Saturday, July 25, 2015

“7 or 77 or 490 or Infinity”

              At our 8:30 service this Sunday, July 26th, I will continue my summer series on “The Parables of Jesus.”  Our focus this weekend is the parable of “the unjust servant,” which appears in Matthew 18:  21-35.  (Our 11:00 service will be different this weekend, as we will be celebrating our Vacation Bible School.)  

            As with last week’s parable, it is important to begin with the context in which Jesus tells this story in order to fully appreciate the moral of the parable.  In the verses immediately preceding this parable, Jesus has been instructing his disciples on how to resolve conflicts within the church.  Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.  If the member listens to you, you have regained that brother.” (Mt. 18:15)  If, on the contrary, the offending member rejects the one-on-one overture, then the victim should take two or three other members of the church to confront the offending member, again.  If that doesn’t work, then the entire congregation should be brought into the discussion.  If the sinful member refuses to listen even to the entire congregation, then he or she should be expelled from the community of faith.

            Jesus’ explanation prompts Peter, his disciple, to ask:  “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”   (v. 21)  Now, Peter’s willingness to forgive another person seven times would seem to be very generous.  However, Jesus “ups the ante,” when he replies:  “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.” (v. 22)  Seventy times seven is 490.  Yet, Jesus does not mean that we should literally forgive someone up to 490 times and then stop forgiving them.  Rather, Jesus is suggesting that we should be willing to forgive someone, whenever they wrong us—without counting the number of wrongs.  That is, we should be willing to forgive an infinite number of times.  Writing in The New Interpreter’s Bible, M. Eugene Boring observes, “The difference between Peter’s proposal and Jesus’ pronouncement is not a matter of math or linguistics, but of the nature of forgiveness.  Whoever counts has not forgiven at all, but is only biding his or her time (1 Corinthians 13:5).  The kind of forgiveness called for is beyond all calculation, as the following story communicates.”

            The following story is our parable for this weekend.  It begins with a king who wishes to settle up accounts with his various deputies.  One of those deputies is a man who owes the king 10,000 talents, which is an extraordinary amount of money.  A talent is the largest monetary unit in Jesus’ day.  It is the equivalent of six 100-ounce silver bars.  One talent alone is equal to the wages of a manual laborer for 15 years.  In monetary terms, 10,000 talents would be more than all of the taxes collected in Judea over a 10 year period in Jesus' day!  It is beyond all calculation. 

            The person who owes the king 10,000 talents did not borrow this much money for personal expenditures.  Instead, he was most likely a civil servant, working on behalf of the king.  Through incompetence or mismanagement, he has lost 10,000 talents, as a governmental official working for the king.  Clearly the debt is unpayable.  Both the civil servant and the king understand that the debt cannot be repaid.  So, the unjust servant begs for mercy.   Surprisingly, the king is moved by the servant’s contrition.  The king decides to forgive the servant and wipe the accounting ledger clean.

            As he was leaving the king’s palace, by chance, the civil servant encountered another man who in turn owed him a hundred denarii.  A denarius was roughly equivalent to a day’s wages.  So, 100 denarii would represent 100 days’ wages.  This amount of money is not an inconsiderable sum, as it equals about a ⅓ of a year’s salary.  Still, in comparison with the amount which the civil servant owed the king, it is exceptionally small.  In fact, 100 denarii is 1/600,000th of the 10,000 talents owed by the civil servant. 

            Despite the generosity of the king who has just forgiven him a debt which he could never repay, the civil servant grabs the man owing a hundred denarii and demands that he repay the debt immediately.  When the borrower cannot repay him, the civil servant has him thrown into prison until the debt is repaid. 

            The civil servant’s lack of empathy and generosity—after the king has been so generous with him—distresses others in the town.  So, they report back to the king who had so generously forgiven the civil servant.  The king is angered when he hears how uncharitable and unmerciful the civil servant has been.  So, the king reverses himself and has the civil servant arrested and thrown in to jail, where he is tortured.

            Matthew, the Gospel writer, makes it clear that the parable is an allegory for our relationship with God.  In the parable, the king represents God, and debts refer to our sins.  Therefore, the civil servant who owed 10,000 talents represents each of us, who have an enormous debt of sin for which we are accountable to God.  The other man who owed the 100 denarii debt represents the normal, “ordinary” sins that occur between various human persons.  For Jesus, the parable of the unjust servant becomes a negative example of how we should treat others.  Rather, than holding others rigidly accountable when they wrong—or sin against—us, we should be more willing to forgive.  This is because the wrongs that we suffer at the hands of others pales in comparison with the amount of sinfulness which God forgives us. 

            Answering Peter’s originating question from this perspective, we should be willing to forgive our brother an infinite number of times for all of the wrongs that they inflict upon us, in view of how much we depend upon God’s forgiveness and generosity towards us.

Come, join us this Sunday, at Christ United Methodist Church.  At our 8:30 am service, we explore the implications of what it means to forgive others in response to God’s willingness to forgive us.  At the 11 am service, will celebrate the accomplishments of our Vacation Bible School this past week.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Friday, July 17, 2015

"In God We Trust?"

            This Sunday, July 19th, I will continue my summer series on “The Parables of Jesus.”  Our focus this weekend is the parable of “the rich fool,” which appears in Luke 12: 13-21. 

            In order to appreciate this parable fully, it is important to examine the context in which Jesus tells the parable:  Our scripture opens with Jesus teaching.  As he is speaking, a man in the crowd asks, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  Apparently this person is unhappy with the way his older brother is executing their family estate.  Jesus declines the invitation to arbitrate between the two brothers.  Based upon what he says, it appears as though he senses that the man’s request is driven by greed.  In declining the man’s invitation, Jesus observes, “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12: 15) 

To illustrate and drive home this claim, Jesus follows up with a parable about a rich farmer.  One season, the rich farmer’s crops produce abundantly and his harvest is so great that he does not have room in his barns to store the crops.  This presents a huge problem for the farmer, who eventually decides to tear down his barns and build much bigger ones.  The rich farmer thinks to himself, “I will do this:  I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And, I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.”  (Luke 12: 19)

Jesus’ audience would have interpreted the rich farmer’s wealth and abundant harvest as signs of God’s blessing and favor.  But, notice that in his inner thoughts, the rich farmer does not give God any credit or offer any thanks to God.  Neither does the rich farmer share from his wealth with his community, especially those who are poor or marginalized.  Instead, the rich farmer turns his back on God and his community.  He shuts everyone out of his life, so that there is nothing in the story, except for the rich farmer and his possessions. 

The rich farmer begins to trust in himself and his affluence, rather than trusting in God. 

This quickly elicits a harsh judgment from God:  “You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:  20) 

            Writing in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Alan Culpepper is struck by the richness of this parable.  Culpepper identifies five separate angles for moral reflection:

1.      Preoccupation with Possessions.  Throughout the inner monologue which the rich farmer has with himself, the possessive pronoun, “my,” becomes dominant.  The rich farmer refers to my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods, my soul. 

2.      Security in Self-Sufficiency.  Culpepper notes that the rich farmer trusts only himself for security.  He has no use for a community of family and friends who support him, and he has no use for God’s love as a source of security.  He trusts only in himself and his possessions.

3.      The Grasp of Greed.  Culpepper observes that the rich fool’s innermost thoughts “reveal that he has no sense of responsibility to use his abundance for the welfare of persons less fortunate than he.  Greed has eaten away any compassion he may once have had.”

4.      The Hollowness of Hedonism.  Despite his good fortune, the rich fool has a limited vision of what the good life entails.  His vision is limited to eating, drinking, and making merry.  As Culpepper observes, “The greatest good he can imagine is a life of maximizing his own pleasure.”  This is a very limited vision.

5.      Practical Atheism.  Although the rich fool may claim a faith in God, he lives and manages his prosperity as though there is no God.

In my sermon this weekend, I intend to explore this parable through a lens that will draw from several of the moral dimensions that Culpepper identifies.  That lens is trust.  That is, where do we place our trust?  In Jesus’ parable, the rich farmer erroneously puts his trust in his money and possessions.  Others have erroneously put their trust in political or economic power, their fame, their intellect, their weapons, other people, or science and knowledge. By contrast, followers of Christ are called to trust in God, and God alone.

Come, join us this Sunday, as we explore what it means to put our faith and trust completely in God.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

An Update

Hello, you may have noticed that my blog has been on a hiatus for the past two months.  But, I am pleased to announce that my blog will be returning in a few days, so please check back by the end of this week.

Over the past two months, I've been in the process of transitioning, as I have moved from serving as pastor of Meriden United Methodist Church, in Meriden, Kansas, to becoming the new pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.  I began as pastor of Christ Church, effective 1 July, and I'm looking forward to resuming the weekly blog on my sermons.  So, I hope that you'll continue to check out my blog.  Thanks.  Richard