Is God good, merciful and forgiving or is God angry, vindictive and merciless? That’s the problem that the parable seems to be dropping us into. A God who has two faces. On the one hand a gentle ruler who is moved in the depths of his guts by the plea of the slave who somehow has ended up owing him 10 million dollars, so moved that he writes off the debt and lets go a fortune, just like that. On the other hand an angry tyrant who is able to change his mind and hand someone over to the torturers until they’ve paid up.
Now which is it? Because the parable seems to paint the portrait both ways: infinitely forgiving and dangerously punishing.
Nasty things, parables! But we’d better get used to them: we have a string of them coming up in the next weeks, each one, like today’s, claiming to tell us something about the kingdom of heaven, about the reign of God. Parables are nasty because they first hook us with a story we think we understand and can identify with. Then just as we begin to expect we know what happens next we get a surprise. There’s a twist in the tale, or a contradiction or something that doesn’t make sense. Today it’s this two-faced God who is at first so ridiculously forgiving and then suddenly so stubbornly violent. And it’s in the nature of parables to just leave us hanging. Parables don’t have a moral or an explanation — they’re supposed to leave us confused and grasping after order. The proper response to a parable is not to understand but to change our minds and see the world in a different way. And that takes a risk.
So how do we get out of the dilemma today’s parable poses? At first as I listened I thought, well, you see the face of God deserve — if you are violent and unforgiving so is God — if you’re gentle and forgiving so is God to you. Tit for tat. But if that’s the case we really are in a mess because we know we need a God better than we are — if we were to be treated fairly we wouldn’t have a chance. We need a God who will forgive us and be gentle not because of who we are but despite who we are.
I think — and this is a guess — I think the whole problem lies in the set up. In the idea that God is like a king and that we are like slaves, like property to be bought and sold. And in trying to talk about forgiveness in the language of debt, of money, of economics. The parable talks this way and leads us into confusion because, I think, the change of mind, the conversion, called for, is away from relating to God as someone who owns us and relating to each other in terms of who owns who and who owes who what. Writing off a debt is a misleading model of forgiveness. If we insist on it we will never be able to trust God. Instead forgiveness is a matter of the heart not the pocket. Each of us stand before a God who sees us, not as property, but as friends of his son, so close as to be almost part of the family. The reign of God isn’t the IRS but an extended family. Families don’t hold debts against each other, don’t call in the torturers, don’t keep a ledger. The heart is deeper than that, forgiveness runs deeper than that. In fact, it’s harder to forgive from the heart someone you love than it is to simply write off the debt of a stranger. But in God’s eyes there are no strangers: there is only family and that is the way it has to be among us too.
September 15th, 1996
I hate Ezekiel. He’s a prophet to give prophets a bad name: While Jeremiah is driven near mad with having doom to speak and Amos is overwhelmed by his passion for the poor and even Isaiah seems at least genuinely hurt by the word of exile he bears, the voice of Ezekiel always seems a little too happy to be heard, always a little too happy to intimidate and to threaten disaster. And our readings open today with Ezekiel’s excuse, a veritable busy-body’s charter, — if I don’t echo the voice of Adonai then I’ll pay for it. Your Honor, I had to do it — it was me or him. I was only following orders.
But, like ‘em or loathe ‘em, we will always have self-righteous Ezekiels. And that’s because there’s always injustice and division and hurt in the world, in the church, and in our communities. Always … and all too real. And that’s what the readings today force us to remember. For every Ezekiel there is a Cain — that first of many murderers — with his question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Somehow we have to handle hurt in our midst and division in the church and injustice in the world and handle it with neither the relish of Ezekiel nor the cynicism of Cain.
But how? Paul tries an answer in terms of love — “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” But how do you love your neighbour if they seem to hate you? Or where does tough love end and persecution begin? Oh, and there’s always that awkward gospel question: “who is my neighbour?”
Matthew seems to have something nicely worked out — a protocol, a scheme to follow, a foolproof method of handling trouble. Maybe he does, but I have a suspicion that the calm words Matthew speaks in Jesus’ voice betray instead just what a burning issue this was for Matthew’s own church community — an awkward issue that wouldn’t go away and needed this decisive word from Jesus. But it’s an issue that hasn’t gone away from then to now, whether the wrongs that trouble us are political or social, theological or cultural, or just plain personal.
And I guess by now you want my own solution in a few pithy sentences. Sorry! What I want to point out though is how Matthew ups the ante. Ezekiel’s in the business of speaking out, out of self-interest, and Paul probably so as to keep his churches out of the notice of the civil authorities, but Matthew has two startling reasons for careful and nuanced handling of differences. First, because what we bind on earth is bound in heaven and what we loose on earth is loosed in heaven. And these terms, binding and loosing, are primarily about keeping and expelling: those we keep, God keeps, those we drive away, God drives away. Astonishing! So we’d better get it right! For some reason, beyond me, God has chosen to adopt our human voice — the very opposite of what Ezekiel is saying. Ezekiel’s God threatens him: our God trusts us, … perhaps too much.
Matthew’s second reason is even deeper. “if you join your voices on earth, what you pray for will be given you; when you gather in my name I am there.” How do we gather in Jesus’ name? Only, he says, by joining our voices together. When our voices are joined Jesus is present. But if we cannot speak with one voice we remain alone. That’s why we have to face injustice and division and hurt — here among us, between our worshipping communities, at large in Oakland, and in the greater political process. We have to find the one voice which we can all speak because only that will let Jesus come among us — to heal, to hold, to make new.
September 8th, 1996