As We Forgive Our Debtors (1 Kg. 21:1-10,15-21a; Lk. 7:36-50)
In a recent edition of The Christian Century there was an brief article that showed how much/how little various groups of people trusted in what the government said to be true. It is not surprising that the responses broke out generationally. There are fewer and fewer folk in generations before Baby Boomers now, but the farther back one goes, the higher the trust level that the government tells the truth and that those in government have the people’s best at heart. In a previous issue of the same magazine, there was a survey about how much hope different generations of people had that the traditional groups to which people have normally turned for help (such as established political and religious groups) could remain helpful in the future. There was a huge amount of skepticism about this, with more and more looking outside traditional structures – including political parties and churches, synagogues, and mosques (etc.) for religious ones. Especially younger persons reported a disconnect between what our leaders say they do and what they really are up to, and showed a skepticism about the possibility of maintaining the previous generation’s quality of life.
Be it as it may, it is also true that many young people have become involved in the political process in the current election season in ways that show hopefulness in ways we’ve not seen since the 1960’s. Many agree this ought to say something to our traditional political parties. Ought any of this say anything to religious bodies?
Well, if we look at the documents upon which our Christian religious institutions are built, both our Old Testament and Gospel Lessons give grand examples that the God of the Bible forthrightly opposes power that takes advantage of common people who need to be able to turn to the powerful for help and support, and speaks in favour of being straightforward in saying what we mean. God’s opposition is especially keen when such power is entrenched in institutions such as government and even religion. In these Lessons, we find stories about two figures, Elijah and Jesus, who confronted such entrenched power on behalf of ordinary folk.
Elijah the prophet confronted an Israelite king named Ahab in the name of the God who freed slaves from the power of another king in Egypt. The Israelite king’s name was Ahab who is painted as too weak to resist the power-manipulations of his Queen Jezebel, who, when she wanted things, just took them because she had the power. Elijah confronted these representatives of power in the interest of justice for a single family, that of a man named Naboth, who owned a vineyard, which, although pleasant, was nothing beside the wealth of the crown. The story teller holds that those who take what they want – money, land, influence, or information – without concern for what happens to these things or to the poor and weak from whom they take them, face God’s justice, usually worked out in historical ways. If we read stories in the Bible, we’ll find that there really are no crimes (or, as we sometimes call them in church, sins) simply against people. Such crimes (or sins) are, more basically, all against God the Creator in whose image people (all of them) are made. Unfaithfulness to others is interpreted in this story as unfaithfulness to God. Furthermore, how faithful people are to God is mirrored by how faithful they are to others, especially those who need their help. The reason God is concerned about human faithfulness is not because God needs it, but precisely because we humans do. It is good for us to live in covenant with one another. The story of Elijah, Ahab, Jezebel and Naboth’s vineyard teaches this lesson above all. The Bible, therefore, counsels great care in the use of power to make sure that it is shared widely and used for common good.
Jesus of Nazareth, that prophet and more than a prophet, confronted another kind of power – the power of religion and tradition. Jesus faced down a certain Simon the Pharisee who had invited him to dinner just to see whether this Galilean prophet came up to Simon’s own standards, and, of course, he didn’t. When a woman who is called a “sinner,” came into the dinner and began making a public spectacle of herself by weeping and anointing Jesus’ feet, and drying them with her unbound hair (a fairly bold gesture in those days), Simon was scandalized, not only that such a person would darken his door, but that Jesus would allow such a demonstration. The words of the text itself are perfect: “(Simon) said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet (and, in the Greek text, you can tell that he doesn’t think so) he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him…that she is a sinner.” There is a “purity-test” for prophets, according to Simon. Jesus flunked. The woman is called a sinner. In Jesus’ culture, such a term could mean, someone who didn’t stick to the kosher food regulations and other purity rules, sometimes because their jobs wouldn’t allow it. Or, it could mean someone who didn’t have the right political/religious label (like Pharisee or Sadducee).
Now, it’s important to say that although Simon was (according to our story) a Pharisee, it was not because he was one that he was narrow minded. Not all Pharisaic teaching was rule counting, but attempted to give Judaism life and distinctiveness in its world. Jesus agreed with the teachings of the Pharisees quite often, though some Christian preachers don’t tell us that part. Of course, some people think that the word “Baptist” is the modern equivalent to what many of us have made of the word “Pharisee.” We’re narrow minded, hide-bound, Bible thumping, bigots, to whom social change is unthinkable. Alas, there are some like that, but not all of us, I hope. And not all narrow-minded Christians are Baptists. I know plenty with many labels. Some would think that, here at First Baptist, we’re not really Baptists. That’s what that old ad in the paper that used to say that we’re “A different kind of Baptist” was supposed to be about. It’s still true, whether it’s in the paper or not.
Now, as I was saying before I chased a rabbit, the Old Testament prophets taught that how faithful we are to God is mirrored by how faithful we are to others, especially those who need us. This story in Luke’s Gospel brings out the corollary: “How we relate to others is evidence of how we have already related to God.” Simon, as reported here at least, believed that God held purity, measured in certain ways, to be the very highest value. What mattered most was only to entertain a certain kind of thought, doctrine, person, eat a certain food, pray at a certain time, for certain things, in certain words. People are of two kinds: those who agree with us and those who are unclean. Again, this is not something we’ve always outgrown. Some people (Christians and others) are sure of all the answers in life. Everything is clear. We know who the good people are and who the bad people are. We can point them out on the street. It’s tragic that one successful way to build a church is to give people a clear (and expandable) list of enemies and bad things to oppose and to destroy if possible. This obviously works with some politicians, too.
The messages of Elijah and Jesus, on the other hand, are flip sides of the same coin: faithfulness to God is mirrored in faithfulness to others and faithfulness to others speaks importantly and powerfully about our faithfulness to God. In both of these our actions speak more loudly than our words, and are rooted in the values and beliefs we hold.
There’s a further point that is the underlayment for these “flip sides.” It’s found in that little story Jesus told to Simon. I have said innumerable times that when Hebrews wanted to say something important, they told a story. And Jesus told this story to Simon (is Simon a code-word for “us”?). There were two debtors; one owed what it would take just under two month’s full-time wages to pay. The other owed ten times that much. Neither could pay. There were probably peasants listening to Jesus’ words, and they’d have understood how hopeless both debts were. All one’s time was taken up making enough to live. there was no extra for paying off debts. The culture knew little of credit and nothing of VISA and Master Card. If the smaller debt was impossible, the larger was overwhelming.
Since neither one could pay up, as an act of kindness and covenant-faithfulness, the creditor simply forgot about the debt. Have you ever heard of such a thing? It’s outrageous! Then, Jesus, asked Simon which one he thought would love him more for that favour? Simon answered, as most of us would, “The one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.” “You’re right,” said Jesus. What can we learn here?
First, one of the commonest ways Hebrews talked about “sins” was to think of them as “debts” they owe to God. Baptists in this country use that word “debts” in the Lord’s Prayer, coming out of Matthew’s Hebrew mind. Since Luke was speaking to a community with Gentiles, he used what Matthew meant by debts, “sins.” What Jesus was asking Simon to do was to think about was what great debt (in the sense of harmful behaviour, sin) had been written off for this woman to bring on such an outpouring of gratitude. This is why she met Jesus with such a barrage of welcoming love. The probability is that this woman had met Jesus on some other occasion and trusted his word that God had forgiven her debts.
The so-called “barrage of welcoming love” leads to my second comment. I remind us again that these words we usually make about “feelings,” would have been taken as words about “action” by people in Jesus’ day. To love someone, meant to do what was necessary to embrace, affirm, and relate to that person. The woman’s “love” for Jesus was not an outpouring of emotion, but an action demonstrating that she embraced and affirmed that she was in covenant with him.
Simon, on the other hand, had done nothing to welcome (or love) Jesus, she did it all. Jesus says that her great expressions of love (covenant loyalty to Jesus and his values) show how greatly she has been forgiven. “You Simon have done nothing, or loved in no way, showing the level of the forgiveness of your own debts. He then says something to her that raises eyebrows all around the table: “Your sins have been and still are written off – your debt is cancelled,” you have showed it by your actions here today. This was an observation based on her behaviour.
So what? What does any of that have to do with us? It is important for us to understand that it is good news that God has written off our debts. Many people in the world outside the doors would like to know that God really isn’t holding something over their heads about which they should feel guilty. We give the claim that our sins are cancelled credibility by the way we relate to others. It isn’t necessary, or even possible, to wheel and deal for a place in God’s love by our piety and our many good deeds, thus paying our own debts. Instead, we seek to live in ways that show that we really trust that, in Christ, God has cancelled our debts. And that God in Christ lives in us, and we live in him to tell and demonstrate that news.
If we, as a congregation, have anything without which the community “out there” cannot live, it’s the message that we must not only tell out, but live out: Our debts are forgiven. What we are called on to do “out there” is to take the risk to live and minister (which, in the Bible, means “serve”) in ways that show that it’s true. We’re not, primarily, called simply to list the things we believe to be true. We are called to live riskily as those whose debts are written off. That’s faith – risky living; betting our lives on God and God’s way in Christ. What difference does it make if we live as though our debts have been forgiven? Well, perhaps, it could cause us to live by cancelling, remitting, letting go of those “debts” that we think others owe us, and I’m not primarily talking of money here. That’s a different subject. Living by forgiving shows how seriously we believe we’re forgiven. It is when we can imitate Christ in this, too, that we can begin to hear the liberating gospel that Jesus uttered to that much forgiven sinner in that distant day: “Your faith has saved you; go in shalom.”
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.