Exodus 14:19-31, Matthew 18:21-35, September 14, 2014
Fear. In the story of the Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt and then wondering in the wilderness for 40 years, fear is practically a character in the story. Just before the passage that Andrew read, the people of Israel cried out in fear to God. They were being pursued by Pharoah’s cavalry which of course was a lot faster than 600,000 people on foot. And they were being chased into the Sea of Reeds, where they would surely drown. They cried out to God, and also complained to Moses. They asked Moses with bitter sarcasm, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” Then they made up this completely untrue story about how they were better off in Egypt as slaves. They were very, very fearful. And Moses told them, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.” Remember that word “deliverance.” God worked a miracle and the pillar of cloud that he led them in the wilderness moved behind the people, creating a buffer between the Egyptians and them. God parted the Sea of Reeds and drowned Pharoah’s army. God delivered the people. And this part of the story ends with some interesting words: “So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” The people feared…and believed. Or maybe one could say they feared and trusted.
Here’s a case where the word “fear” is unfortunate. Of course the Israelites feared the Egyptian army, it was chasing them to kill them. They were scared to death. Then God acted in an amazing, astounding, miraculous way, an awesome display of power. They felt awe because they had just witnessed a truly awesome miracle. They also felt great relief and right away, the very next thing they did was sing and dance. I’ll never forget telling this story to my first youth group probably 20 years ago. After reading this morning’s lesson from Exodus, I asked my high schoolers, “What song did the Israelites sing?” I did not expect them to say, “Why, the Song of Moses, of course.” After a brief silence, one of them said, “Another one bites the dust.” Here was a kid who understood the story! Pharoah’s army bit the dust! And the people sang and danced. [I’m going to add a little something here…after Moses led the people in song, Miriam, Moses’ sister led the women of Israel in dance and song. Dancing is one of the original acts of worship and a way to praise God. Next month our Christian Educator, Kate Hood and Miriam Berbert are going to lead a Dance Workshop on Saturday, October 11—for kids 6 to 18. They will dance in worship the next day.]
Awesome. Miracle. Deliverance. Fear turned into dancing.
Now I want to talk about forgiveness, which is another kind of deliverance. Peter asked Jesus how many times a church member should forgive another church member who sins against him. Seven? Peter was being generous here. The tradition he grew up in said one should forgive another three times. And Jesus’ answer starts us into a story of outrageous proportions. Fasten your seatbelts. Jesus said, “Not seven times, but 77 times.” Or maybe he said “7 times 70”! I know some of you have done the math in your heads, but if you haven’t that works out to 490 times one should forgive someone else. Let’s stop here. I have done things and said things that I have regretted and asked for forgiveness for. I have sinned against people, I have hurt people…strangers, friends, family members and I have felt bad about those things and I have asked for forgiveness. I expect that everyone here has done the same thing. And here’s what I think Peter imagined, someone hurts you, he asks for your forgiveness, you give it to him. He does the same thing to you again, he asks for your forgiveness and you give it to him. He does the same thing again, he has hurt you a third time, and you extend forgiveness. This is not a case of offering forgiveness after someone has approached you three times for the same thing…this is someone who has hurt you three times. At this point, I think I would question the sincerity of the one who keeps hurting me. Shouldn’t this person change? Or repent to put it theologically, that is the person should turn away from this pattern of sin. But he doesn’t….Three isn’t the standard anymore…Peter thinks 7 might be the new standard that Jesus is promoting. Well, to put it theologically, nuh-uh!
Jesus tells this parable and he is using impossibly large amounts to make a shocking point. When we read this at Bible Exploration we were shocked at the proportions Jesus used. In the parable, the slave owes the king of debt of 10,000 talents. OK, we use dollars, we might think $10,000 is a lot of money. But a talent 15 years’ wages. So this slave owed the king 150,000 years’ wages, or to put it in our terms, 157 million dollars. That’s a lot money. That’s a preposterous amount of money for a slave to be in debt. We’re not talking a couple maxed out credit cards here…157 million dollars. The king could have sold the slave, his family and all the slave’s possessions…how much do you think that would have generated? Do you think the slave’s life, his family’s lives and everything they owned would have made a dent in this debt? This is like trying to put out the Chicago fire with a seltzer bottle!
The king forgave the slave’s debt. The king could write off 157 million dollars. The king could be that generous and merciful. And let me recall something, my first inclination with this parable was to imagine God as the king…and that makes sense and we can imagine ourselves as the one with an impossibly large debt who begs for forgiveness—and get it. But Jesus says something a little different, he says, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king….”
So this whole scenario of the slave’s enormous debt, the king’s forgiveness..the slave’s not extending forgiveness to a fellow slave…and king in effect, withdrawing the forgiveness king originally offered to the slave is a way to imagine the kingdom of heaven. Hmm.
At this point I should probably describe the two ways that the concept of sin is understood in the New Testament: you know these already “trespass” or “debt.” One of the questions I am asked most frequently is about the two different versions of what we know as The Lord’s Prayer. Presbyterians say “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors…” and just about everyone else in Wisconsin says “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” People ask me which one is “correct.” Well, they both are. There are two places in the gospels where the Lord’s Prayer appears and they use different terms for the things for which we ask to be forgiven. The Greek word “ophelilema” means “debt” or “obligation;” the Greek word “paraptoma” means “false step” or “cross the line.”
Each term gives us a way to understand and describe sin. And the remedy for sin is based on the image one uses for sin. A simple example of trespassing is one I enacted with my brother in the backseat of our Volkswagen on family vacations. There was a line down the middle and crossing the line was the reason to start hostilities. We both knew where the line was; it was clear when one of us crossed it. You can think of sin that way, of crossing onto land that is not yours, land where you do not belong. When I was a child this was “offsides;” about 20 years ago it became “encroachment.” Same idea—sin is behavior that crosses the line. The remedy is to get on the right side of the line. Turn around. Return to the land where you belong, your side of the line of scrimmage.
Understanding sin as a debt that one must repay is different. I remember a few months after I started fulltime ministry that I finally recognized the debt that I had accumulated. Student loans, a new car, credit cards…I was afraid, really afraid that I would not be able to pay my debt. I was acting crazy and it took me a while to figure out why. Fear of my debt was making me crazy. Now imagine the feeling not of owing money, but of not being able to meet an obligation, or live up to a standard. Imagine the feeling of always coming up short. And the fear of always coming up short. Or being in debt 157 million dollars. How does it feel when that debt is forgiven? When a debt that is so large it’s scary goes away? I asked this question at our staff meeting last week and with Bible Exploration earlier this month. How does forgiveness feel? Here are some responses: it feels good, relief, a burden lifted, an obligation satisfied, light-hearted…and embarrassing—because I needed to be forgiven in the first place. Someone said the feeling of being forgiven makes her more compassionate, more willing to extend forgiveness to other people. This is the exact opposite of how the first slave behaved in the parable. He got his forgiveness and it was an impossibly large debt that was forgiven—then turned around and insisted on getting repaid 100 days’ wages, and having the other slave thrown into jail for not paying!
The Kingdom of heaven is like a place where extravagant, extreme forgiveness is offered. Forgiveness of debts that are too large to imagine. But if it truly the Kingdom of Heaven, then that same extravagant forgiveness has to continue and absorb and cover and forgive all sins.
I told you a little while ago to hold onto that term “deliverance,” because it’s important. Remember, the Israelites were scared to death in this morning’s lesson, they cried out to God and against their leader Moses and God came through and rescued them. That’s part of the pattern of Exodus, fear…crying out…rescue or deliverance. It’s practically a dance in which the same steps are followed repeatedly, until, finally, they are delivered to the Promised Land. And it was not Moses who led them across the Jordan River, it was a younger guy named Joshua. A guy whose name means “He delivers” or “He saves.” Joshua delivered the people to the Promised Land across the Jordan.
About 1,200 years later, another guy went to the Jordan and was baptized there. We know him the Greek version of the Hebrew name “Joshua.” Or “Jesus.” He delivers us [or rescues us] from sin. His teaching tells us that when it comes to sin, God does not keep score, that God is infinitely forgiving. He reminds us…as we’ll soon sing… that “God’s mercy is wider than the sea, that there is no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgment given, than heaven. And that’s the hardest thing about being a follower of Jesus Christ…believing and trusting the depth and power of the forgiveness God extends to all of us through Christ. Faith in the grace of Christ is the antidote to fear. Amen.