September 13, 2020

Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

“A Whole New Way”

I suggested to Graeme and Bill that a musical setting of the Lord’s Prayer would be very appropriate for the Ministry of Music today. They are the familiar words of our Lord Jesus, the prayer that he shared with his disciples when they asked him to teach them how to pray, the prayer that we, and Christians around the world, include in our worship almost every time we gather.

You’ve likely noticed that Presbyterians tend to say the prayer a little differently than others. Where most ask God to forgive their trespasses, and others request forgiveness of their sins in general, Presbyterians often use the translation of Jesus’ prayer that says, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” And that seems very fitting for today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew. After all, Jesus tells a story about a slave who owes a lot of money to his king, and about a second slave who owes quite a bit to the first slave.

The king mercifully forgives the massive debt of the first slave, cancelling what he owes and freeing him from the impossible task of paying it back. But rather than following the ruler’s example, the slave calls in the debt of another man who owes him some money. And when the other guy can’t pay, he throws him into jail until he can work it off.

I do think that it is appropriate to say the version of the Lord’s Prayer with “debts and debtors,” and taking Jesus’ story literally as a story about money owed and debts forgiven is perfectly valid. Perhaps it should come to mind when someone literally owes you money, and is stuck, and can’t pay it back.

The parable has also been applied to situations in which developing countries owe massive debts to the richer, developed ones because of years and years of compounding interest on loans. Jesus’ story calls on the ones with the resources to forgive those debts, allowing the developing nations to have a new beginning and freedom from those endless burdens.

Or you might think of situations in families, or circles of friendship, or chuch communities where everyone agrees to contribute their share, but some get behind and can’t manage it. Those with the means to do it, are called to show mercy to those who are struggling.

It’s not fair, by any means, but the story isn’t about a God who is fair, but a God who is merciful to us and calls us to be merciful to others. It’s about a whole new way of living in relationship with each other in which justice is tempered with mercy.

It is important to notice that Jesus chooses situations in which the forgiver stands in a position of power, and does not by forgiving prolong unhealthy circumstances, harm or injustice. He’s not talking about the poor accepting the fact that their wealthy bosses will not pay them a living wage, but he’s calling on the rich to be merciful to the poor who may owe them a debt.

Many interpreters reading the story often move quickly to assume that the monetary debts represent our sins and failings, which is another layer of meaning in the story. The king is God, and we are the slaves who have sinned and been graciously, mercifully forgiven by God in Jesus Christ. We are reminded, of course, that as we have been forgiven by God, we must extend that forgiveness to others who have likewise harmed us.

Again, forgiveness does not call vulnerable people to keep getting abused, but it calls upon those in positions of privilege to extend mercy to those who need it. It seems obvious, but it is easier said than done.

Commentator, David Schlafer, notices that “those who plead for divine forgiveness and praise God for it can be, well, rather less ‘forgiving’ when it comes to dealing with the sins of the enemy ‘other.’” And the psalms provide an excellent example of how this works. “Some psalms sing, ‘Please forgive us, God!’ and ‘Thank you very much, God!’ Others, in effect, cry, ‘Stick it to them, God! Do not let them off the hook!’”

“’Remember not the sins of my youth,’ pleads Psalm 25:7. ‘Repay them according to their deeds,’ implores Psalm 28:4. [And] in Psalms 34, 79, 81, 139, and 141 one can find evidence of both sentiments within the same psalm!”

Like the first slave in the parable, and like the authors of the psalms, we tend to bring to the issue of forgiveness some seriously selective perception. Although we beg for God to be merciful to us even though we have clearly done wrong, we judge our neighbours harshly and want to see them punished.

In the church (which is the setting to which both today’s texts are addressed) many of our conflicts with one another are not related to monetary debts, but to poor treatment of one another. We get talking about really important things like the meaning of life, our purpose in the world, our interpretations of Scripture, and our convictions about right and wrong ways of living, and sometimes those conversations can get really nasty.

Within a congregation, a presbytery, or a denomination there are a variety of perspectives and firm convictions about the full gamut of important topics. And when we see things differently and disagree with each other, we often fight harshly and with a lot of righteous anger against the people who are supposed to be our siblings in Christ.

I’ve seen it on the internet within Christian social media platforms. I’ve seen it in the courts of the church in the midst of debate. And I’ve seen it in the things said about others behind their backs outside of the formal meetings.

It may be that for many of us, forgiving the money our friend borrowed and never gave back is actually a lot easier than forgiving the fellow church member who belittled your suggestion, or questioned your faith or your integrity, or claimed to know the will of God better than you, or called you misguided or even evil.

I would love to say that these kinds of things never happen among Christians, but they do. They happen because we are human. They happen because we are passionate about our faith and the church and our mission in the world. They happen because of our proud tendency to judge one another rather than to live with some differences and diversity within the church.

In his letter to the Church at Rome, Paul certainly gives guidance to the Christian community about what to believe and how to live, but in today’s passage from chapter 14, he makes it clear that agreement on every issue is not critical.

Last week, we heard Paul sum up the most important thing about being a Christian as the command to love our neighbours. And this week, he spells out the fact that loving our neighbours will mean avoiding judgement, accepting differences, and being respectful to one another. He warns us not to judge one another or despise one another for our differences. God is our only judge, and we are each accountable to God alone.

The examples Paul uses are about dietary practices and the celebration of special holy days. He says, “Some believe in eating anything, while [others] eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.”

He says, “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike… Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God.”

Some of our differences today are very similar. While one Christian becomes a vegetarian because of their faith commitment to care for Creation by reducing their consumption of meat, another makes sure to eat plenty of beef from the Prairies in order to support the livelihood of their ranching neighbours. While one family offers hospitality to their friends with wine and spirits, modelling responsible drinking to their children, another avoids alcohol altogether to demonstrate that love and laughter are plentiful without the use of intoxicants.

Some of our differences are pretty minor – like what kind of music we want to sing in church, or what the church website should look like, or what the colour of the carpet will be. But we often manage to argue over those things anyway.

And there are bigger issues too, on which we differ in the church… our approach to other churches and other faith groups, our belief about whether or not women can be ordained, our conviction about the appropriateness of blessing and approving sex-sex marriages, or our priorities when it comes to ministries of evangelism versus ministries of practical care for those in need.

I often hear people talk about one of the blessings of being in the church community by saying, “It feels so good to be together with a group of like-minded people.” And I usually laugh when I hear it, because I know that it is so rarely the case. Maybe you could get closer to that likeminded-ness by joining a political party. Maybe.

But the church is filled with diverse people with diverse thoughts, ideas, and priorities. And I think that’s actually the wonder and beauty of the church. We’re not all like-minded, but there is one thing that we do have in common: We believe that Jesus is Lord, and we want to follow his way. His whole new way of living in the world.

Jesus’ way is not a brand new list of clear and irrefutable rules and commandments. It’s not an exact number of times that we must forgive one another when we’ve been wronged. But it’s a way of love, of mercy, of generous forgiveness when others have done us wrong, and respectful acceptance when we cannot agree on everything.

Maybe there’s something really nice and comfortable in being together with a group of like-minded Christians. But I think there is something spectacular about being together with a group of people who have all kinds of different ideas, and thoughts, and convictions, and priorities, when those people are trying to learn the whole new way of Jesus.

When we’re learning how to listen respectfully and to look for the good in the other. When we’re learning to forgive each other’s debts and failings, and giving each other another chance. When we’re learning how to love one another even when we don’t always like each other very much.

Paul says that we will each be accountable to God for our actions. And the end of Jesus’ parable shows that we will not get away with bad behaviour either. But I don’t think that accountability will be about whether or not we had all the right answers to the controversial questions, or whether we remembered all the rules and followed them perfectly.

I think we will be accountable for how we treated one another in the midst of our difference and diversity, how we forgave one another, how we respected and accepted one another.

I guess it’s down to Paul’s summary from last week again – Love your neighbours. That’s the whole new way that Jesus is teaching us to live.