Matthew 18 and 9/11: What spirit dwells within me?

Week of Sunday September 11 2011
Pentecost 13, and the tenth year since the terror attacks in the USA
Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him;25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

In 2011, this reading falls due on September 11, which presents a peculiar preaching situation, especially  for colleagues who are citizens of the United States of America. In the safety of Australia we could simply ignore the date, which will be no option in the USA. However, my first impressions are that there is much to be gained by holding the two events, the story of the unforgiving servant and the story of 9/11, alongside each other.

I would not start with the issue of forgiveness, or what we should or should not forgive. That is simplistic, and ignores the forces at play, and their complexity. I would start with the context of each story; what the scholars call its sitz im leben.

For all of us, even in Australia, the tragedy of September 11 2001 is now a story in its own right; it is not merely an historical event we can hope to look at objectively. It is a story of which we are a part, and about which we may hold deep emotions. For some, the story is formative, or life changing. They were there.

We all live in a world where the story has been co-opted into larger stories; for example, The War on Terror is variously an inspiration, a necessity, and a travesty of justice. It all depends on the person and their point of view.  Each of the three I have mentioned may hold their view and believe 9/11 was an act of evil.

Each story is a blend of the personal and the impersonal; real, feeling human beings colliding with a social system and “powers that be.” The powers treat individual humanity and dignity with little respect, or none at all. Justice is arbitrary, perhaps not even present. The roll of dice echo in the background; mindless probability and chance are also tumbling around the players. On another day, outcomes may have been different.

In the first story we see the little person who is without hope. The slave, not servant, owes an impossible amount of money. By any calculation, the point of the sum is that he cannot pay it back. It is, and always will be, beyond his capacity. The system decides it will make the best of a bad investment, sell him off, with his family, get back a couple of cents in the dollar maybe, and then get on with life.

When the slave begs for mercy and says he will repay things, there is no reality in his promise. Really, he is simply asking for mercy, for compassion, to be treated as a person, not an object. He cries out, like all of us, to be seen and treated as a human being. He is a man. He has a family. He is not a dollar value in the calculations of king or corporation.

The King did not miraculously listen to him and require him to pay out the debt! The king forgave him the debt. In our terms today, it's like a corporation let a small-holder stay on his land, instead of pursuing its Miner's Right. It put aside its own interests. It held back from what it could have done. It chose an uncalculated and fulsome mercy. Being king of its own little empire, it had no need to do this. It suffered a loss by doing this. It put the personal before profit.

This was an uncharacteristic forgiveness. It was about as likely as me forgiving seventy seven times. Seven times I could manage, perhaps. Seventy seven times is near  impossible. I need to survive. I need to get on in life. I need to make a profit. I cannot live well with a “brother” constantly draining my energy, and my tolerance, and good will.

In what follows we see the antithesis of mercy. The point of Jesus' story is that this smaller debt is eminently repayable. It is like a half paid home mortgage; it is a significant debt, but it will be paid. It will bear fruit.

Yet, the forgiven slave takes on all the bad characteristics of the impersonal system which forgave him. The person who has been shown an amazing mercy is less merciful than the system which let him become a person again. And he does not merely sell his fellow and write off the debt; he puts him in a debtor’s prison, where he will work in the worst slavery possible, to repay the whole debt. This is an unnecessary, and unusually cruel, lack of forgiveness.

There is an immediate, outraged cry for justice. What follows is especially instructive if we take time to reflect. In Matthew’s telling of the story, this Jesus is the one who says of a recalcitrant church member, “Let him be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.” As we have seen last week, this was a most peculiar way to express exclusion from the church; Jesus was known for his love and compassion towards gentiles and tax collectors! The exclusion is reluctant, with every opportunity to be  made for reconciliation.

But in the same group of stories which Matthew has connected together, the unforgiving slave is handed over, not only to the debtor’s prison, but to be tortured until the debt is paid. “My heavenly father will do this....” Matthew says.

The sin of un-forgiveness outrages Matthew more than those who put stumbling blocks in the way of the little children of the church. (18:6-8) And far more than those in the church who sin and will not be corrected.  (18:15-20) Unforgiveness is the trump card of evil!

The context of Chapter 18 seems to be the preservation of the church in the face of evils that would hurt and destroy it. Most fundamental to the survival and thriving of the church is not the prevention of the sins done against it; not even the betrayals from within. Most fundamental to the survival of the church is forgiveness, that peculiar uncalculated mercy which operates against, and independent of, our normal sense of justice. Unforgiveness is the trump card of evil!

When we come to the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001, or the Bali Bombings of 2002 for we Australians, we are again in the territory of the king and his slave. As I said at the beginning

Each story is a blend of the personal and the impersonal; a real, feeling human being colliding with the social system and the “powers that be” which treat our humanity and dignity with little respect, or none at all. Justice is arbitrary, perhaps not even present. The roll of dice echo in the background; mindless probability and chance are also tumbling around the players. On another day outcomes may have been different.

At the personal level, ordinary human beings, who were often slaves to the system, were mercilessly destroyed; sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, Christians, Muslims, Atheists. There was no justice to the action. There was outrageous chance that meant some people were perhaps paying their first visit to a building, or on their first airline flight, or delayed from yesterday. Other people stayed home with a cold, and were spared.

The planes were flown by deceived human beings, enslaved to a system of hatred, even converted to hate in their hearts. They were not our bomber pilots, so our system urges us to see them only as evil, and enemy. We are taught to immediately dehumanise them. We, who are forgiven much, are too often urged to rule out even the tiny forgiveness of seeing their shared humanity.

And we do worse. We mount crusades which actually forget the humanity of those who were murdered. We make them into pawns of the system, the no-longer-people statistics which we use to justify a war and more death. We pour money into this, and leave the victims and their families; our own soldiers, I mean, with minimal support. But we trot them out on memorial days, still using them.

At least we count them accurately. The civilian deaths remain a figure of guess work which the system does not care about, unless it creates too much hostility to our occupation.

The argument can be made that the United States, and the West,  is an Empire which has stripped resources from the world in an unmerciful manner. 9/11 is a payback, the hatred of people who feel powerless and exploited. I hasten to say to American friends that I do not exclude Australia from this system. In fact, I think our simmering dislike of Americans is, in part, resentment that we have not been able to do it half as well. We are your vassal state, not your partner, and we resent that.

We are all complicit in the systems in which we live. And there is a sense in which we are all enslaved to them; there is a limit to how much we can withdraw. There is a limit to how much we can change things, or protest in any effective manner.

How much we who are preachers can talk with our sisters and brothers about the role of the system in the tragedies of 9/11, will be greatly determined by the mood of our congregation. For some people, a “war on terror” provides a pillar of their existence. They define themselves, and cope with life, by identifying an enemy. Other folk will carry the wound of lost family, either from that day, or in the subsequent wars. Others will be outraged, seeing their losses as due not to the “enemy” but to the impersonal demands of the system that runs their own nation.

It would be easy to sink into bitter argument and recrimination about causes and guilt.

Perhaps we should not bother too deeply with the systemic structures and causes of 9/11 and its wars. Perhaps we should look to the story Jesus told.

In that story there is a man who was forgiven everything. The theological link to many of our stories of personal salvation is pretty obvious! But forgiven everything, he still would not forgive.

Also in the story is a man who typifies the empires and corporations which run the world. He is the embodiment of a deeply flawed and often evil system of domination. Yet he forgave a debt, without cause, and with no hope of recompense. There was no need for him to forgive. In his eyes, he was the injured party. Under the system, he had the right and the power to be utterly unforgiving and utterly dehumanising.

Jesus, who was against the power system of his day, and who would be executed by it, holds up the king of the system as a paragon of virtue! The one who is condemned is the slave, one of those for whom Jesus died—but a slave who would still not forgive. Unforgiveness is the trump card of evil! It is this, more than anything, according to Matthew 18, which will endanger or destroy us as a church.

When evil comes upon us, or among us, we have a choice. We can be a slave to the system, and our passions, or we can rule over them all with uncalculating forgiveness.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!




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