gunman had let several adults, boys and small children go, but was holding hostage around ten girls between the ages of 6 and 13.  The police responded within minutes.  But soon after they arrived at around 11:07 shooting began in the school house.  By 11:11 the police on the scene alerted dispatch that there were 10-12 victims with head wounds.  Roberts had shot ten little girls before killing himself.  Five of the girls died in the end.  The five that survived live with various persistent injuries.

The world watched as a little Amish village in Pennsylvania dealt with their pain and grief.  We were all amazed by the scenes of forgiveness that followed.  Reports emerged that on the very same day of the shooting the grandfather of one of the murdered girls was overheard telling his family, “We must not think evil of this man.”  The family of the shooter reported that members of the Amish community reached out in consolation to them for their loss within hours of the massacre.  Amish community members attended Charles Roberts’ funeral and even established a charitable fund for the family that he left behind.  In an open letter to the Amish community thanking them for their forgiveness and grace, Marie Roberts wrote, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need.  Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe.  Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”[2]

On September 11, 2001, 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger planes.  At 8:46 in the morning five hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.  At 9:03 a.m. another five hijackers crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower.  At. 9:37 a third plane crashed into the Pentagon.  United Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania at 10:03 after passengers struggled with that plane’s hijackers.  In the end almost three thousand people were dead including the hijackers.

The world watched as a great nation dealt with its pain and grief.  The question of forgiveness in the wake of this heinous attack is a difficult one, but what is sure is that the scenes that followed hardly resembled the scenes from that little Amish village.  Three days after the event, our then president stood in the midst of the rubble in New York City and vowed revenge.  The so-called “war on terror” was launched immediately.  American troops were in Afghanistan before thirty days had expired.  Not two years later, Iraq was identified as the central front in the war on terror and military initiatives were expanded.  Ten years later, the war in Afghanistan rages on and troops remain in Iraq.  On May 2 of this year, the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. troops.  Our current president told those of us who wondered whether this assassination was necessary that we should have our heads examined.

Our grief and anger have also led to ill-effects at home.  A nation that once prided itself on its immigrant roots has grown intolerant and insular.  Muslim Americans have become the targets of hate crimes and deep suspicion.  Ignorant Christians have hosted burnings of Islam’s holy book.  Congress has even held hearings casting a wide net and suggesting that all of Islam is threatened by radicalization.  Muslim Americans, who lost their own on 9/11, have had their patriotism put into question and been forced to become apologists for their faith.

We all know that we should forgive.  But the question remains, “Just how much?”  When asked to put a number on it, Jesus said, “seventy times seven.”  In other words, as much as it takes.  God’s forgiveness is limitless.  What about ours?


[1] Throughout this treatment of the parable, I am following David Buttrick rather closely.  David Buttrick, Speaking Parables:  A Homiletic Guide, (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), pp. 107-113.

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