The Church should be a community of outrageous mercy
Liz Stuart, 13 September 2020
Exodus 14: 19–31; Romans 14: 1–12; Matthew 18: 21–35
I love the story of the Exodus, the story of God’s leading the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. God is revealed to be on the side of the oppressed. But I hate the story of the waters closing in on the Egyptians. I think of the soldiers and the horses drowning. And I wonder, is that really the way God operates? The ancient rabbis reflected on this as well. The Talmud records that God stopped the angels from singing with joy at the Exodus with the words, ‘How dare you sing with joy when my creatures are dying?’ There’s also a wonderful rabbinic tradition that Pharaoh fled the scene and somehow ended up as King of Nineveh when Jonah arrived there; it was Pharaoh who led the national repentance that so upset that prophet.
In our second reading I take a bit of an exception as a non-meat eater to the description of those who eat only vegetables as ‘weak’! The context of this passage is a couple of disputes, first as to whether it was okay for Christians to eat meat that had previously been offered to the gods, and second, whether Christians should observe the Jewish sabbath or not. St Paul has his own views on these issues which he does not disguise, but his point is that there is more than one way of being a Christian and we must respect each other’s conscience. Why? Because we’re all in the same boat: we all stand before God, each of us completely dependent upon his grace, all of us trying to work out what that means in our faith and in our engagement with the world.
This brings us to our gospel reading. Peter, so rocky, actually gets exactly what Jesus has been saying about how we should treat each other. He understands that when Jesus says that when all else fails someone should be to us as a Gentile or a tax collector, Jesus is not saying that we should shun or excommunicate that person, but rather love them and forgive them. Peter recognises that the kingdom demands generous levels of forgiveness. Seven times is more than double the number required by the tradition. Jesus replies that he’s on the right lines, but actually forgiveness should be limitless. Why?
Well, that’s what the parable of the unmerciful servant is about. From one to whom boundless forgiveness has been shown, great forgiveness is expected. The debt owed by the slave is immense – the equivalent to a national debt in today’s terms. He would never have been able to repay it and the king knows it, and so he forgives it all. The behaviour of the slave is shocking. His meanness in the face of the boundless mercy that he has been shown is breathtaking. The message to us is clear – as recipients of God’s unconditional and unlimited grace, never deprive anyone of that mercy yourself.
We tend to think of sin today as hurt or offence, but in Jesus’ day it was thought about more in terms of debt. ‘Forgive us our debts’ is the phrase in the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. Now, we know a lot about debt; our whole economic system is built upon it. Debt is enslaving. It enslaves the present and the future. It binds us to systems in ways that restrict our vision and our freedom to live differently. Putting people into debt is the easiest way to enslave them, often without them realising it. That’s the way that sin works, and sin often works through a system of debt.
We tend to think of sin today as hurt or offence, but in Jesus’ day it was thought about more in terms of debt. Scripture consistently portrays God as a liberator from debt.
Scripture consistently portrays God as a liberator from debt. The Exodus is all about the liberation of the enslaved people of Israel. That enslavement began with a financial attack that made them indebted. In Jesus God declares with absolute clarity: you are free, all is forgiven. None of us deserve it, none of us have earned it, none of us could earn it; it’s an act of perfect grace.
Our only obligation is to pass it on to those around us (and that’s hard enough), but also to try to build our world, our values, our systems and structures on that basis, so that mercy, forgiveness and grace become the atmosphere that sustains, nurtures and enlivens us. The Church before all else should be a school of mercy, forgiveness and grace, a place where everyone is free, because we have all been forgiven – a community of outrageous mercy, a community of people whose souls sing in glorious freedom because they breathe the breath of God, and the breath of God is mercy. Amen.