... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

PENTECOST 13 Year A, Message Sept 11th, 2011

Practical Steps for Right Relationships

Text: Exodus 14:19-35; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

If last Sunday seemed a somewhat philosophical and theological take on the Primacy of Relationships, this week’s readings might justly be deemed the practical or where the rubber hits the road. Whether it’s Paul’s dealing with specific behaviours in the Christian church at Rome or Jesus’ hyperbolic parable to his disciples, we are given concrete examples of what right relationships entail within the community of God’s household.

Having had the foundation of relationships laid out for us by God’s example, Paul tells us that there are a few types of behaviour that will destroy that foundation, chief among them being adversarial attitudes, prejudicial feelings and judgmental posturing. Any or all of these behaviours within the community will result in friction conflict and schisms to the detriment of the whole. While Paul seems to deal specifically with food regulations and the debates over what was right or wrong to consume, the issues could just as well be any controversy over which people take various sides. And each side then views the other ones as being confused in faith or wanting to overturn scripture. We need only to look at the issues of slavery, evolution theories, authority of scripture, ordination of women, homosexuality or Canons on dissolution of parishes. Each and every one of these issues has spawned factions bent in portraying the others factions as inferior, as anti Christian, as faithless or, as trying to destroy the church. If in any of these controversies you witness a possibility for schism or exclusion of fellowship then Paul’s words are speaking to you.

Paul is not suggesting that we don’t communicate or express our view points or that we meekly give in to the loud voices but rather that all our debates need to be done in an attitude of right relationships. That means having concern and compassion for others and their view points. It also means being able to separate the person from the view point or the behaviour. All too often when we have conflict with another, we see that person in light of his or her behaviour or position and that leads to a personification of the behaviour. This happens all the time: a politician is viewed as his or her political party, a doctor is seen in light of what the ideal physician is supposed to be, a person caught shoplifting is seen as a thief or a person dressed shabbily is painted as just a bum. Once the person is viewed as the personification of the position or the undesirable then it becomes all too easy to stop seeing the person for whom he or she is, or for that matter for seeing him or her as a child of God or fellow follower of Christ. When that happens bigotry prejudice and self-righteous opposition set in and relationships are broken or cast aside. Paul’s words are warnings to just such behaviours. And we cannot kid ourselves – these behaviours happen all the time and in each and every one of us; and the issues may not be as dramatic or doctrine-challenging as the food laws or say as which Biblical translation to use in the church. It could be as petty a thing as the colour of the paint on the narthex wall, or which side of the church should come up first to receive communion. The bottom line for all our relationships within community is that we are ultimately brothers and sisters – children of one God and it is that relationship which governs all our dealings. Whatever we do must be done so as to honour and glory God. “Thus whether we live or whether we die we are the Lord’s.” It is in this relationship with God through Christ Jesus that we are to govern all other relationship, and these other relationships must ultimately reflect God’s relationship to humanity.

It is this understanding of our relationship with God that Jesus has in mind when he answers Peter’s question concerning, “how often should one forgive?” Last week Jesus began the process toward understanding forgiveness in the context of being sinned against and how the offended person must bring to the attention of the offender, the offence. That is the first step. The second step is that the offender must hear and listen. Without that the rest of the process is unattainable and lasting chasms of separation will be the result. However if the offender hears and is ready to proceed then the next step has to be toward forgiveness. Unfortunately, this step is very complex and involves so much more than lip service or the simple ‘forgive me.’ Forgiveness has to come from the very inner most aspect of our being in order to be effective. Sometimes it will require both parties to come into restitution, penance and acceptance. Most times it will require the offended person to go beyond being victim and the offender to surmount the spectre of perpetrator. It is a difficult process even in trivial offences – such as a slight of recognition at the fall fair. In major offences such as abuse, torture adultery or murder the journey may be lifelong.

Yet for freedom and liberation, for salvation and reconciliation, forgiveness is the major hurdle. And Jesus’ parable sets the context for this forgiveness as divine grace. Peter is told he must forgive, “not seven times but seventy-seven times.” (The number seven representing total perfection and seventy-seven signifying beyond perfection). In other words forgiveness must be absolute. While such a call for absolute forgiveness is the ideal of the parable, questions abound as to the value of perpetual unqualified forgiveness in the health of the community or the individual who is forgiven. Jesus’ parable doesn’t answer this nor does it even address it. Instead it puts the human process of forgiveness in the context of divine forgiveness and yes, divine punishment.

The king in the parable becomes the Lord and the first indebted slave becomes all who have sinned. The sin of this first slave – 10,000 talents is an unimaginable sum. Given that a denarius was a day’s wage, 10,000 talents would require 150,000 years to repay. Yet that is what is forgiven. The hyperbole is shocking and is meant to open our minds to the expanse of God’s forgiveness. But to the first slave the forgiveness is lost. He cannot see beyond the balance sheet; he cannot appreciate the grace given and so he is unable to forgive the second slave who owes a paltry sum of 100 denarii. With vengeful violence the first slave grabs the second and tosses him in jail. The report of this gets back to the Lord and his wrath is kindled – the forgiveness of debt is cancelled and the first slave is placed in prison till the 10,000 talents should be repaid.

Such is God’s grace and wrath – God forgives and we are called to forgive others as all have been forgiven. The implications are mind-boggling. Most of us rarely if ever even think about it. Yet every time we say the Lord’s Prayer we pray for exactly this type of forgiveness and it is what we must truly observe and practice if ever we are to experience freedom from the oppression of sin. In a story from a church council record in 16th century Switzerland a man pretended he did not know the Lord’s Prayer and so would not say the prayer. In reality it was that if he said it, it would mean he would have to forgive the merchant in the town who had cheated him and that was something he had no intention of doing! Likewise another story concerning a woman who had been abandoned by her husband who had run off with a young woman was counselled by her rabbi to forgive. She told him she could not. The rabbi countered, “I’m not advising that you forgive him because his action were despicable. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. Until you forgive him he continues to control you and that only hurts yourself. If you forgive, you can let go and be free.”

God’s grace forgives us and we are to forgive others so that we can be free and in that freedom take the next phase in God’s redemptive plans toward the perfected relationship.