Reading Ramblings – September 10, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 10, 2017

Texts: Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 32; Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 18:1-20

Context: How important is forgiveness? Essential. Non-negotiable. It is the most fundamental thing humans need, the remedy and treatment for the terminal condition of sinfulness that we are quick to excuse in ourselves but not in others. Having received forgiveness in Christ, Christians are the first to understand how important forgiveness is between one another, even when it is less than convenient.

Ezekiel 33:7-11 – God speaks sternly to his prophet, Ezekiel, impressing upon him all that is at stake in proclaiming God’s Word to his people. The stakes are life and death and eternity, and Ezekiel is to take them that seriously. I’ve extended the assigned reading to include verses 10 and 11 because they help contextualize the apparent harshness of God’s words. Obedience is possible where God’s Word is proclaimed, where sins are pointed out, where repentance is offered and accepted, and therefore where forgiveness is given and received. Without the Word of God to accomplish these things, the only alternative is death, and God does not desire our death. God desires that the wicked would see their sin, repent, and accept his grace and forgiveness. It is not up to Ezekiel to determine who should and who should not hear that message – that message is for everyone!

Psalm 32 – We’ve already used this psalm once this liturgical year, back during the first week of Lent. But it’s a powerful psalm, so I don’t begrudge seeing it again! I’ve extended the reading from the first seven verses to the entire psalm, once again to provide proper context. It begins with the assertion that forgiveness is a blessing from God, and that to receive such a blessing we need to be brutally honest about our sinfulness. So earnest are you to bestow this blessing that when we try to hide away from you, you pressure us with your presence, with the Holy Spirit howling in our conscience. For those in Christ there can be no true peace until we have laid bare our sin – all of it – to God and received his forgiveness – all of it. When we do we discover the forgiveness of God, and wonder why we ever tried to avoid repenting! At verse 6 the psalm turns from confession to exhortation, leading the speakers and hearers to see in themselves the promised blessings of forgiveness if they will humble themselves in repentance. The psalm ends with a call for celebration and praise of the God who forgives so richly and deeply and freely. In his forgiveness alone is true peace and joy to be found!

Romans 13:1-10 – As part of the lectio continua, the Epistle lesson continues in Romans and does not blend very well with the overall theme of forgiveness found in the other readings. Certainly, it seems these days that most of us should ask for repentance for our attitudes and thoughts and words about our government and our leaders, whether elected or appointed, whether our desired candidates or not. Paul’s words in verse 7 are particularly condemning for many of us. What do we owe our government and our elected officials? Certainly our taxes. But just as certainly respect and honor. Of course we might be quick to argue that some don’t deserve our respect and honor. Yet I would argue Paul intends respect and honor for those who hold office because of the office itself, not necessarily because we personally find them personally worthy of respect and honor.

Failure to do this creates a debt, something we don’t tend to think about, and Paul insists that we should have no debt beyond the ongoing debt of love we continually owe one another. Contrary to modern definitions of love that allow (or demand) that we define what love means for ourselves, or be bound to the particular definitions of someone else, love is bound up in obedient conformity to how God has created the cosmos to function. To claim to love while denying and ignoring these directions is not love, but rather the very antithesis of it. Only in following God’s Word can we be certain that we are not doing wrong to our neighbor, even when they are certain otherwise.

Matthew 18:1-20 – First off, this is way too huge a section, covering way too many important topics, to be treated as a single pericope! But we’ll do the best we can! This chapter begins an extended and important discussion of forgiveness, and the corresponding difference between greatness as measured in the Kingdom of God as opposed to things we are used to. In heaven it is not strength that leads to greatness, but the realization of weakness as a child who is under no illusion as to receiving everything he has from his parents. Only those who can and will receive what is offered to them rather than insist on earning or offering of their own (illusory) power can enter the kingdom of heaven.

As such, deterring anyone from receiving the good gifts of God has done a terrible thing, and Jesus doesn’t mince words about just how valuable each person is to God, so that anyone who leads someone away from God has great reason to repent. Moreover, so serious and dangerous is sin, that it could lead us away from the love of God, that we would be better off lopping off body parts rather than continuing to allow them to lead us into sin. While few people think that Jesus is serious, He’s undoubtedly using striking language to convey the reality – we don’t take sin seriously enough. It isn’t that God can’t and won’t forgive our sin, but the danger lies more in the possibility of our sin leading us away from repentance and receiving the gifts of God.

Sin is serious. So is forgiveness. It is inevitable that we will sin against one another, and when that happens it is imperative that we forgive rather than harbor hatred or ill-will towards one another. Towards that end we must be honest with one another, honest enough to say when we’ve been hurt or injured by the words or actions of someone else. If reconciliation is not immediately possible, we should avail ourselves of those who know the situation and can assist in vouching for the damage done and the need for reconciliation. This means of course we need to be open as well if someone approaches us about some way that we have harmed them!

Note that nothing is said about complaining privately to other people and never approaching the offending party. Nothing is said about backstabbing or otherwise violating the Eighth Commandment. Resolution is only achieved through honesty and open communication, and resolution and reconciliation is always the goal. Reparations – if appropriate – are an entirely separate matter, and may even be foregone in order to reconcile (think 1 Corinthians 6:1-8). The kingdom of heaven values reconciliation and forgiveness above pride and vindication. This is a hard lesson for us to learn, regardless of which end of the exchange we are on!

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