This is a sermon
about mercy and forgiveness.
It is a sermon you have heard
a hundred times before,
dozens of times from me.
It has elements that may be new
but other elements
that sounds like “same old, same old.”
And it is a little complicated too.
You see, we have two topics
that seem as though they are the same
but which are very different:
mercy and forgiveness.
Joseph gives mercy
to his brothers,
and Jesus urges the practice of forgiveness
to his friends.
Mercy and forgiveness
may seem like Siamese twins,
but truly, they are not even identical —
not even fraternal twins.
In fact, they are
two different categories
of relationship and healing.
Starting with Joseph,
these big fat Old Testament stories
have some juicy little morsels in them
but they are almost accidental to the grand narrative.
Sometimes when we read these Hebrew texts,
we get overly interested in the subplots,
but it is the bigger story that is more important.
If we do get caught up in the detail,
it may cause us to focus on a little current
and miss the surf coming in.
But with Matthew and the Gospels,
it is just the opposite.
Matthew’s story is a simple little parable
that was turned into something
much bigger and more complex,
and our objective is to dig in
the little bits of ore.
So I’ll start with Matthew
and the familiar reminder
I always make about parables:
Jesus and the other itinerant rabbis
of his generation,
taught with parables.
Parables were pithy little stories
with one simple point
aimed like the tip of a spear
to get stuck in the brains of their audience.
The story we heard today in Matthew
has a parable hidden in it somewhere
but in the telling of it,
as it was passed down
over a couple of generations
before Matthew put it into writing,
the simple little parable
morphed into a complex allegory.
The point of Matthew’s allegory
is that God is like a king
who forgives his slave
of an impossible debt.
Then, in the complexity of the story,
the king discovers the very slave
whose debt was forgiven,
did not model the king’s generosity.
Instead, the slave had a fellow slave
imprisoned and tortured
because he was owed money.
That sounds counterproductive
but in those brutal days
they tortured debtors
to find out if they were hiding money.
It was a pretty grim system.
So in Matthew’s allegory,
God is a king who forgives
our impossibly huge debt.
The slave is us,
if we do not forgive those
who have trespassed against us.
The slave’s punishment
will be our punishment
as the allegory goes –
with each character and event
reflecting the promise and threat
of our relationship with God.
We too will be thrown away
if we behave badly –
presumably in Hell and by fire.
According to Matthew’s allegory,
God’s forgiveness is conditional
and completely dependent
upon our forgiving others.
That kind of logic and conditionality
makes sense if we believe God
is a cosmic judge
or stern parent with a big, horrendous
paddle in hand.
But to me, such a God
sounds suspiciously human
rather than the God
and Creator of the Cosmos.
But don’t take my word for it,
think about Jesus.
He was a populist teacher
talking to peasants
who were brutally oppressed.
If we keep their miserable social context in mind,
it is hard to imagine Jesus saying:
You know, God is like a king
who threatens imprisonment and torture
to those who don’t do what he says.
For peasants living under the Roman Empire
and abused by their local corrupt tyrant,
Matthew’s description of God
is just more of the same.
Who needs a punitive tyrant
running the cosmos when
that’s what we have running our lives?
Underneath these stories
we will see that a truly powerful God
more than forgiveness.
By contrasting Joseph
with the Jesus parable hidden inside Matthew
we’ll see something interesting
about mercy and forgiveness.
In Joseph’s day,
and still in Jesus’ day too,
there was a culture of blood-libel.
We hear the commandment,
‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’
and think it is primitive and vengeful, but
in its time and place
it was radically progressive.
You see, the rule of an ‘eye for an eye’
indicated to the ancients, that
if you kill my little brother
I do not have the right
to bring my clan to your village
and wipe you all out.
Retribution had to be proportional!
So taken in its context,
an eye for an eye was an improvement.
As a law and custom,
‘an eye for an eye’
reigned in unrestrained brutality
in blood feuds.
But Jesus takes the ‘eye for an eye’ teaching
and refines it with the parable
we can imagine is hiding
underneath Matthew’s allegory.
Jesus declares that mercy
is a higher value than vengeance.
Mercy, in fact, replaces
even measured retribution
as the core-value for Jesus’ community.
We hear that and think, “well duh,”
but our own institutions
of law and governance
still do not grant supremacy to mercy.
Jesus was preaching forgiveness
as a radical strategy
that would free the minds
of brutalized peasants
from the toxic consequences
of bitterness and resentment.
But here I feel the need
to make a caveat
that I hope I have made before
because it is one thing
for Jesus to preach a strategy
of forgiveness to his peers,
and a totally different thing
for institutional religion
to preach the same thing
at marginalized peoples.
Why? Because the Church
as an institution
has more often than not
been the tool of oppression.
Christianity as an institution
begins as a tool of Caesars to inflict unity
by requiring conformity;
and the Roman Catholic Church
becomes an inquisition
inflicting horrid violence on its world;
the Anglican Church
becomes a partner in British Colonialism
to rape indigenous cultures it colonized;
and The Episcopal Church,
tagged along with the U.S. government
to convert the leftovers of Native American genocide,
and then became major perpetrators
of violence and abuse.
It is a very different thing
for powerful institutions
with a history of violence against their subjects
to insist that their victims
forgive and forget
and show mercy,
than what Jesus was doing
when talking with his peers.
Only those with the power to execute punishment
have the ability to show mercy –
victims cannot show mercy
toward their abusers
unless the power arrangement
has been reversed.
Herein lies a difference between
forgiveness and mercy.
is something all people can practice,
mercy is something that implies a power differential.
Mercy is a gift granted from one person
who possesses the power to give it,
to another person
who does not have the power
to grant mercy to themselves.
But as I said last week, forgiveness is not a gift.
Victims of oppression
can practice forgiveness,
but when they do
it is not on behalf of the perpetrators;
nor is forgiveness a gift
to the perpetrator.
Forgiveness is a strategy
to free the heart and mind
of the one
who has been wounded or abused.
Forgiveness is a strategy
for those who have been transgressed against
so they can move forward
without the corrosive effects of resentment
that only does injury to themselves.
Jesus does not suggest
we give anything away
when urging us to forgive,
rather, he is recommending
Forgiveness, as Jesus teaches it,
is not a moral achievement
but rather a protocol
for one’s own healing and recovery.
Forgiveness is not an ethical principle
or test of our moral purity,
it is a tactical maneuver
in spiritual warfare.
As we read about forgiveness and mercy
in the Bible
we need to always remember
Joseph could show mercy
only because he had power.
He exemplified forgiveness
earlier in his life
when he used it to free himself
of bitterness and hatred
toward his brother’s for their betrayal.
But later on, when he was powerful,
he could grant mercy –
and perhaps did so
because he had already practiced forgiveness.
Likewise, Peter asks Jesus
how many times he has to forgive
some jerk in their community,
and Jesus answers, “Seventy-seven times.”
What he is really saying is,
“Well, how long do you want to suffer
under the effects of resentment and
Peter is asking for a rule
and Jesus gives him a functional strategy
for living: “How much acid
do you want in your heart?”
But again, forgiveness is not a rule
it is a strategy for healing
and a weapon of spiritual warfare.
forgiveness is not something
we give to someone else,
it is something we do for ourselves.
But mercy is something we give
or do not give,
when we have the power to do so.
These are complicated stories
about complex realities
found in the tangled jungle
of our hearts and minds.
and a poem
will not begin to unraveling them,
so that’s all I got.