Proper 19A 2017: The Absurdity of Hell Anywhere But of Our Own Making

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This is a very ordinary, old sermon
about mercy and forgiveness.
It is no big deal really, just the kind of stuff
we have grown used to hearing about from Jesus
and other sources in the Bible.
It would hardly be worth mentioning again,
except that we have so much doggone trouble
understanding the one
and practicing the other.

As befits two very different topics,
mercy and forgiveness,
we also have two really different stories:
Joseph giving some mercy to his brothers,
and Jesus urging the practice of forgiveness
to his friends.

Now mercy and forgiveness
may seem like Siamese twins,
but truly, they are not even identical
or fraternal twins.
They are two significantly different
categories of relationship and healing.

Today’s first story, about Joseph,
is a small little cog
in a much bigger wheel.
It is part of a much larger narrative
that links a big cycle of stories together,
all of them about the First Families of Israel.

These big fat Old Testament stories
have some juicy little morsels in them
but they are almost accidental to the grand narrative.

Sometimes, when we read these Hebrew texts,
we get overly interested in the subplots,
but it is the bigger story that is more important.
If we do get caught up in the detail,
it may cause us to focus on a little current,
like today’s story about Joseph,
but miss the bigger picture.
With Matthew and the Gospels,
it is just the opposite.
Matthew’s story is a simple little parable
that was turned into something
much bigger and more complex,
and our objective is to dig in and find
the little bits of ore.

I’ll start with Matthew,
and something I’ve mentioned before,
because it is worth the reminder.

Jesus and the other itinerant rabbis
of his generation,
taught with parables.
Parables were pithy little stories
with one simple point
aimed like a spear
to get stuck in the brains of their audience.
The reason they taught in parables
was because most of them could not read or write
and most of their audience could not read or write.

Parables were one-point stories
told with a sharp edge
that cut into the brain.
They lodged there like a hatchet
never to be removed.

The story we heard today in Matthew
has a parable hidden in it somewhere
but in the telling of it,
as it was passed down over a couple of generations
before Matthew put it into writing,
the simple little parable
morphed into a complex allegory.

I’m repeating something I have mentioned before,
I know, but it’s important.

While parables were a unique linguistic form,
used by first century rabbis,
allegories were a story-form used
by educated Greeks and Romans
in their philosophy, religion, and literature.

What I just read from Matthew is an allegory.
It is an example of a parable
that rolled like a snowball out of Galilee
and became a big fat snowman in Rome.

The point of Matthew’s allegory
is that God is like a king
who forgives his slave of an impossible debt.
Then, in the complexity of the story, the king
discovers the very slave whose debt was forgiven,
did not model the king’s generosity.
Instead, the slave had a fellow slave
imprisoned and tortured
because he was owed money.

That sounds odd in our world,
but in those brutal days,
they tortured debtors to find out
if they were hiding money somewhere.
It was a pretty grim system.

In Matthew’s allegory,
God is a king who forgives our impossibly huge debt.
The slave is us,
if we do not forgive those
who have trespassed against us.
The slave’s punishment will be our punishment
as the allegory goes –
each character and event reflecting
the promise and threat of our relationship with God.

We will be thrown into prison and tortured
if we behave badly –
presumably in Hell and by fire.

In other words,
according to Matthew’s allegory,
God’s forgiveness
is conditional
and completely dependent
upon our forgiving others.

But let’s face it,
that kind of logic and conditionality
only makes sense if we believe God is a cosmic judge
or stern parent with a big, horrendous paddle in hand.
To me, a God driven by that kind of
stingy, niggling conditionality
sounds too narrowly human
to be the God of all that is –
the God and Creator of the Cosmos.

But my opinion is not the only reason
to suspect that Matthew’s version of the parable,
now an allegory,
dramatically changed from Jesus’ original.
Think about Jesus.

He was a populist teacher
and revolutionary,
talking to peasants who were brutally oppressed.
If we keep their miserable social context in mind,
it is hard to imagine Jesus saying:
You know, God is like a king
who threatens imprisonment and torture
to those who don’t do what he says

Where is the good news in that?

For peasants living under the Roman Empire
and abused by their local corrupt tyrant,
Matthew’s description makes God
just more of the same.

Somehow that doesn’t have the ring of Jesus to it.

Please, do not imagine I am picking on Matthew,
but rather, trying to understand him.
It is in understanding Matthew better
that we excavate our way back to Jesus –
who died half-a-century before Matthew.

But there is another place to dig
in both the Jesus and Joseph stories,
and it has to do with the difference
between mercy and forgiveness.

In Joseph’s day,
and still in Jesus’ day too,
there was a culture of blood-libel.

We hear the commandment,
‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’
and think it is primitive and vengeful, but
in its time and place
it was radically progressive.

The rule of an ‘eye for an eye’
indicated to the ancients, that
if you kill my sister
I do not have the right
to bring my clan over to your village
and wipe out your whole family.”

Retribution had to be proportional!

Taken in its context,
of a bloody and violent culture of blood retribution,
this was a huge social improvement.
As a law and custom,
‘an eye for an eye’
reigned in unrestrained brutality and violence
that was commonplace in blood feuds.

Jesus’ takes the ‘eye for an eye’ teaching
and refines it in the parable we imagine is
buried underneath Matthew’s allegory.

Jesus declares that mercy
is a higher value than vengeance.
Mercy, in fact, replaces even measured retribution
as the core-value for Jesus’ community.

We may hear these stories and think, “well duh,”
but if we look at how our own institutions
of law and governance function,
I’m not so sure we have actually bought into
the supremacy of mercy.

Jesus was preaching forgiveness
as a radical strategy
that would free the minds
of brutalized peasants from the toxic consequences
of bitterness and resentment.
But Jesus preaching that to his peers
is a lot different than the Church preaching that
to marginalized people.

You see, the Church preaching forgiveness
has often been the tool of oppression.
The Roman Church,
that came to be the religion of Caesars;
and the Roman Catholic Church,
that inflicted horrid violence on its world
in the form of such things as Inquisition;
the Anglican Church,
that acted as partner in British Colonialism
to raped indigenous cultures it colonized;
and The Episcopal Church,
that tagged along with the U.S. government
to convert the leftovers of Native American genocide;
were major perpetrators of violence and abuse.

It is a very different thing
from Jesus talking with his peers,
for powerful institutions with a history of violence against their subjects,
to insist that their victims
forgive and forget, and show mercy.
Only those with the power to execute punishment
have the ability to show mercy –
victims cannot show mercy toward their abusers
unless the power arrangement has been reversed.
Herein lies a difference between
forgiveness and mercy.

While forgiveness
is something all people can practice,
mercy is something that implies a power differential.

Mercy is a gift granted from one person
who possesses the power to give it,
to another person
who does not have the power
to grant mercy to themselves.

See how that works?
But forgiveness is not a gift.

Victims of oppression
can practice forgiveness,
but when they do, it is not for the perpetrators;
nor is forgiveness a gift to the perpetrator.
Forgiveness is a strategy
to free the heart and mind
of the one who has been wounded or abused.

Forgiveness is a strategy
for those who have been transgressed against
so they can move forward,
without the corrosive effects of resentment,
and the acidic bile of bitterness
continuing to wreak injury to themselves.

We cringe at the idea of forgiving someone
because it feels like
we are giving him or her a gift,
a gift they do not deserve.
It feels like we’re letting them off the hook.

“Why should I forgive him or her?”

It is an almost instinctual response
that reveals our indignation
at the idea of giving something
when WE should be the one
getting something in recompense.

But Jesus does not suggest we give anything away
when urging us to forgive,
rather, he is recommending a strategy.

I would go so far as to say that forgiveness
is the practice of self-health,
or the act of caring for oneself.

Forgiveness, as Jesus teaches it,
is not a moral achievement
but rather a protocol for one’s own
healing and recovery.

Forgiveness is not an ethical principle
or test of our moral purity,
it is a tactical maneuver in spiritual warfare.

As we read about forgiveness and mercy in the Bible
we need to always remember the context.

Joseph could show mercy
only because he had power.
He exemplified forgiveness earlier in his life
when he used it to free himself of bitterness
and hatred toward his brother’s for their betrayal.

But later on, when he was powerful,
he could grant mercy –
and perhaps did so
because he had already practiced forgiveness.

Likewise, Peter asks Jesus
how many times he has to forgive some jerk in their community,
and Jesus answers, “Seventy-seven times.”
What he is really saying is,
“Well, how long do you want to suffer
under the effects of resentment, bitterness, and anger?”

Peter is asking for a rule
and Jesus gives him a functional strategy for living:
“How much acid do you want in your heart?”

Forgiveness is not a rule or commandment
it is a strategy for health,
and a weapon of spiritual warfare.

Please do not think of forgiveness
as something we do for someone else, but instead,
think of it as something we practice for ourselves.

Mercy is something we grant
when we have the power to do so,
but forgiveness is something we practice
because it heals us as we practice it.
The difference is significant.