Thursday, September 18, 2008

Making the Word Flesh for the World

Scripture for this Sunday included Romans 14:1-12 and Matthew 18:21-35

Without St. Matthew and his fellow Gospel-writers, we would not have the teachings of Jesus. The evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, or their representatives—took what had been word-of-mouth versions of what Jesus said to his disciples and their contemporaries in the early part of the first century and, in later decades of that century put these teachings on parchment.

That doesn’t happen without some shaping of the message. Christians are not afraid to acknowledge this. Our understanding of inspiration includes the art, the fashioning, the handling of the message.

So when we turn to scripture to understand it, we respect the layers we find. It’s not as if we need training in archeology to really hear the Bible, but that image of a dig is a good one: Break the surface of a text like that Gospel today, and you get into layers of words and thoughts that belong to Jesus, and layers that belong to Matthew.

This was understood, in its own way, by Bible editors who once upon a time printed the words of Jesus in red, recognizing that gems need to be mounted in settings that show off the cut, the shape, the light of the jewel—so all the words they thought Jesus hadn’t uttered they printed in black. Both were seen as inspired, yet with a difference between them.

But the layering is more intricate than that. Matthew was not afraid to paraphrase the word-of-mouth tradition that he had heard over so many years, around so many desert campfires, because this calling the early church placed on him and his like to assemble the teachings and convey the Word was not an exercise in magic, where one must recite the spell exactly as it’s taught at Hogwarts. Gathering the Gospels was an exercise in incarnation. The very subject of the Gospels—the Word become flesh in Jesus Christ—was also the very substance of the Gospels, a living tradition that the Holy Spirit of God moves through, works through, breathes through at all stages of the Gospel, from its happening, through its reporting, to its recording, through its translations, and on through our own efforts to comprehend it and bear it to the world.

What’s my point? That the person who wants to really enter a Gospel discovers it’s a live system full of movement. And it’s not unlike a crossword puzzle. There are always three things going on, the message across and the message up and down, and those points where they meet, where the clues get found for what might be called a fully respectful reading of scripture.

So here today is a lovely example of the evangelist’s work. He knows this powerful parable among the key teachings of Jesus, the one that lies imbedded within our portion today, the story of a king who, after conducting an audit of his holdings, discovers serious mismanagement.

One trusted agent has had a bad year or two managing the first-century counterpart of Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae, and there’s hell to pay. Only, in those days there really was hell to pay: notice how this fellow doesn’t get to retire with a $24 million severance package. Oh, for the good old days of cause and effect.

1st-century kings and emperors didn’t know about polls and pollsters, so approval ratings weren’t their concern. History would rate few as kind or gracious, but there is something of heaven in this one: though he puts in motion his usual hard justice (he owns this agent, now he’ll sell him as damaged goods, together with his wife and children and household possessions, and from this foreclosure sale will recover some small sum)—but an unscripted moment happens. This defenceless fellow falls on his knees before the king and pleads for time, patience, a reprieve. And he gets it. More than that, the king releases him not just from jail but from the entire debt. (That amount, says the commentator, is such a large amount of money that we can barely do the math; it’s meant to represent a gazillion dollars.) From this mountain of mortgage deals turned sour, he is released. And he doesn’t get that. He has asked for a reprieve so he may repay that impossible debt, and it hasn’t sunk in that this old way of thinking fits him no longer. He doesn’t own the freedom he’s given.

You can barely breathe before the tables turn, this pardoned failure of an executive exits the royal chamber, enters a back corridor and there bumps into another apparatchik of the royal household, someone at least a notch or two below him in the pecking order, a poker buddy whose bad luck in their last game left him owing an amount about one six hundred thousandth of that first man’s forgiven debt, says the commentator.

Pay me what you owe! are the searing words that start a wildfire among all the royal staff who witness the unthinkable, that when the hapless poker partner pleads for time, the villainous ex-executive slaps him into jail until the debt should be paid.

See, here’s the thing about the parables of Jesus, I mean the core stories—they’re so rich and full of life that you can’t even finish telling them without preaching them, I mean elaborating, weaving out some colorful fringe along the edges to frame them, and that’s what Matthew does. It’s what I want to do, too.

I want to notice how futile human economy can be, that a debtor should get locked up in order to make sure his debt gets paid—by whom? If the worker is incarcerated, how can the worker work? It’s a desperate measure designed only to punish, or, more darkly, to cleanse society of its irresponsible members. But that’s the only policy we can expect from someone who hasn’t tasted mercy, hasn’t embraced freedom, hasn’t opened himself to forgiveness.

And even though this disgraced agent was showered with grace, he didn’t get it. It all rolled off him like rain off gore-tex. I’d say that makes him an intriguing figure for preaching the Gospel of Christ in the 21st century. He’s the self-made man who has been met by amazing grace but can’t yet sing, “that saved a wretch like me… I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

And Matthew found the story powerful for preaching the Gospel in the 1st century. He took the basic parable and made it an allegory, made it tell the story of the relationship between God and the Christian Church, the king representing God and the debt representing sin.

Noticing these layers, some Bible scholars say that Jesus’s parable ends with the king’s question, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” That sounds like Jesus, the teacher who teaches by questions. Others say it ends with the next verse, where the king inflicts on his disgraced agent the same futile punishment that almost befell the second fellow.

But many of them agree that this last verse is Matthew’s addition, turning Jesus’s parable into a vivid lesson of the negative example. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart. Forgiveness is not an option in the community of Christ; it is an imperative.

That’s Matthew’s message to Christians who stand forgiven and freed by the gift of Jesus’s breaking the grip of death with the power of God stronger than the grip of king or emperor. Forgiveness is not an option in this community: it is an imperative. Forgiveness is the one power that announces the Gospel to the world. And so Matthew hangs our Lord’s parable like a priceless painting on the hook of an encounter between Jesus and Peter, hangs this story on that question mark, Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?

Peter thinks he’s being extravagant at seven, a number representing perfection in the ancient world. Jesus said to him, Whoever has to count has not yet forgiven. If you’re calculating the Kingdom of God, seventy-seven, or seventy times seven, comes closer to measuring the embrace of God. You’ve received freely, give freely.

Jesus’s parable fleshes this out. I’m willing to bet that the Jesus of radical justice did not need his parable spiritualized when he told it: Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave is meant to have social and economic consequences. When his disciples first heard these words, they heard fulfillment of the messiah’s role foretold by the prophet Isaiah: The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me…to proclaim the opening of the prison to those who are bound… Or, as Mary would sing it, He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

The angry scolding we hear in our Gospel’s last verse today in Jesus’s voice would be against those who fail to forgive debt that simply cannot be repaid. In Matthew’s voice the church is scolded for its failures to forgive within its own circle. This reminds me of how in Luke’s Gospel we hear, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God,” while Matthew tells us, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” There is a spiritualizing of Jesus going on, and the Church needs it—but not at the expense of the social renewal the world needs.

Matthew is dealing with what St. Paul writes about today: the church of his time is divided into various groups with mutual suspicions about each other, grudges held from arguments over religious practice, or turf issues, or theological views. Gosh. Two thousand years later, don’t we need the Gospel of Matthew and the letters of Paul? Forgiveness is not an option in the community of Christ; it is an imperative. All who believe in the risen Lord should share one table and eat together despite their differences.

But whoever wants to enter the Gospel of Jesus will find a deep layer that speaks not just to the church but to the world. There we can hear the passion, the anger, the scolding of Christ aimed at wealthy nations perpetuating futile economics, imprisoning under-developed debtor nations in schemes that need to be broken open by forgiveness of debt.

And there we will find the summoning voice of Christ asking about the poor and the increasingly poor in this present economy, Should you not have mercy, as I have mercy on you?

I picture him wanting to ask this question of our presidential and vice-presidential candidates, inviting us—needing us—to do the asking, as the Word is made flesh not just for the Church, but for the world.