Reading Ramblings – September 17, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: 15th Sunday after Pentecost – September 17, 2017

Texts: Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:1-12; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Context: Last week’s readings were the warm up for this powerhouse collection of verses. The kingdom of God is for those who receive it like a child who receives good gifts from her parents, without any illusion that she has earned them somehow on her own. And what is the greatest gift that can be bestowed? Forgiveness. There are a lot of things we like. There are plenty of things we want. There are essentials that we can’t live without, and the foremost of these is forgiveness. It is this that God the Father gives to us through faith in God the Son, Jesus, through God the Holy Spirit. This is our core need, our existential crisis par excellence. Forgiveness allows me to live not just a few days, like food and water do, but eternally, regardless of whether I have food or water. I receive forgiveness not because I’m a good guy, but solely and completely because of the grace of God the Father in Jesus the Christ. As this sinks in I can’t help but want to change how I deal with others, particularly those who cause me harm. But failure to allow my heart to be changed towards others is not only a coldness, it actually removes me from the grace of God.

Genesis 50:15-21 – Guilt runs deep, even among those who apparently didn’t think very much of their treachery and betrayal so many years earlier. Guilt can be spurred on by fear of retribution, and this doesn’t make the guilt any less real. Joseph’s forgiveness does not change the wrongness of what his brothers did to him. Joseph does not forgive because he wasn’t hurt, or his brothers didn’t know what they were doing. And while we would be tempted to say that Joseph forgives because he sees divine purpose at work, our other readings should guard us against this interpretation. We don’t forgive just because we can see how something bad has been used as something good. Seeing the grace of God in his own life, Joseph extends grace to his brothers. What God did in preserving Joseph’s life is not simply for Joseph, but for others – the Egyptians who in their own way mistreated him, as well as his brothers who mistreated him.

Psalm 103:1-12 – This psalm praises God first for his holy name, and for the blessings and benefits that derive from relationship to God. The first blessing is forgiveness, the redemption of our bodies from the sin of disease which in turn saves us from eternal separation from God (the pit). But God is not content to just save us, He in his grace and holiness exalts us, raising us far above our station to his glory. Starting at verse 6 the discussion switches to the Lord’s righteousness in how He deals with his people. Firstly, He reveals himself and his good will and purpose to them through Moses, a reference to Mt. Sinai and the entire wilderness experience. There He showed that He was slow to anger, forgiving over and over again. Yet God is no pushover. While He deals first and foremost in love his anger can and has been and will be aroused against sin and rebelliousness. Yet his people need not fear his anger (v.10), unlike those who reject him. Instead, God’s people are the constant recipients of his steadfast love and forgiveness.

Romans 14:1-12 – While we could stretch to make this passage fit in with the theme of forgiveness, this is not really the emphasis, and we remember that this is a lectio continua passage, rather than a passage selected for meshing well with the other readings. Paul is concluding his letter to the Roman Christians with insight and directions about the Christian life. He began this in Chapter 12 with encouragements to utilize the gifts of the Holy Spirit in humility and love. He extended his scope in Chapter 13 to include the Christian’s relationship to the secular civil authority – here the Roman Empire but long understood to mean all civil authority. Now he settles in to some very specific examples of how Christians are to remain humble in love and faith with one another. Not everyone will have the same level of faith or understanding in the faith. This is not an occasion for ridicule or derision or scoffing, and certainly not to argue with one another when the issue is not fundamental to the life of faith. Paul uses an example of diet and another of observing holidays. There may be legitimate differences of opinion in these areas and that is fine. Both sides need to set aside their opinions or preferences when dealing with one another and hold to their practice as they best understand it to be the will of God in their life. This is a profound passage, with some very real implications for Seventh Day Adventists as well as internal disagreements within denominations and congregations!

Matthew 18:21-35 – Easily one of the most powerful and convicting parables in all of the Gospels, Jesus drives home the reality of our situation before God and therefore the foolishness of our refusing to show mercy and forgiveness to others. Our debt is so great as to be almost unfathomable, unimaginable. And the injuries we receive from others are so comparatively minor, that it is laughable and obvious to anyone objective that forgiveness is not only required, it is proper and right and good. The one who insists on standing on the Law in dealing with others will find that they forfeit the grace of God and are treated in kind – on the basis of the Law. And on such a basis no one can stand, all are condemned. This is the essence of the final verse. We who throw ourselves on the mercy of God should be quick to extend mercy to others. The imagery here is appealing and sympathetic. We feel for the fellow servant who is mistreated! But we shouldn’t presume that we owe forgiveness only for small issues or to those who ask. Joseph’s mistreatment and betrayal by his brothers was deep and abiding. It resulted in much pain and suffering over the course of many years. The fact that God used his situation for a greater purpose doesn’t negate the severity of the offense, and yet Joseph recognized that in light of God’s great mercy and grace, the only appropriate response could be to forgive his brothers.

Forgiveness is a crucial and distinguishing mark of the Christian faith. While it has become popular to talk about forgiveness in our larger culture aside from God, the rationale is far weaker there. True, forgiveness can be healthy in terms of ridding ourselves of bitterness and hate. But only in the shadow of God’s immense forgiveness can our forgiveness of one another really ever make sense. We do it not to make ourselves healthy, but in acknowledgment of the sacrifice of Jesus the Son of God in order to extend forgiveness to us. Forgiveness is not an indulgence on our part, it is a command of the One from whom all forgiveness ultimately comes.

Forgiveness may be a process, but it is never an option. If we must begin by praying honestly to God and admitting our hatred and unwillingness to forgive, so be it. But end that prayer by asking God to give the strength to do what we cannot and will not do on our own. Ask him to change our hearts so that forgiveness is not just a possibility but a reality.

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