Proper 19A

September 11, 2011
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Exodus 14:19-31
Reading 2: 
Psalm 114
Reading 3: 
Romans 14:1-12
Reading 4: 
Matthew 18:21-35
By Paul S. Nancarrow

Exodus 14:19-31
In the overarching sweep of salvation history, Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea is often remembered, and referred to in subsequent texts, as the seminal moment when Israel became a people and, more particularly, God’s people. Just as the Passover ritual gives them a new cultic identity as the people who practice this ceremony at this time of the year, so the memory of the Red Sea incident binds them together as the people for whom God acted in this decisive way at a critical moment. Some historians have suggested that the “hapiru” slaves who escaped from Egypt were not particularly closely related in either ethnicity or custom, that the origin stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob were later conflations and editions of various tribal tales, and that what gave this ragtag bunch of runaways their sense of common cause was their shared experience of divine action on their behalf when they escaped their enslavers’ armed pursuit. Even if we don’t take the historical deconstruction quite that far, but accept some degree of fact in the tales of the ancestral relatedness of the tribes, there is no doubt that the Red Sea experience gave the people a sense of shared identity and purpose above and beyond a tribal memory of distant shared parentage.

The central feature of this liberation experience is the way God’s action irrupts into a situation that is clearly, by any earthly definition, hopeless, and transforms it into a situation of hope. There is no way humanly imaginable that the Israelites, pinned at the seashore, can survive the attack of the Egyptian forces: they do not have the numbers, the weapons, the resources, the strategy—in short, they do not have any of the things ordinary human action would require to hope to survive. Their liberation, therefore, is not in any way to be taken as their own accomplishment—not even, as will develop in later conquest stories in the Book of Joshua, as an Israelite victory in battle given to them by God. This is God’s doing, and God’s alone; as Moses says to the people just a few verses before this reading begins, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” The Israelites’ new identity realized in this experience, therefore, is to be the people for whom God has acted in this liberating way.

Yet even with the story’s emphasis placed so squarely on God’s action, it is not without its element of human action. God instructs Moses to stretch out his hand over the sea, and it is by that signal that the sea retreats for the people and then returns to drown the pursuers. Even an action so far beyond human ability as God’s movement of the sea for the people’s escape must be actively appropriated in some intentional human gesture, even something so simple as the raising of a hand. The image illustrates how the acting-out of divine aims which constitutes the world-process around us, both the processes we recognize and the processes that are beyond our cognition, is everywhere always already moving toward liberation and shalom and mutual well-being for all creatures. We become conscious participants in that acting-out of divine aims when we appropriate such aims in our intentional gestures, no matter how small. In this way we live into an identity as the people for whom and in whom God acts in decisive ways in hopeful transformation toward the liberation of the world.

This reflection on intentional human participation, even in the simplest ways, in God’s all-embracing ideal aim for liberating peace is an appropriate theme for observance of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and our continual need to work for reconciliation and peace in our world.

Psalm 114
The psalm conflates two “victories over the waters” ascribed to God on behalf of the chosen people: the escape from Egypt through the Red Sea, and the crossing of the Jordan into the land of promise. In the psalm, it is not God’s action through Moses, as in the Exodus account, nor is it even God’s intended purpose, but God’s mere presence that causes the sea to flee, the Jordan to turn back, and the mountains and hills to tremble and skip. The people chosen to be the “sanctuary” of such world-altering power are themselves the greatest sign of God’s victory present in the world. The psalm provides a bridge from the beginning of the wilderness wandering period to its end, framing the stories of manna and water that are to come in the Exodus readings for the next weeks.

Romans 14:1-12
The interpretive key to this passage is to be found in vss 7-8: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” For Paul, Christ as Lord constitutes a containing environment, a structured society (in Whiteheadian terms) that both supports and influences all the connected experience-events that make up human living and dying. Individual actions, particular choices, momentary decisions, repeated habits, personal or communal customs — all of them arise from aims given by God and all of them perish in satisfactions that are taken into God. Christ, as the particularization of God’s Logos for human experience, is the pervasive influence steering both aims and satisfactions of human events toward divine ideals.

Within this pervasive field of influence, we must recognize that very different specific actions may be equally valid embodiments of general Christly ideals. Therefore Paul can say that “some believe in eating anything,” while some “eat only vegetables,” and “some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.” Such dietary and diurnal marks of piety can produce very different patterns of behavior among faith practitioners, and these differences can easily become causes of division, even sectarianism, if they are taken as significant in and of themselves. But Paul cautions his readers against such judgments, encouraging instead a larger view of the Christly environment: “those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God”: so long as honoring and thanking God are the basic motivations of the specific behaviors, then the behaviors, even if diametrically opposed in appearance, are still equally acceptable. Judgment of others is ruled out, because, whatever their practices may look like outwardly, their inner motivations of honor and gratitude are not observable and are not subject to human assessment. What matters is not how we judge, but how our individual and collective actions and experiences arise and perish, live and die, to Christ. This would be a wise principle to keep in mind in many of the doctrinal, denominational, and political controversies going on in the churches today.

Matthew 18:21-35
This passage continues the theme of forgiveness in the church, picking up from last week’s account of Jesus’ procedure for settling disputes. In Matthew’s framing story, the parable of the unforgiving servant is presented as Jesus’ “case study” to answer Peter’s question about how often he should forgive. The parable is thus offered as a model for church members to follow: just as the servant was forgiven by the king and therefore should forgive his fellow servant, so should all Christians, forgiven their sins by God, forgive their fellow believers for offenses committed within the believing community. Important to this role as a model for emulation is the parable’s sense of proportionality: given the immense debt forgiven the servant, the small debt owed by the fellow servant should seem insignificant and, in fact, very easy for the servant to forgive. In the same way, believers are encouraged to understand that the immensity of God’s forgiveness of our sins should make any sin believers might commit against each other insignificant by comparison, and therefore easy to forgive. The larger forgiveness by God creates an environment in which the smaller forgivnesses between believers are encouraged and empowered. In this sense, the forgiveness depicted is much more than a kind of moral quid pro quo, a formulaic “I’ve received x, so I should give y.”

In the parable, the king’s act of forgiveness does not simply clear the ledger of the servant; this act creates a new relationship between them. The debt was about to destroy the relationship, insofar as the king was prepared to sell the servant and his family, effectively removing him from all further relationship with the king and the king’s household. The act of forgiveness restores the servant to relationship; and more than that, creates a new level of relationship that should be characterized by a degree of personal generosity between them and, indeed, within the entire household. This suggests that God’s forgiveness of sins is not to be understood as simply “getting us off the hook” of punishment, but is in fact the creation of a new relationship of personal generosity in the life of the believer. In the parable, the servant stands in this new relationship but does not consciously choose to enact it, and that leads to his ultimate punishment; by contrast, those who hear the parable are invited to be conscious of the generosity of God and to bear witness to it by embodying that characteristic in their own relationships. In this way Peter’s question is answered.

I think this parable can also speak to a larger issue, beyond the particular context of Peter’s question and church order. Jesus’ parabolic image of the king forgiving the servant’s debt speaks to the whole theology of atonement. In recent years I’ve noticed more and more people — from professors and progressives to people-in-the-pews — expressing dissatisfaction with the traditional “penal substitution” theory of atonement; that is, the notion that God’s justice demanded punishment for sin, which Jesus bore on our behalf, before God’s mercy could effect forgiveness. How, people ask, could God be so internally divided as to demand punishment before being able to forgive? How, people ask, could forgiveness that depends on punishment really count as forgiveness at all? For those who raise such questions, this parable presents a notion of atonement that is altogether different.

Seeing the debt as a barrier between himself and the servant, the king in the parable simply removes the barrier. He does not arrange for the servant to pay the debt gradually, as it were in installments. He does not arrange for someone else—say, his beloved son the prince—to pay the debt on behalf of the servant. He just cancels the debt, he makes up for what is missing out of his own generosity, he forgives and thus restores relationship. If this is indeed what “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to,” as Jesus introduces the parable, then it invites reflection on the whole theology of atonement: in this view, God does not demand payment, not even payment from Jesus, as the condition of restoration of relationship; but God acts out of God’s own generosity to forgive sin, to overcome barriers to relationship, to restore unity. And if that is how God acts, then it is in turn how God calls believers to act: forgiveness comes forth, not out of fear of punishment, nor even out a sense of one’s own unworthiness before the great sacrifice made on one’s behalf, but out of a deep sense of gratitude to divine generosity and a sincere desire to embody such generosity in one’s own human acts. I find this interpretation of the atonement to be far more empowering of free and joyful relationships than the penal substitution theory, as well as far more in keeping with Jesus’ own teaching.