The Reckoning (Pentecost 15A – Matthew 18:21-35)

For Sunday, September 17, 2017

FOCUS:

As a community that gathers to make known the presence of God, we must live in ways contrary to the self-interested, oppressive, fickle, and harsh ways of the world in which perceptions of power, status, and wealth determine actions. This begins by learning to be human together, and that means being people who break cycles of violence with practices of peacemaking and unlimited forgiveness.

CONTENTS:

  1. Scripture Readings
  2. The Text
  3. Questions for Reflection
  4. Call to Worship
  5. Opening Prayer
  6. Confession and Assurance

SCRIPTURE READINGS

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

THE TEXT

(The following commentary and reflection is based on Warren Carter, “Resisting and Imitating the Empire: Imperial Paradigms in Two Matthean Parables,” Interpretation, 56, no. 3 (July, 2002): 260-272. https://doi.org/10.1177/002096430005600303)

The text for this week includes a question and a parable. Peter asks how much forgiveness is expected of the disciple. Jesus responds to the question with a parable comparing the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of the world, an established pattern of teaching Jesus has already used a number of times thus far in Matthew.

Jesus’ response—that the disciples should forgive not just seven, but seventy-seven times—can either be taken as a hyperbole or as a command. Followers of Jesus are to offer unlimited forgiveness. In the context of Jesus’ overall teachings, the disciples are not just to be forgiving to their neighbors, but even to their enemies (Matt 5:43-48).

The number seventy-seven is not, however, a hyperbole intended to be read as another way of saying , “be infinitely forgiving.” Rather, seventy-seven is a direct reference to Genesis and the vengeance of Lamech: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23–24). In this way, it should be seen as a part of the larger teaching in this section of Matthew aimed at providing a process for restoration as an alternative to never-ending spirals of retribution normally operative in the world. Matthew’s Jesus is challenging his disciples to pursue forgiveness with the same intensity that Lamech pursued revenge.

It should be clear, that this passage should be read in the context of the wider teachings of Jesus. Forgiveness, according to Jesus, is not about ignoring the problem or forgetting what has been done. Rather, it is an act aimed with reconciliation and restoration in mind. In the verses immediately proceeding this passage, Jesus has instructed those who have been violated to confront those who have done them wrong. Forgiveness is not about a lack of justice; it is instead a way of operating with an entirely different framework of justice. Thus, victims of violence are not being encouraged to forgive and forget and remain in situations that allow the violence against them to continue. Rather, they are being empowered to confront those who have violated them, with their own agency, acting with the full weight and moral authority given to them by the community.

Jesus follows up his response to Peter with an illustrating parable. Ched Myers and Elaine Enns provide an excellent discussion on this parable in the first volume of their New Testament study, Ambassadors of Reconciliation. (See especially pp. 65ff). They explain that this parable closes a section of teaching on restorative justice that is aimed at giving moral agency to victims of violence. The ultimate goal is the end of violation and the restoration of relationships and community solidarity. In the beginning of the chapter where this parable is found, Jesus has explained that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is like a child. This parable, which closes the chapter and this section of teaching, mirrors that opening statement with a story about a king and his official that models what the kingdom of heaven is not like.

Myers and Enns explain that there are two difficulties in interpreting this parable. First, readers tend to want to read parables like this one as theological allegories that identify God with the king or landowner. History has taught us, they note, that this way of reading these parables has had lamentable theological and social consequences. Secondly, in the parable, the main character gets only one chance at grace, which directly contradicts the teaching of Jesus which this parable is aimed at illustrating (pp. 71ff).

Matthew scholar Warren Carter explains, there are several factors in the Gospel that caution against “unquestioning identification of the king in this parable as God.” In his essay, “Resisting and Imitating the Empire,” Carter argues that although Matthew’s gospel critiques the rhetoric and values of imperial hegemony, it also borrows from it.

In the parable, according to Carter’s reading, the king is concerned about power and perception. First off, the official is a slave and offered forgiveness by the king, not out of a desire to bring healing and restoration, but in order to benefit from not selling the slave. If the king sells the official, he will lose his expertise. By not selling him, the king gains a slave who is even more “indebted” to him, more submissive and controllable. When the official leaves and begins to act harshly with the other slaves, the official is aiming to prove he still has the power of life and death over others. In doing so, the official is merely exerting the kind of control which he has learned from the king.

What is important here, Carter argues, is to take note of the relationship between power and perception. Forgiveness by the king to his subordinates may be politically beneficial, but public displays of forgiveness will be perceived not as a display of power but of weakness. When word gets out to the king’s court what has happened, he responds not with prison, but by imposing torture! The point here, which should not be missed, is that the king’s anger should be understood within the context of imperial politics. The torture of the official is the punishment of a traitor, aimed at shoring up the perception of the king as ruthless and powerful, with an authority that is not to be undermined.

Warren Carter challenges us to see that when the king in the parable offers forgiveness, it is a “calculated, self-benefiting, once-only act!” But, as we have learned thus far from Matthew, the king is not God, and the “kingdom” of God is “not like the king’s self-interested, oppressive, fickle, and harsh rule in which perceptions of power, status, and wealth determine actions.”

The final verse in this week’s reading from Matthew, however, should cause us great pause. “So my heavenly father will do to you” (v. 35). Here, the kingdom of heaven is not in contrast to the oppressive ways of the world’s empires, but is presented as similar. While God’s reign differs from that of the kings of the world, ignoring God’s will still comes with consequences. As Myers and Enns put it, “If we bind God’s grace, we are consigning ourselves to the equally infinite narrative of vengeance. The alternative to Jesus’ restorative alternative is a collective death sentence of our own design” (71). This represents an emphatic conclusion to Jesus’ teachings. As they explain, “Our failure to practice restorative justice means that the imperial system’s logic of retribution remains intact—and we will all inevitably become its victims” (72).

In the end, Warren Carter argues that in using the culture garb of imperialism to criticize the rhetoric and hegemony of the empire, the gospel has borrowed some elements from the empire that are contrary to its overall anti-imperialist aims. He suggests that this parable serves as an example and should challenge us to ask how appropriate the “kingdom” paradigm is to describe God’s work of mercy and justice.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION

  1. One of the most important themes in the Gospel of Matthew is the conflict between Jesus’ ministry and the Jerusalem-centered, temple-based chief priests and scribes. In your own words, what was this conflict about?
  2. The parable in today’s reading begins, like several others we have read recently from Matthew, with the phrase “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” (18:23). Yet, it differs in an important way. Below is a list of “kingdom comparison parables” in the Gospel of Matthew. How do they differ from the parable in today’s reading?
    • The kingdom of heaven is like a…
      • sower (13:24);
      • a mustard seed (13:31);
      • leaven (13:33);
      • treasure (13:44);
      • a merchant (13:45); and
      • a net (13:47).
  3. So far in our readings, the Gospel of Matthew has asserted that God is not like human rulers. It does this with contrasts and opposites. Recall the following:
    • Only two out of the fifteen kings of Israel named in Matthew 1 are seen in a positive light in the biblical narrative.
    • Matthew begins the Gospel the story of Herod, the magi, and the murder of the innocent children (Matt 2).
    • Notice also the non-flattering reference to King Solomon in contrast to the “lilies of the field” (6:29).
    • Matthew identifies kings with those who use their power against followers of Jesus (10:18).
    • Recall that a major undercurrent in Matthew is the story of Herod Antipas, who Matthew identifies as a king, executing John the Baptist (14:1-12).
    • Matthew uses the phrase “kings of the earth” to describe the taxing ways of rulers (17:25; cf. Ps. 2:2).
  4. With this in mind, draw up a table to compare and contrast
    • the empire of Rome and the Gospel of Matthew’s presentation of the “kings of the earth,” with
    • the teachings and ministry of Jesus. (Consider passages like Matt 5:5; 12:1-8;14:13-21;15:32-39; cf. Isa 25:6).

CALL TO WORSHIP

Leader:   Come, people of the Living God! Let us praise God with thanksgiving!
People:   For the Lord is compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
Leader:   God’s ways have been made known to us! God’s love is everlasting.
People:   For as far as the east is from the west, our shame has been removed!

OPENING PRAYER

God of abundant grace and mercy, we praise you for your unfailing love. Your forgiveness is everlasting. As your Spirit reminds us of your presence here, let today be the day we learn to love as you have loved, to forgive as you have forgiven. Amen.

CONFESSION AND ASSURANCE

PRAYER OF CONFESSION:
O Holy and Merciful God, we confess that we have not been compassionate. We have been quick to anger and slow to love. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Despite our failures, you have been faithful. Forgive us we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord…Moment of Silent Prayer

WORDS OF ASSURANCE:
Leader:   
Hear now the Good News of the Gospel: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.
People:   In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.
All:         Glory to God! Amen.

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