Another Perspective on the Parable of the Good Samaritan

Another perspective on the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan was offered by Associate Pastor Brennan Blue in his July 23rd sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Rev. Brennan Blue
Westminster Presbyterian Church

 

 

 

The Holy Scripture

The Parable itself is expressed in Luke 10: 25-37 (NRSV) as follows:

  • “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ [Jesus] said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ [The lawyer] answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And [Jesus] said to [the lawyer], ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’”
  • “But wanting to justify himself, [the lawyer] asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’” [The lawyer] said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”

The Sermon

 In “the parable of the Good Samaritan, why it is that even the most well-trained priest or Levite may walk on by a neighbor in need?”

“On the one hand, this parable reminds us that we are called to put our faith and love into action, plain and simple. Yet this parable occurs in a vacuum. There is one person of need, one act of love to counter the one great injustice at hand.” (Emphasis added.)

 “But what happens when there’s another neighbor in need along the way? Do you set aside the first to help the second? What if each step brings another worry or need, bigger and more complex than the one before it?”

“Perhaps you know the feeling. Confronted with a complex constellation of needs and problems surrounding our lives and communities, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Another election argument, another policy change, another broken relationship. Another act of hate and discrimination, another single parent facing another night on the street with her family, another police shooting in our city. Another setback, another neighbor in need.”

“How can you or I keep up with it all, let alone make a difference? Maybe it’s best to just take a break from the headlines, find a new game on our smartphone and just sort of take our mind off of things.”

Apathy subdues our action. Despair clouds our hope. Distraction does exactly what it describes – it dis-tractions us and robs us of a way forward. These invasive influences make it easier to check out than dig in.” (Emphasis added.)

“I’ve always sort of assumed that the young lawyer in this parable is asking the question ‘who is my neighbor’ from a relatively blank slate. But it’s clear that this young lawyer knows his stuff. Remember, Jesus asks him what is written in the Scriptures regarding eternal life, and that beautifully succinct response of ‘you shall all love God, and love your neighbor as yourself’ comes from him.”

“So what if his follow-up question – who is my neighbor? – is coming less from a place of innocence or ignorance and more from a place of knowing exhaustion? What if this young lawyer has eyes to see the many people around him who represent his neighbor and with a dizzying head is simply trying to figure out where to even begin?” [2]

“I found help and hope for this very question on the second workday of our high school ]mission] trip while building new trails at Young Gulch, a beloved national forest area now closed to the public due to past fire and flooding damage. With hardhats, picks, shovels, ropes and rock bars, we hiked a mile and half up and into our new worksite carrying the hope of a new day. It was there, while shoveling, sawing, lifting and hauling, that we were introduced to the art of trail building and the important work of finding the critical edge.” (Emphasis added.)

“In terms of trail building, the critical edge forms the crucial guiding line from which you begin and orient your work. It is the marker between path and planet, trail and wilderness. Your footing and direction are both determined from there, and though countless shrubs and boulders may lie ahead and around, the critical edge marks where you will carve out your 30” wide path, and that is what makes the work doable. So for our team of 30 students and 6 adults, this critical edge became our path by which to walk and work. And work we did! It was like being blessed with the gift of traction. Our critical edge to guide us, we literally dug in and blazed new trails that others, we hope, may follow and enjoy for years to come.” (Emphases added.)

“This process of finding traction for our work was brought home in a new workshop that we incorporated into our mission trips this year. A workshop called ‘Mission Possible.’

“Essentially, Mission Possible is an exercise that challenges multiple groups to take on a complex and often overwhelming social problem using a very limited set of ‘dealt resources.’ The creative challenge is to find which crucial slice of the problem your team wants to focus on and then leverage your limited resources to make the greatest possible impact.” (Emphases added.)

“Middle schoolers using glass jars to build empathy. High school students using wooden baskets to raise awareness via social media. Neither of these ideas will knock out the layered, complex problems of bullying and climate change, but they do provide a way forward, a critical edge to ward off apathy and dig into action. The goal here is to root out those invasive influences of distraction and despair, and then live out our calling by putting our faith into action. We don’t have to move every boulder, but we do need to discern and then do our part.” (Emphasis added.)

“That, I believe, is what Jesus is getting at in this parable: connecting exposed belief to explicit action. Even if this young lawyer is asking ‘who is my neighbor’  from a place of overwhelming apathy and despair, there is hope is Jesus’ simple response. Know who you are and who your neighbors are, and even if can only reach out to one, do it. Put your faith into action, even if others are walking by. Be that very inspiration. Host a book read; plant a rain garden; start a justice choir; advocate for mental health programs. Find your critical edge and dig in.” (Emphases added.)

“Friends, this is the work we have been doing together as a community throughout the entire Open Doors, Open Futures process. . . . In fact, in seeking to find our own critical edge, Westminster has set aside serious time . . . to ask of God and one another this young lawyer’s question – “who is our neighbor?” In the midst of our work and worship, we’ve [been] wrestling and discerning questions about our gifts, resources, and partnerships, seeking to understand where God is calling us as a community. “

“By engaging these very questions, we are finding action in place of apathy, hope in the midst of despair, and the blessing of traction for our ministry even in our changing downtown context.”

“That’s what the love of God and neighbor demands of us: find your place of calling, your critical edge, and dig in. It’s as simple as that and as hard as that.” (Emphasis added.)

“In the continuum of apathy and action, where do you fall today? What are your gifts? Who is your neighbor? Have you found your critical edge? May God bless us with traction for lives and ministries.” (Emphasis added.)

The Prayer of Confession

Before the reading of the Holy Scripture and the sermon, the congregation joined in the following prayer of confession:

  • “Gracious God, our sins and sorrows are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name and what our hearts can no longer bear. Set us free from a past that we cannot change and open to us a future in which we can be changed. May the light of your love open our eyes to the grace that is already calling us home. By your grace, may we grow ever more in your way of justice, mercy, and peace.”

Conclusion

Another frequent, and appropriate, interpretation of this parable emphasizes that the Levite and the priest who passed by the injured man were of higher status in Israel at the time whereas the Samaritans were not well-regarded. Thus, one’s status in the community is not the mark of a good neighbor. Instead, what counts is what one does to help the injured man. In this instance, the Samaritan is clearly a good neighbor.

However, the overall message of Jesus, for me, is that anyone and everyone is my neighbor. Thus, the question arises as to whether and how any individual can help everyone. The answer to this question is clearly “No,” and the result of such reflection, as the sermon suggests, can be incapacitation of the individual and failure to be kind to a neighbor, failure to provide help to a neighbor.

That leads to the second foundation of my Christian faith. God knows that we fail and yet forgives us. The most powerful statement of God’s forgiveness comes in another story by Jesus, The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-31).

But Jesus is not calling each of us to try to do everything that needs doing in the world.

Important in my own struggles with this dilemma is the following homily often attributed to my personal saint, Archbishop Oscar Romero, but actually written in November 1979 by Kenneth Edward Untener, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, for a memorial mass for deceased priests:[3]

  • “The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.”
  • “We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.”
  • “No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.”
  • “That is what we are all about. We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.”
  • “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”
  • “We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a  future that is not our own.”

Rev. Blue’s questions at the end of his sermon are very helpful. Find your place of calling or critical edge. Then, dig in and do what you can to help your neighbor, knowing and accepting that it may not be perfect or complete.

Another Presbyterian pastor and author, Frederick Buechner, puts it this way. Each of us needs to find his or her vocation which “comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[4]

Vocation, for me, implies a dedication to a certain kind of work or service over a period of time. A one-time effort probably does not count. On the other hand, in my opinion, vocation does not necessarily require a lifetime commitment to doing a certain thing. Indeed, an individual’s circumstances change over time, and what was a vocation for one period may not be appropriate for another period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous. This at least has been true for me.

Some people may decide that they shall start engaging in a particular vocation. They know from the start that a certain course of action shall be their vocation, perhaps inspired by what they believe to be the word of God. Others discover after the fact that what they have been doing for a period of time has been and is their vocation. I am a member of the latter group.

Deciding on what shall be or is a vocation should be, in my opinion, a matter of reflection, meditation and prayer and in some cases discussion with others to assist in discerning a true vocation.[5]

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[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website.

[2] Another interpretation of this Parable does not see the lawyer as honestly seeking guidance from Jesus. Instead the lawyer is seen as cleverly asking trick questions to elicit answers from Jesus that could be twisted to incriminate him. Jesus, however, more cleverly declines to answer the questions and instead induces the lawyer to answer his own questions, the second  after Jesus tells a story. (My Christian Faith, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2011).)

[3] Ken Untener, The Practical Prophet : Pastoral Writings at iii (Paulist Press; New York 2007) (Untener called this prayer “Reflection on Ministry”).

[4] See My General Thoughts on Vocation, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 6, 2014).

[5] See My Vocations, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 23, 2014).

 

A Christian-Muslim Conversation About Forgiveness

At the center of the March 26, 2017, worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church was a conversation about forgiveness between its Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, and Makram El-Amin, the imam of the historic Masjid An-Nur (the Mosque of the Light) in north Minneapolis. The service was opened with an Islamic Call to Prayer by Elijah Muhammad, the Muezzin (the man who calls Muslims to prayer) of Masjid An-Nur.[1]

The Reading from Holy Scripture

The Holy Scripture reading for the day was the following, Luke 6:27-38 (NRSV):

  • “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
  • “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
  • “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven;give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

The Conversation

Hart-Andersen: “This morning’s reading of the gospel in both English and Arabic, from the Egyptian Coptic Bible, comes from Luke’s version of the Sermon . . . on the Plain. . . .

It’s a pivotal sermon. Here Jesus puts forgiveness in the broader context of the wide-open love of God. Jesus delivers a string of commandments that represent a serious re-directing of our lives. This is Christianity at its most challenging.”

“’Love your enemies,’ Jesus says, the first hint that he expects us to live in a way that will be difficult. And then he goes on… ‘Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you.’ Jesus is proposing an ethic that goes far beyond anything we would consider reasonable in the normal course of life and human relationships. If we thought following Jesus would be easy, we will have to think again.”

“’If anyone strikes you on the cheek,’ Jesus says, ‘Offer the other, also. If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt, as well. Give to everyone who begs from you.’”

“I wonder if those who heard these words of Jesus 2,000 years ago had a response similar to mine. To comply with these commandments, frankly, seems to be humanly impossible.”

But then Jesus reframes his teaching. He shifts his emphasis from those on the receiving end – those who have been hated or abused or cursed or unloved, those who have little power in a relationship – and, instead, turns toward those on the doing end, those with agency and power in the relationship. To them, to us, when we’re in that situation, Jesus offers a summary imperative that underlies all his teaching. It’s deceptively simple: ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’”

The Golden Rule. The foundation of Christian living. The core of the teaching of Jesus on how we are to get along as human beings.”

Do to others as you would have them do to you. This teaching is not unique to Christianity. It’s found in other traditions, as well.”

“Makram, . . . Islam teaches something similar to the Golden Rule. Would you comment on the Muslim version of this teaching?”

El-Amin: “Yes, Islam’s Golden Rule is very similar to that which is in Christian and other traditions. . . . Mohammad, the prophet to Islam, said, “You . . . do not have faith, until you love for your brother or sister that which you love for yourself.’”

“So he made this a matter of faith, not just simply a good thing to do. It is not just a nice idea. But for those of us who want to be faithful and trusting to God, we are required to transcend our own desire, our own self-interest even, and to expand that to our neighbor, those with whom we share common space. Mohammad also said, which I have found to be a very transformational teaching, ‘Your religion, in fact, is in your human transactions, or your human interactions.’ It is one thing to profess faith, it is another thing to adorn the robes of faith. But how we interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, how we act in our local human interactions, this really determines and shows the quality of our faith together.”

Hart-Andersen: “Jesus uses the Golden Rule as another way to teach about forgiveness. We offer forgiveness, because each of us would want to be forgiven. It’s a pragmatic approach to forgiveness. We do it because we would want it done to us. The next time you are asked to forgive someone, and you really don’t feel like forgiving them, remember the rule and respond in the way you would want them to respond. We can’t ask someone to do something we’re not willing to do ourselves. ‘Forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’”

“The danger here is that we begin to think of God’s love as merely transactional, between us and God or between us and neighbor…an exchange. But Jesus teaches here that we don’t love others because we expect others to love us in return. That approach to human relationships imagines an unwritten contract between people: we will do this – forgive, share, give, love – if and only if you will do the same for us.”

“Life in the realm of God is not like that. It is not contractual, not a negotiated deal between people or between God and us. The Bible is not the story of contractual love, but of covenantal love. Life in covenant with one another begins with our first extending love to the other, with no expectation of anything in return. God loves us like that, with no conditions. God forgives us like that, as well.”

“It is really the core, defining quality of our understanding of who God is. God is the Generous One. Generosity underlies the ministry and teaching of Jesus, his entire life, and certainly his death for us on the cross. We hear that in his Sermon on the Plain. ‘If you love those who love you,’ Jesus says, ‘What credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.’”

Generosity. No expectations.”

“If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. But love your enemies (and) do good…expecting nothing in return.” Generous living in the way of Jesus compels us to forgive, to share, to love one another. Expecting nothing in return.”

“Makram, is there a similar mandate in Islam to live generously toward others, including people of other faith traditions?”

El-Amin: “Yes, my understanding of our religion is that Islam, in and of itself, is about generous living. It is about living abundantly, a life of abundance, versus a life of scarcity. The idea that we are to go beyond our very selves and to convey courtesies and peace upon one another.”

“There are many attributes of God that we call upon throughout our religious tradition. [One is] . . . Ar-rahmaan, the merciful benefactor. The one who gives all of the benefits, everything that we enjoy in life, everything that we sometimes think of as small and insignificant, the breath that you just took. . . . [Another attribute is] Ar-raheem, the merciful redeemer. The one that, after we have enjoyed all of these wonderful gifts from God, and we make a mess of things, we go astray, we err, we sin, it is the Ar-raheem now that we call to redeem us, and who comes to put us back on a firm footing with God. Mohammed, peace be upon him, used to say, ‘Oh God, you love to forgive. So forgive me.’”

“Again, we are called to abundant living. This idea of forgiveness must not get stuck in a grudge. Not to stay small in our own disturbed sensitivities. But to live a life that is truly free.”

Hart-Andersen: “It sounds as if the teaching of Islam on forgiveness and generosity is very similar to Christian teaching on those subjects. We might think Islam and Christianity would be getting along pretty well these days. But . . . in other lands and in our own nation, the reality is that we don’t live as friendly neighbors. We live as people suspicious of one another, assuming things of one another, afraid of one another. . . . ”

“We speak of generosity in our traditions, but what we’re experiencing oftentimes is a distortion of that teaching. Current politics, the campaign last year, and our government’s recent proposals to ban anyone coming from several Muslim-majority nations tend to exacerbate the tension. We’ve seen a rise in America of crimes against people of traditions other than Christianity. The politics of intolerance make the situation worse, and move us from the religions traditions we have described today into a more extreme view of one another. I’m sorry that that happens in our tradition; you in your tradition are often on the receiving end of that, as we have our own extremists. But I want to make clear: that is not the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is a loving path, a generous path, a forgiving path.”

El-Amin: “I really appreciate this recognition of what we experience in the world by those who operate under the cloak of faith, and, instead, the attempt to discern what is really the essence of faith. I believe that, also, we can see the fate of our country, and many of those who are suffering at the hands of this intolerant rhetoric that we hear day-in and day-out begins to play itself out in hate crimes and discrimination and other forms of oppression and we have experienced this, many times, at our mosque and against others of the Muslim tradition. Even here in Minnesota, . . . there are those who have experienced a degree of anxiety and fear. We have also seen those who have been driven to cause physical harm to others, as well.”

But one thing that I would have to say, in all honesty, is that I’ve also seen the opposite. I’ve also seen good people of faith to come to the support of those who are under siege. To come to the support of those who are in need the most. When we are under fire, when we are not having a good day, when things are not going well, we call upon our friends. We call upon those who care about us. We call upon those with whom we have established relationships for a comforting word, for some peace to be conveyed, and we have that. And we share that. I would hope that we would model this more in this time when leaders must lead.”

Hart-Andersen: “Makram, can you help us understand how a person who has a religious tradition rooted in peace, salaam –meaning “peace,” Islam – moves from that kind of position and understanding of a tradition to an extremist position that might result in violent actions? We don’t understand how that happens in our tradition. Maybe you can help us understand.”

 El-Amin: “I’ve done a lot of work recently on this idea of de-radicalization. One of the things that I’ve found is whether it is a terrorist, under the cloak of Islam, or a right-wing group promoting a certain ideology, one of the things I’ve found that is very surprising to me, is when we took the labels off of each of these particular extremist groups, we found them to be eerily similar. So if we covered the label, and looked at the content of actions, thoughts, behaviors, and what ultimately began to be these acts of aggression towards others, we could not discern any difference.”

“So how does this happen? I think it happens to us who find it hard to forgive. We have some hurt that we’ve experienced in our life that blocks us from abundance. And it begins to taint and jade our thinking and our view of life. And it allows us to justify things that, when seen through clear eyes, we wouldn’t even tolerate. So I believe there is a way that it happens and that in some way they have codified it and produced other minds that are radical and extreme. But I also think that there is a way of combatting this in my view, that we have the power of our traditions to reverse-engineer radicalization. And get us back to a state of peace. Because ultimately, to become radical or extreme, you have to depart from your tradition at some point and some time.”

Hart-Andersen: “In the [Biblical] text today, the Sermon on the Plain, we hear the heart of our tradition. “Be merciful,’ Jesus says, ‘Just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged… Forgive, and you will be forgiven; Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’”

“Following Jesus is not for the meek or indecisive. To follow Jesus is demanding and difficult work, and it all begins with living generously, by forgiving, by loving, even as we are forgiven, and loved, by God.”

Conclusion

As a Westminster member, I am thankful for our encouragement of respect, love and forgiveness for our Muslim brothers and sisters.

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[1] Makram El-Amin also is a member of the Minneapolis Downtown Clergy group and serves on the advisory board of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center at the University of St. Thomas. In 2014 Imam El-Amin was named a Bush Foundation Fellow and received an appointment as Chaplain to the Minneapolis Police Department. In addition, Muezzin Mohammed participated in an interfaith worship service at Westminster, as discussed in a prior post. The bulletin for this worship service and the text of the conversation are available on the Internet.

 

What Does the Way of the Cross Ask of Us? Mercy

The third theme of Lent at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church is mercy. We will review the Scripture passages and the sermon on this theme and then conclude with some personal reflections.

 Scripture Passages

The Old Testament scripture for mercy was the Prayer of David in Psalm 86: 1-15 (New Revised Standard Version):

  • ‘Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.
    Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you.
    You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long.
    Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
    For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
  • Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication.
    In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me.
  • There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours. All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.
  • For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.
    Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.
  • I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.
  • O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life, and they do not set you before them. But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

The New Testament scripture was Matthew 18: 21-35 (New Revised Standard Version):

  • “Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
  • For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.
  • But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.
  • Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’
  • And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

The Sermon

The sermon by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen emphasized that “at the heart of Christianity is the discipline of forgiveness.”

“From birth to death,” the sermon continued, “the life of Jesus is framed in forgiveness. Remember John the Baptizer preaching forgiveness to prepare for the coming Messiah? Remember the prayer Jesus taught [us]: ‘Forgive us, as we forgive them.’ Remember how Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery and challenged others to do the same? Remember the words of Jesus on the cross: ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do?’”

“Ours is a religion born in that astounding cry from the cross for mercy for those who had hung him there. If the question this Lent is what does the way of the cross ask of us, the response surely includes forgiveness.”

“If anyone ever asks you what Christian faith is all about, a good place to start would be forgiveness. If someone ever asks you what you think God is like, quote Psalm 86: ‘The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.’”

In Matthew 18, “‘Peter asks how many times he should forgive someone who wrongs him – and we sense this is not a hypothetical question – and then Peter wonders aloud, ‘Seven times?’ No doubt he thinks he’s really stretching it to go that far.”

In response, Jesus says, “’Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,’ indicating that forgiveness should not be reckoned a scarce commodity. God’s mercy is abundant; ours can be, as well.”

“This is hard work, like climbing a mountain that seems to get taller and taller the higher you get. Temptations abound along the way. It would be easier to give up. The culture teaches us to want revenge, not mercy. It’s much more satisfying on the face of it to refuse forgiveness to someone who has wronged you, and instead get back at them. If forgiveness feels like an impossibility for us, then we’re thinking about it in precisely the right way; it should feel like that. It’s not easy.”

Rev. Hart-Andersen added, “Every one of us has had a ‘Peter moment’ in a relationship with a friend or life partner or co-worker, a time when we knew we should forgive, but we wondered how hard to try. Seven times? Jesus will have none of it. Genuine forgiveness is much more extravagant; it takes us beyond anything we might consider reasonable. The truly merciful give up any desire for vengeance; let go of any need to come out on top; release any longing to satisfy old grudges; and, relinquish any secret hope for the thrill of nursing anger.”

“We tend to think of forgiveness as something we offer others in order to free them from the guilt of what they’ve done. That’s the short-sighted view of mercy. In the long run, it’s not done for the one who wronged us; it’s for our own sake. Our future is held hostage until we forgive. In offering mercy we free ourselves of the millstone hung around our neck by anger or desire for vengeance or the need to win.”

“Forgiveness in the eyes of Jesus is not about counting up the wrongs or keeping track of damage down and being properly compensated; on the contrary, it’s a matter of setting ourselves free of the need to do that. At stake is the possibility of recovering our own life by letting go of the anger or hurt that has a hammerlock on us.”

“Nothing is more corrosive to a relationship, and to our hearts, than unwillingness to forgive, and nothing brings more grace into a relationship, and into our hearts, than when people freely show mercy to one another.”

“It’s the way of the cross, the path we follow this Lenten season, and it leads, in the end, to life.”

Conclusion

Peter’s comments in Matthew 18: 21 could be read narrowly as saying if one person (another member of the church) commits one sin against Peter, then how often should Peter forgive that one person for that one sin.

Peter’s own answer to that question (seven times) may have been seen by him as overly generous and unnecessary since at that time rabbis commonly said that forgiving someone three times was an acceptable maximum.[1]

Jesus’ response in Matthew 18: 22, in my opinion, was not just upping the ante in a numbers game. Rather Jesus was saying that counting the number of acts of forgiveness is the wrong approach. In so doing, I believe, Jesus revealed a profound understanding of human psychology. Peter’s saying there is only one sin against him by another person is probably wrong, and in fact Peter probably believes there are other sins as well. Moreover, because we are all weak, the sense of anger Peter must feel over a wrong done to him may erupt again and again, often when he least expects it. Therefore, forgiveness of the other is always unfinished business, and repeated acts of forgiveness may be necessary.

The parable of the king and his slave starts out with the slave’s debt of 10,000 talents, which at the time could be seen as the largest amount imaginable. Indeed, it exceeded the annual taxes for all of Syria, Phonecia, Judea and Samaria. It would be impossible for any individual to repay. The amount of debt owed to the slave, on the other hand, represented 100 days of the wages of an ordinary laborer, still an impossible debt for the other slave to repay.[2]

Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18, according to one source, ended with verse 33 and was intended by Jesus to be about a Gentile tyrant, not about God. Verses 33 and 34, says this source, were added by Matthew to have the parable be about God.[3] But I find it impossible to accept the message of Matthew 18: 34 that God would send anyone to be tortured until he paid the debt.

This passage from Matthew about forgiveness of debts prompts the following comments and questions:

  • As a retired lawyer the “debt” language makes me think of normal commercial transactions where one party incurs an obligation or indebtedness to another person, and absent coercion or unfair advantage or subsequent bankruptcy, this is an obligation that should be honored. It should not be forgiven.
  • I vaguely recall some economists saying that U.S. bankruptcy law more liberally allowed for state-enforced forgiveness of debts than many other countries and thereby promoted U.S. economic growth by allowing people to start over economically. Do I recall this correctly? Is it a valid comment?
  • The notion of forgiving debts brings to mind the Jewish practice of the Jubilee Year, which I believe called for forgiveness of debts over land, slaves and indentured servants every 49 or 50 years. Is this a fair simplification of the practice? Is it still a practice today? Is it related to the Matthew passage in some way?
  • I struggle with the Presbyterian Church’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which says “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The alternative language for the Lord’s Prayer that many others use— “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”—seems more appropriate to me because “trespass” is a wrong under the law and hence closer to the concept of sin. What am I missing?

Psalms 86: 1-15 for me is irrelevant to forgiveness or mercy other than the assertion in verse 5 that God is “good and forgiving.” Instead it is David’s prayer for protection and assistance when he was being pursued by his enemies (verses 7 and 14). The central verse, according to one commentary, is verse 11, where David asks God to teach him God’s way and to give him an “undivided” heart. The latter I see as an implicit confession that David’s heart is divided between God and something else.

I invite readers to help me answer these questions.

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[1] W. F. Albright & C. S. Mann, The Anchor Bible—Matthew at 223 (Garden City, NY; Doubleday & Co. 1871).

[2] VIII New Interpreter’s Bible at 380-83 (Nashville, TN; Abingdon Press 1995).

[3] Id.