Reading Ramblings – September 13, 2020

Date: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 13, 2020

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

Context: It’s not fair. Two of the most powerful passages in Scripture scheduled for reading on the same day! Paul’s call to humility and brotherly love in the midst of disagreement in Romans 14 is a critical lesson too easily dismissed when we run into actual disagreement. Jesus’ picture of forgiveness but also the entire Christian life of holiness and sanctification as an outgrowth of what has already been received from our heavenly Father is both a beautiful description of the greatness of God’s grace as well as a powerful encouragement to take the Christian life seriously. I don’t know how to choose which direction to preach in this Sunday, but I’m grateful for two very compelling and challenging texts that strike at the practical, daily nature of our life in Christ.

Genesis 50:15-21I could never be so forgiving! I often hear people express sentiments like this when confronted with the hard reality of God’s Word played out in people’s lives. Would a better translation be something to the effect of I’d never want to be so forgiving! ? The Joseph story is wonderful to teach to little children but as we grow older and realize the depth of hurts we can experience, the beauty of Joseph’s forgiveness seems less enviable. His faith in God’s presence and purpose despite the malice of his brothers isn’t enviable – who among us would like to go through what Joseph has by the time his brothers ask his forgiveness? Who among us would receive their repentance as anything other than unabashed self-serving? Sure, they’re sorry now that Joseph could kill them! After all, they literally make up a story about Jacob requiring Joseph to forgive them! But ultimately forgiveness is not dependant on repentance or contrition. Forgiveness is the insistence to see the grace and love of God for every other person, no matter what they have done, and first and foremost because we know we have received God’s grace and love and forgiveness despite not deserving it and not being adequately contrite. We are quick to see ourselves as the injured Joseph, when we should more likely identify ourselves with the hateful and self-seeking brothers, and Joseph as representing God.

Psalm 103:1-12Forget not all his benefits (v.2). How easy it is to forget all his benefits when we’re in the midst of struggle or loss. How easy to forget his benefits the minute things get difficult or unpleasant! To forget not requires a conscious effort, an intentional focusing not just on the troubles at hand but the blessings before and during. Joseph sees not just his brothers who have hurt him but God’s preservation in all the years since, even when that preservation took place during years in jail. Seeing God’s benefits in that Joseph wasn’t murdered outright by his brothers initially, or by the traderrs who bought him from them, or by the Egyptians or Potiphar after the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife. Seeing God’s benefits in his interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dreams and subsequent rise from prisoner to second in command, saving the Egyptians and so many others from starvation during a seven-year drought, and now, with the opportunity to be and do what his own brothers weren’t and didn’t – a preserver, a protector, and a proper demonstration of brotherly love as well as obedience to a heavenly Father. A powerful passage indeed that provides another contextualization of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel reading.

Romans 14:1-12 – Paul’s words here can and should be linked to his last thought in the previous chapter, about not gratifying the desires of the flesh. And while we might more commonly think of fleshly desires as regarding issues like drunkenness and sexual immorality Paul mentions in 13:13, he also mentions quarreling in that same verse. We might easily be able to say we are not drunks or promiscuous, but the issue of quarrelsomeness and how we deal with it is likely to hit closer to home, particular in Christian congregations such as the one in Rome. It is this topic Paul sees fit to follow up on at more length – another telling sign this is more important than we might like to think. So Paul’s admonition in 14:1 not to quarrel over opinions. This has nothing to do with doctrine, per se, with the essentials of the faith, but rather the more personal way each follower of Jesus pursues sanctification and the holy life. Not simply on a personal level, but perhaps with an eye towards leading others in the community to emulate their preferences. We don’t know if Paul is aware of a specific situation dealing with vegetarianism or only uses it as an example. The key however is first discernment as to what is true and right, and then grace and love that does not seek to compel a brother or sister in a way not required (or prohibited) by Scripture. Proper doctrine or Biblical interpretation does not entitle me to compel someone else to change how they seek to serve God if it is not a matter of salvation. It isn’t that some ways aren’t more faithful or better than others – Paul acknowledges a weaker understanding or faith vs a stronger one in this passage, but neither the weaker or the stronger is entitled to manipulate the other. If it is not a matter of sin or salvation, we are to try and live at peace with one another even if we disagree. Unity is found not in identical ideas or behaviors but an insistence on not allowing our differences to divide us.

Matthew 18:21-35 – I find this parable of forgiveness to be one of the clearest and most powerful. The implications are clear – our treatment of others is not a matter of their worth or deservedness but purely and completely compelled by the love and grace and forgiveness we undeservedly receive in the death and resurrection of the Son of God on our behalf. God the Son takes on the penalty and cost of our sin to himself, personally. He pays it just as surely as the king in this parable absorbs the massive financial loss incurred by this evil servant. The servant’s refusal to act charitably with his fellow servant reveals the depths of his sinfulness, as sinfulness that keeps him from focusing on God’s grace to him. The point is not that he must forgive the debt of his fellow servant (though this is certainly not beyond the realm of interpretation), but rather his insistence on demanding his rights under the law rather than allowing his fellow servant to pay him back.

Many if not all Christians could do well to meditate daily on this passage in Matthew, reading it over and over again and thinking about the implications in their lives with the people they know. Combining it with the reading from Genesis further drives the point home. It is not that we are not hurt by others in this life, but the decision to be gracious and forgiving is a decision made for us when we acccept the grace and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. It is apt for Jesus to teach in the Lord’s prayer that we ask God for daily forgiveness at the same time understanding and affirming that we are forgiving to others. The two go together. We should not marvel at this, nor should we object to it. Rather, we ought to celebrate the opportunity to give in small part what has been given to us on an immense scale!

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