Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Exodus 14:19-31 Matthew 18:21-35

"If you believe what you like in the Gospel and reject what you don't like, you do not believe in the Gospel - you believe in yourself." St. Augustine

Events leading up to the 10-year anniversary of this dreadful day include such questions as, "Where were you when you heard the news that the United States was under attack?" I think most of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing, but my most vivid recollection of that dreadful day involved my then-12-year-old daughter. She called me at work as soon as she got home from school and was very distressed because she had heard these terrorists wanted to kill American children. It was all I could do, while sitting at my desk and listening to my child's quivering voice on the phone, to keep my composure when all I really wanted to do was to rush home, gather my children, and assure them that everything will be ok. It was in that moment when I began to realize that the innocence of youth in America had been violated, perhaps irreparably so - and the depth of my anger could not be measured.

Americans were profoundly angry, and yet America was as deeply distressed and confused as my 12-year-old child was. Innocence had been shattered, safety and security became a wistful dream, and Americans flocked to churches across the nation. What these many were searching for is anyone's guess, especially those who up to that point had fallen away from the Church or had perhaps never set foot in a church. They - perhaps "we" - were like the indicted Israel whose "faithfulness", according to the prophet Hosea, "is like a morning cloud, and like the early dew it goes away" (Hosea 6:4). Divine judgment, according to some TV preachers, was upon us but as soon as the smoke from the attacks cleared, so did the pews.

We approach the altar of the Lord neither with hatred and resentment nor in fear of judgment and condemnation but rather in hope; for it is fear that confines us and binds us against our will. Yet we often forget it is the will of our Holy Father that we live as freed men and women; free to love, free to live, free to come - or - free to go. And the only way we can be free - truly free - to live and to approach the altar of the Lord our God is to free ourselves from the bondage of the past. The shackles that bind us, the chains that hold us hostage against our will are locked with keys held by those we refuse to forgive. They are the ones who control our destiny, and they are the ones who determine whether we will go here or there, we choosing to avoid these persons and situations like a plague out of pure, irrational fear or resentment of the past.

When we allow fear and resentment to overwhelm and control us, there is a transformation which takes place. It is a transformation by which faith is subjected only to what we can see with our eyes, our humanity is diminished, and we are reduced to little more than mindless, instinctive, animalistic behavior. We react and respond aggressively to anything we perceive as a threat to our personal happiness and sense of well-being, and in that mindless wandering we become more like what we despise. As writer and theologian Brian McLaren recently stated: "When we engage opponents in conflict, we can unwittingly catch [the spiritually transmitted disease] they have." We become what we loathe.

Jesus paints a rather vivid portrait of what life is like for those who would take from Grace only what they can use for themselves and then forget what Grace really means as soon as they step away. I think of the "bumper sticker mantra" of so many Christians who proclaim: "We are not perfect - only forgiven" and yet continue in a life that is completely void of forgiveness. They have hate, anger, and resentment against those who have harmed them in some way; and yet they walk about with their chests puffed out under the mistaken notion they have been "forgiven" - even as they refuse to "forgive". They are not living in a dream world; they are facing a spiritual nightmare, a nightmare from which they will not awaken.

- and Jesus makes this very clear.

The slave owed a debt to his master, and the time of reckoning was upon him. Because he was unable to pay - or perhaps unwilling (remember he would have lost his family and his possessions in exchange, but presumably the debt would have been settled) - he pleaded with his master for "patience" and more time to pay the debt that was owed. The benevolent master, rather than giving the slave more time, simply "forgave" the debt. It no longer existed due only to the master's sense of generosity. The debt was presumably a legal, legitimate debt that should have been paid; but "grace" required that the debt simply be absolved, the slate wiped clean. So the slave walked away. An enormous burden had been lifted from him and he had been set free, completely relieved of what he owed. No more fear.

This should have been a time of rejoicing for the slave. You and I can appreciate what he must have been experiencing at the time because you and I have experienced such relief at one time or another. A friend overlooked our transgression. The last payment on a car or house or other loan has been made. We walked away from the altar of the Lord, having experienced that moment of "justification" when we became fully aware that the Lord had wiped our slates clean and had forgiven us of our sins. What freedom! What joy! No longer under a burden of debt, owing no one for nothing, being completely FREE!

As Jesus tells the story, however, no sooner had the slave walked out of his master house - "as he went out", Jesus says - he stepped right back into the same hole his master had just pulled him from. WILLINGLY! FREELY! If mindlessly, "instinctively". More than this, however, the slave's role had just changed. He had been put in the position of the master. He now possessed - by Grace; that unmerited, unearned favor - the same power that only moments earlier had been wielded over him and yet had released him from the legitimate debt he owed. POWER! POWER TO FORGIVE! And he refused to exercise that power. Instead, he chose to abuse that power by using it only to his personal advantage.

Notice the similarity in dynamic. The slave was also owed a legitimate debt by his "fellow slave". The very same stage the first slave stepped from free and clear had been set again before him, and he was now the "director" of the play rather than a player under direction. He had within his power the opportunity to offer the same forgiveness he had only moments before experienced for himself ... and he blew it. He did what was instinctive; he was, after all, owed money. It was his rightful claim ... as was the master's previous claim.

To remember is to learn something from the past, including that dreadful day in 2001, but we are called to remember in a way that goes completely against what our culture seems to be demanding from us. We remember so that we may remain vigilant. The master forgave the debt, but he still remembered the incident. To "forgive AND forget" is neither reasonable nor realistic because we can forgive a transgression, but it is not likely we can forget what happened. To be perfectly honest, I am not even sure we should. HOWEVER, we must remember the incident in a positive, forward-thinking way only as a lesson learned. There is always something we can take forward with us. Indeed it is part and parcel of the faith journey itself. This is what the study of history - and Holy Scripture - is all about. It is not simply about "knowing" what happened or even why. It is entirely about how we will apply these lessons learned in the future.

The slave took the "good news" for the moment but had completely forgotten almost as soon as he had walked out the door. And if we make the same mistake the slave made, we will also be "handed over to be tortured', as Jesus says so clearly, "until [we] pay the entire debt". We, too, will be placed back into the very bondage from which we had previously been delivered, and we, too, will become once again enslaved to persons and events that had previously held us hostage against our will. We, too, will again become what we had once despised.

We are better than this because we are not mindless, instinctive animals because we are created in the Divine Image. We must be better than those who seek to harm us IF we are to be called "children of the Most High God" - for it is only in forgiveness by which we are set free.

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