Tag Archives: forgiveness

Sunday September 11-17 in Year A (Ormseth)

A Reconfigured Parable Dennis Ormseth reflects on a parable’s proposal of the unlimited economy of grace.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 11-17, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:[1-7]8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

With a compelling primary theme of forgiveness, the readings for this Sunday after Pentecost seemingly offer little of direct relevance to our concern with care of creation. To be sure, the attention given to the church community’s ethos in the Gospel and the second lesson can prove salutary for any effort that requires corporate discipline and generosity of spirit. The emphasis on forgiveness might be particularly helpful, specifically, in strengthening the interpersonal relationships of a congregation that seeks to model the kind of face-to-face web of neighborhood relationships we proposed in our comment on last Sunday’s readings.

Can forgiveness be extended to the relationship between congregation and neighborhood?

F. LeRon Shults and Steven J. Sandage illustrate the point nicely in The Faces of Forgiveness:  Searching for Wholeness and Salvation. They interpret Matthew 18:23-35 in terms of a “facial hermeneutics of intersubjectivity” that reveals a community “struggling with problems of power in their way of ordering their life together and needed instruction and exhortation on manifesting grace toward each other.” The offending slave of the parable, they suggest, shows no “positive movement toward forgiveness in the sense of therapeutic transformation.” The horizon of his understanding needs to be extended “both temporally and spatially so that he could imaginatively envision his own place in the broader human community” (Shults and Sandage, pp.237-39). Any such extension of understanding within the community, we can hope, would contribute to a healthier dynamic in the relationship between a congregation and its neighborhood.

See how God’s goodness has cosmic dimensions!

Encouragement for going beyond this modest result to reflect further on these texts in search of specific direction for care of creation might nonetheless be inferred from reading the Psalm appointed for the day. Giving thanks for God’s goodness (“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—who forgives all your iniquity”), the psalmist measures God’s “steadfast love” with cosmic dimensions: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us” (103:11-12). The psalmist speaks of the Creator’s love: “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (103:14, not included in the appointed verses). Is there, possibly, a cosmic significance, then, to the practice of forgiveness?

Could this tyrant reflect God’s image?

Furthermore, the parable with which Jesus exhorts the undoubtedly astonished Peter to unlimited acts of forgiveness is focused rather less clearly on interpersonal relationships than Shults and Sandage tend to view it. Rather, the frames of reference are the economic, social, and political relationships characteristic of imperial rule. As Warren Carter observes,

“The king and his reign are usually understood as images of God and God’s empire (18:35). But the gospel has established that God’s empire manifested in Jesus is generally not like the death-bringing and oppressive reign of Rome and typical kings (17:25; 20:25). Yet the parable evokes precisely this scenario! The king is a tyrant who, like Rome (see 18:24), collects excessive tribute, and in the end inflicts vicious torture on a servant” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp. 370-71).

Thus, the scope within which the act of forgiveness is being considered has been expanded to encompass “affairs of state,” in the phrase of Bernard Brandon Scott.

And there is even more. There is a striking contradiction in this parable’s presentation by Matthew: It evokes for the reader that “the familiar image of God as king, but the imperial scenario of exploitative and oppressive reign . . . indicates that this figure cannot be God. The audience can discern that God’s empire is not like this, is not oppressive, does not deal in self-serving ‘mercy’. . , does not forgive just once only to revoke it.” Nevertheless, to the reader’s great surprise, at the conclusion of the parable, Jesus insists that his “heavenly Father” will do exactly what this king does to his servant. The frame of the parable has been enlarged to embrace the huge and even monstrous question of the relationship of God to the great conflicts of human history.

Is this not unjust fiscal policy?

Interpreters struggle to thread their way though the thicket of this text. Scott is helpful in providing a reading that does not require strict narrative consistency to reach its result. “A chaotic situation entraps the audience,” he notes:

“The king’s brutal action forces a hearer to reconsider the consistency building that has held the story together. By identifying with the fellow servants in reporting the servant, a hearer bears with them responsibility for unleashing the king’s wrath. By bringing vengeance on the servant, the fellow servants (and the hearer) have left their own situation in jeopardy.  The demand for ‘like for like,’ for apparent justice, has left them exposed. If a king can take back his forgiveness, who is safe?” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable, A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, pp.  278).

“Who, indeed?” we might ask in our times of massive public indebtedness generated by the policies and behavior of a global financial elite. While the fellow servants might have avoided the moral hazard of “bailing out” the king’s lead tax farmer, in the phrase of our day, they have lent legitimacy to the crushing disintegration of the economic order that they themselves depend on for their well being. All of them have become inescapably more vulnerable to the harsh policy of the king who will destroy the servant’s business, his family, and his position of power within the community, in the name of accountability.

But the disturbance goes even deeper, Scott observes. The fellow servants’ reporting is like the first servant’s own activity. In the end, the fellow servants have behaved the same way he did, namely, they failed to forgive and they demanded punishment. And so the audience is drawn ineluctably “into a threatening world whose boundaries and guidelines begin to dissolve,” and the hearers are “swept into a vortex for chaos” in which they fail as the servant fails: they, too, “have failed to forgive.” The narrative thus leads its audience to a “parabolic experience of evil, not intentional evil but implicit, unanticipated, systemic evil . . . where the only option left is repentance” (Ibid., p. 279-80).

How might the scenario of this parable have gone differently?

The audience’s conundrum serves to raise the question, beyond the telling of the parable, regarding how things might have gone differently? How might this terrifying result of the king’s need for accountability be avoided? Is it really conceivable that the king might have forgiven his debtor not just once, but a second and third time, or even “seven times seven times,” as Jesus set the standard for Peter? In a less troubled but real world, of course, the situation could have been avoided entirely if the debtor paid his debt, with appropriate interest. Or being unable to do that, on account of whatever combination of factors, perhaps he might have succeeded in winning the king’s assent to a plan that would have allowed him to continue service of his co-servants debt, with which he might, over time, pay what he owes. Contemporary readers of Matthew’s Gospel will recognize a set of problems that confront us daily in a time of extended financial crisis.

Such leniency on the part of king and servant alike would have the advantage, it might be argued, of allowing the others to share in the good king’s generosity. It seems that the servant’s better course might have been not only to encourage his master in this creative course of action, but to demonstrate its value and power by first taking the initiative himself, even risking his own wealth, in order to show the others that such a generous spirit works to the well-being of all. Couldn’t the king then indeed be the good king of God’s empire, on whom one could rely for a properly positive analogy for an infinitely forgiving God? Indeed, might one not quite appropriately imagine that the king of the parable is truly Jesus’ heavenly father, the creator of all things?

How can we give account of our care for the Earth?

If that were taken to be the case, then the servant who was called to give account is clearly the human being tasked with responsible care of the creation, and we have a parable very much concerned with care of creation. Ideally, the servant could report that his care has indeed enhanced the creation, so responsible has he been in exercising his responsibility. But failing that, again for whatever reason, would it not be appropriate for him, relying on his king’s generous mercy, to set forth in a great venture to restore what has been lost, drawing along with him in this great project of restoration of all those who are in turn accountable to him, so that they could know and rejoice with the king that not only his original gift was being honored, but that with each successive allowance of space and time to further amend their destructive ways, the glory of that creation might be enhanced far beyond its original state, now understood to have been good enough for starters, but hardly perfect?

We can be participants in a web of creation that is re-given in every moment of its journey through time by an infinitely loving God.

The reader will hopefully understand and appreciate what this new spinning of the parable is meant to accomplish: as an alternative to the “parabolic experience of evil” set out above, we propose a “parabolic experience of good,” as it were—indeed, an intentional, explicit, anticipated, and whole reality of created goodness, in which both king and servants participate with great joy!  This, we would suggest, is what becomes possible when Jesus is seen to be truly the servant of creation, who does the will of his heavenly father, the creator of all things. God is indeed infinitely gracious in giving the creation for the benefit of humanity, but only as participants in the whole web of creation that is re-given in every moment of its journey through time. Precisely in responding to this infinite love of the creation by properly caring for the creation his father loves, the servant of creation works out the role that the unforgiving servant refused. Now that he has been introduced in the shadow of his antithesis, this true servant will appear in other parables of Jesus’ telling in Matthew, such as “the Faithful and Wise Servant” (Mt 24:45-51), “A Man Entrusts Property” (Mt 21:33-46), and “A Householder Went Out Early” (Mt 20:1-15), and, of course, in many parables in the other Gospels.

The new parable proposes an alternative economy of unlimited grace.

The parable proposes an alternative economy of unlimited grace as a clue to understanding what forgiveness is about, and why it must be unlimited. Our resetting of the parable proposes a narrative of the relationship between the human servant of God and God’s creation that envisions its restoration as a possible outcome of a radically forgiving spirit. Support for this re-setting can be found in two provocatively different essays. Thomas Friedman has argued in his Hot, Flat, and Crowded (Release 2.0 Edition), that the 2008 financial crisis and the environmental crisis are derived from one cause. As he puts it, the Great Recession that began in 2008 was a “warning heart attack” that we ignore at our great peril:

“. . . while they might not appear on the surface to have been related, the destabilization of both the Market and Mother Nature had the same root causes. That is why Bear Stearns and the polar bears both faced extinction at the same time. That is why Citibank, Iceland’s banks, and the ice banks of Antarctica all melted down at the same time. The same recklessness undermined all of them. I am talking about a broad breakdown in individual and institutional responsibility by key actors in both the natural world and the financial world—on top of a broad descent into dishonest accounting, which allowed individuals, banks, and investment firms to systematically conceal or underprice risks, privatize gains, and socialize losses without the general public grasping what was going on” (Friedman, pp.6-7).

This insight is strong reason to attend, as this reading does, to the origins of the practice of forgiveness of sin in the practice of forgiveness of debt, as the phrase “forgive us our debts” in what used to be the standard version of the Lord’s Prayer serves to remind us. Its implications for the current “affairs of state,” not just its psychology of the failure to forgive as Jesus would have us forgive, are clear.

Our current financial crisis is a crisis also of the environment

If the financial crisis is also a crisis of the environment, are they not together also a crisis of the creation? If our reading finds surprising resonance with such current “affairs of state,” however, it also remains faithful to the theological concern for forgiveness as a relationship between God and humankind. In his discussion of the doctrine of salvation in The Beauty of the Infinite, David Bentley Hart observes that Christian theology effects a conversion “of the story of wrath into the story of mercy,” replacing “the myth of sacrifice as economy with the narrative of sacrifice as a ceaseless outpouring of gift and restoration in an infinite motion exceeding every economy.” Without developing his argument in full, we see its relevance to our reading in the following comment:

“The sacrifice that Christian theology upholds is inseparable from the gift: it underwrites not the stabilizing regime of prudential violence, but the destabilizing extravagance of giving and giving again, of declaring love and delight in the exchange of songs of peace, outside of every calculation of debt or power. The gift of the covenant—which in a sense implores Israel to respond—belongs to the Trinity’s eternal “discourse” of love, which eternally “invites” and offers regard and recognition; it precedes and exceeds, then, every economy of power, because all “credit” is already given and exhausted, because the love it declares and invokes is prior to, and the premise of, all that is given” (Hart, pp. 350).

Jesus the Lord, the Servant of Creation, restores the Creator’s gift and offers it anew for our responsible care as an act of forgiveness;

God’s balances, he concludes, “are not righted by an act of immolation, the debt is not discharged by the destruction of the victim and his transformation into credit; rather, God simply continues to give, freely, inexhaustible, regardless of rejection. God gives and forgives; he fore-gives and gives again” (Ibid., p. 351). Just so, Jesus the Lord, the Servant of Creation, restores the Creator’s gift and offers it anew for our responsible care as an act of forgiveness; those who join in care of creation share in that act, as often as it takes place.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday June 12 – 18 in Year C (Ormseth)

We must acknowledge that God is present in, with, and under all creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C
by Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

2 Samuel 11:26—12:10; 12:13–15
Psalm 32 (5)
Galatians 2:15–21
Luke 7:36—8:3

A noticeable lack of discussion of the concept of forgiveness of sin in works of ecological theology implies an irrelevance of this Sunday’s readings to care of creation, since forgiveness of sin is the theme that binds these readings together. While all theological loci clearly cannot be made relevant to our concern for care of creation, this lack is troublesome in view of the fact that for those traditions in which the forgiveness of sins is the defining issue of spiritual life, the Lutheran tradition obviously among them, care of creation easily falls into place as only one among many issues with respect to which the forgiven person might exercise their “faith active in love.” Our aim in this comment is to challenge this appearance of “irrelevance.”

Emphasis on the reality of personal faith as the basis for forgiveness of sins typically focuses on the relationship between the individual and Jesus or God. So here in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, one might focus on Jesus’ word to the woman “Your sins are forgiven” as his response to her faith, faith that is expressed in her extravagant acts of hospitality. David Tiede, for example, uses Luke’s contrast between the woman’s actions and those of his host and the others at table to show how the encounter reveals both her faith and his lack of faith in this “prophet.” Tiede avoids the trap of the “debate about whether her forgiveness was a ‘result’ of her faith or her love was a sign of her previous forgiveness” as a “scholastic confusion of the story.” Nonetheless, he wants to assure his readers that “the ‘loving” and “forgiving” that occur in the encounter “are all bound up in the kind of trust in Jesus which is truly saving,” and that her “implicit faith” in him “does not wait for the word of forgiveness (v.48) before displaying an extravagant love” (David Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988; p. 161).

What such interpretation generally leaves out of consideration is the impact of the conflict over her actions on the occasion in which they are all engaged, the banquet sponsored by Simon the Pharisee. With regard to this meal, we might ask, what exactly about her faith and Jesus’ response is “saving”? Over against the faith, or lack thereof, on the part of the Pharisee and his company—also implicit—the exchange is, at least in the first instance, seriously disruptive. It exposes the deep rift that divides those gathered. As Luke Timothy Johnson notes, the event fulfills the prophecy of Simeon in Luke 2:35 that Jesus would reveal “the inner thoughts of many:” “That a prophet can see the heart is axiomatic (see John 4:19). The irony here is not only that Jesus does know the woman’s heart, but also shows that he can read Simon’s thoughts!”  And those thoughts, we might observe, have as much to do with the significance of the meal as they do with whether or not Jesus is God’s prophet.

Indeed, the significance of the occasion of the meal and Jesus’ identity are two aspects of the larger question, one embedded in the narrative, of who is acceptable to God. As Tiede points out, questions about table fellowship

. . . are important to both Jesus and the Pharisees. As will become even more crucial in 14:1–15:3, the discussions about banquet etiquette are fundamentally about who is acceptable to God. Who are the “elect” on the guest list of the messianic banquet? The tension in the story over the behavior of the woman and Jesus is more than the violation of propriety, as if that were not enough. The separation of the elect from the sinners of the world is challenged by this “prophet” who knows full well what kind of woman is touching him (Tiede, p. 160).

Concern for faith gives priority to the woman’s acceptance of Jesus. As Johnson points out, “in the sinful woman we recognize again a member of the outcast poor, rejected by the religious elite as an untouchable, but like the poor throughout this Gospel, showing by her acts of hospitality that she accepts the prophet Jesus” (The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota:  The Liturgical Press, 1991; p. 129). At the same time, however, in Jesus’ act of forgiving her sins, we see God’s acceptance of her, an acceptance which so startles those at table as to provoke them into wondering about Jesus’ identity.

In contrast to the woman, as Johnson also notes, “the Pharisee invites Jesus to table, but violates all the rules of hospitality, and thereby shows (as he does also by his thoughts) that he does not accept Jesus as God’s prophet.” Nevertheless, we further note, “those who were at table with [Jesus] began to ask among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’” (7:49). The import of the question will be recognized by the reader of Luke’s Gospel, who at 5:17-26 would have encountered an earlier exchange concerning the power to forgive sins, also with “Pharisees and teachers of the law,” in connection with the healing of a paralytic. “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies?” the Pharisees ask. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” To which in response Jesus asserts his “authority on earth to forgive sins” as Son of Man.  Whatever the specific meaning of the title “Son of Man” has for Luke—an issue the complexity of which prohibits our discussion of it here—the irony of the exchange cannot be missed, nor will it surprise a Christian assembly that it occurs in Luke within the context of a meal. God’s presence in Jesus, characterized here by Luke in terms of his role as prophet, is what affords the woman’s awareness of being forgiven her sins. Participants in Christian assemblies gathered around the table of the Lord will recognize themselves in her, even as they acknowledge the presence of God in Jesus, and his authority to forgive not only her sins, but theirs.

It is worth noting that a similar dynamic is involved in the accompanying two lessons. The prophet Nathan speaks the word of God to David, first to uncover his sin by means of the  parable of corrupted hospitality of the rich man, but then also more directly in the voice of God to assure David of the forgiveness of his sin. God is present in and through the action of the prophet. So also in the controversy reflected in our second reading from Galatians. Again the question is, who is acceptable to God, as manifest in shared meals: those who do works of the law or those who have come to believe in Christ Jesus? In Paul’s view, it is those who have faith. It can’t be those who do works of the law because “no one will be justified by the works of the law.” Those “acceptable to God” are instead those in whom Christ lives by of virtue their faith in the Son of God, “who loves them and gives himself for them” (Galatians 2:20). Again it is the presence of God in and through faith in Jesus that makes the person of faith acceptable in the company of God’s people. Though lived “in the flesh,” such a life is clearly lived in the presence of God (Galatians 2:19-20).

The significance of the exchange in the Gospel for care of creation comes into view in light of further consideration of Simon’s “thoughts of the heart,” namely the criteria by which Simon and the Pharisees would have judged her presence at the meal as unacceptable. In the background of the Pharisee’s concern is the Levitical principle of unclean touch, according to which “when you touch human uncleanness—any uncleanness by which one can become unclean—and are unaware of it, when you come to know it, you shall be guilty” (Leviticus 5:3). Jesus knows that in Simon’s mind, he has indeed transgressed on this principle; as Luke emphasizes in vivid detail, he has allowed her to touch him: “She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment” (Luke 7:38). On the other hand, in Simon’s view, if Jesus was aware of the woman’s uncleanness, as he would be if he is God’s prophet, he as according to this understanding himself become unclean and therefore unacceptable to God until he has participated in the temple ritual of atonement (Leviticus 5:5-6). We are reminded that central to the faith of ancient Israel was their access to God in the temple. As Walter Brueggeman puts it, in the mercy seat above the ark of the covenant, Yahweh had astonishingly provided “a vehicle whereby Israel’s sin is regularly and effectively overcome, both to make Yahweh’s presence possible in Israel and to make communion between Yahweh and Israel possible.” (Brueggeman,Theology of the Old Testament, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997; p. 666.). But equally astonishing, Luke’s claim in this narrative is that in the person of Jesus God has now done the same thing for the world beyond privileged access to the temple, where a woman such as came to their meal could not go. Here is the sharp division of the house that pervades the text: In Simon’s view, the touch initiated by the woman’s washing of Jesus’ feet, kissing and anointing them with oil is a source of contamination. In Jesus’ view, on the contrary, the woman’s touch is an expression of her trust in him, and her actions were an expression of her joy of being in the company of God. Such joy as is expressed in Psalm 32, appointed for this Sunday’s worship.

Which is it, here at this meal? Whose perception of what happens is correct? By what criteria would one come to a decision? Or is the reality perhaps only a matter of perception, that of Simon and his friends over against that Jesus and the woman? Is the distinction perhaps finally a matter of a purely subjective “faith,” and not reality? How does one tell? Answers to these questions, it strikes us, are relevant to both the relationship between members of the human community and the larger community of creation, otherkind as well as humankind. If such human touch would render Jesus himself unclean, and indeed threaten the purity of the entire company, it is important to note that also other kinds of touch could be a source of uncleanness as well, “any uncleanness by which one can become unclean,” as specified in Leviticus 5:2: “when any of you touch any unclean thing–whether the carcass of an unclean beast or the carcass of unclean livestock or the carcass of an unclean swarming thing–and are unaware of it, you have become unclean, and are guilty.” What Jesus has run up against in this meal, in short, is the notion that things in creation, whether human or other kind, can be divided into clean and unclean. Contact with them can accordingly also either contaminate or purify. Which it is rides, by analogy with the corruption of human relationships, upon whether God is truly present in and through the actions and the elements involved in those actions, here the woman’s tears and her alabaster jar of ointment:  If God is present to the situation, there cannot be a contamination; if God is not present, there can. How then, lacking the weighty power of sacred space and covenantal tradition attached to the temple, are we to decide the question?

In our comment on last Sunday’s readings, we discussed a principle that is at least the beginning of an answer in the pattern manifest in the life of the people involved in our readings: It is the pattern discerned in last Sunday’s readings, the “drama of brokenness and restoration, which has Yahweh as its key agent,” and which “features generosity, candor in brokenness, and resilient hope, the markings of a viable life.” The pattern is that which the Apostle Paul identifies both with Jesus’ life and his own that of death to sin and resurrection to new life (Galatians 19:20). It is the pattern which, as Walter Brueggeman observes, is also the pattern that the Christian church claims for itself, albeit too often in supercessionist mode, in its view that Jesus is God’s new “sacrifice of atonement” (Romans 3:25), whereby alienation is overcome  And it is finally the pattern encountered by a Christian congregation at worship in the presence of its risen Lord  and placing itself under the authority and within the sacramentally enacted dynamic of his death and resurrection, which, in Brueggeman’s apt summary, “like ancient Israel, affirms generosity over scarcity, brokenness in the face of denial, and hope in the place of despair” (Brueggemann, p. 563).

Within this pattern, the forgiveness of sins is significant as that moment in the relationship between God and people when, as Psalm 32 indicates, the community, through its leaders, acknowledges “its communal pathologies,” without which acknowledgment “healing is impossible and death comes” (Brueggemann, p. 254; cf. our comment on the readings for last Sunday for a fuller development of this theme). The point to emphasize here, however, is that the pattern applies to the relationship both between people and between people and all God’s creation, a coupling that regularly takes place when we are at table with Jesus in worship. Our incredible communal pathologies in relationship to God’s creation cannot be truly and fully healed apart from full acknowledgment that God is present in, with, and under all creation.

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288