Matthew 18:21-35 and Romans 14:1-12 (13) – Don’t Do Me Like That [Or Let’s Get a Good Mad On]
Caitlin Trussell on September 14, 2014 with Augustana Lutheran Church
[sermon follows the Bible readings from Matthew and Romans]
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?” 22 Jesus 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. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, 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. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But 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.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Romans 14:1-12 (13) Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6 Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God. 11 For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’ 12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
What does it feel like to get a good mad on? What does it look like? Perhaps you’re good at the righteous mad. These are the effective mads that motivate us to create change. Change of the ilk of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Inspired by the righteous mad of Dr. King, Ms. Parks got her righteous mad on after being told where to sit on the bus because of her skin color. As a result, she sat in a seat on the bus reserved for another skin color. Getting your righteous mad on can change the world one relationship, one neighborhood, one country at a time.
Righteous mad happens in many of us daily on behalf of ourselves and maybe even other people who are being punished by people who use their power over other people to hurt them. It’s the kind of mad that has us speaking up and speaking out; legitimately asking someone else, “Hey, why you do me like that?” Or, even more assertively, saying along with songwriter Tom Petty, “Don’t do me like that!”
From these righteous mads come the legalities. The legal dimension is where someone is held accountable. Peter gets this part right. These righteous mads are part of the ground from which Peter is asking his question of Jesus. “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
This is sin accounting. This is an important question. There are indeed actual wrong-doings that have consequences. Someone is accountable. So Peter’s question to Jesus about how many times to forgive is an honest question out of the knowledge that there are sins. There are wrongs done against someone and someone else is accountable for them. In current news, this is illustrated no more clearly than in the recent partner violence committed by NFL Football Player Ray Rice against his wife. He seems to be gravely at fault and the consequences are stacking up against him even as I stand here talking with you.
I like how David Lose talks about the place for sin accounting:
“It’s not that there is no place for the law in our relationships. There is, indeed, a need to count. If someone is repeatedly unkind or hurtful, let alone mean-spirited or violent, we may very well want to put some distance between us. We may continue to love a child or sibling or friend [or partner] who is abusive, but we don’t have to put up with the abusive behavior. Indeed, the most loving and forgiving thing to do may very well be to stop putting up with the behavior.”
Dr. Lose is pointing out that Peter’s sin-accounting question is an honest question. His question is also one in which he is trying to understand Jesus’ teaching that we heard Pastor Tim preach about last week; about our response to someone when they sin against us and hurt us.
For Peter, Jesus’ call for infinite forgiveness doesn’t compute. I would suggest that it doesn’t compute for us either. In fact, if any part of the reading from Matthew makes sense to us, it’s likely the vengeance done on the part of the king in torturing the greedy slave at the end. Vengeance is something we can get behind and even celebrate. As cases-in-point, think The Count of Monte Cristo to almost any Clint Eastwood movie to Sally Field in Eye for an Eye to Iron Man 3. These characters bait us to their side by their righteous mad and quickly switch us into supporting and even cheering on their self-righteous revenge.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, the reader lives this self-righteous revenge through the eyes of Montresor. The opening line drops us into the thick of the numbers game. “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” The story begins and ends in four and half pages. The readers find themselves privy to the horror of this revenge as Fortunato, the object of Montresor’s fury, is buried alive behind a freshly built wall of brick and mortar in an ancient catacomb.
On one level, the Bible reading in Matthew speaks to the sin-accounting that is comfortable for both Montresor in Poe’s story, who presumably endured 1,000 injuries before Fortunato’s final insult, and for Peter, who talks with Jesus about forgiving seven times. Both Peter and Montresor discover that when sin is counted in this way, in the way of law, the inevitable result is a winner and a loser. The problem is that it’s difficult to figure out who ends up the loser. This is because the assumption built into the sin-accounting game is that it reaches a limit. Once this limit is reached, the temptation becomes revenge.
It’s at this point when Jesus moves us beyond the sin-accounting game. He save us from the lose-lose of considering forgiveness only in light of the law. Reacting only with the law, we end up doing only the legal math and calculating whether to punish, take revenge, or forgive the person who sins against us. To get at the limited nature of sin-accounting, imagine two at their own wedding who stop the ceremony to ask how many times they are supposed to forgive each other. The question is ludicrous.
Two people joining their lives together asking about the number of times to forgive, while professing their love for each other, is as ludicrous as Peter’s question. In reply, Jesus’ presents an equally ludicrous question back to Peter. Dr. Lose suggests that:
“It’s not that Jesus wants Peter to increase his forgiveness quota…it’s that he wants him to stop counting altogether simply because forgiveness, like love, is inherently and intimately relational rather than legal and therefore cannot be counted. Had Peter asked Jesus how many times he should love his neighbor, we’d perceive his misunderstanding: love can’t be quantified or counted. But he asks about forgiveness and we miss his mistake…Forgiveness, as an expression of love, ultimately, is not about regulating behavior but rather about maintaining and nurturing our relationships.”
Paul takes us into forgiveness and relationship more deeply in the Bible reading from his letter to the Romans. He asks the reader to be cautious of the quick move we often make to judgment. Thinking that we know what is right for ourselves, we quickly decide what is right for everyone. This kind of self-righteousness infects the whole community with claims of moral superiority and subtle forms of retribution.
The beauty of the Romans reading is that we are reminded that God is the primary actor. In verse 3 we are told that, “God has welcomed them”; in verse 3 that, “the Lord is able to make them stand”; and in verse 8 that, “Whether we live or whether we die we are the Lord’s”; and finally in verse 9, the breath of air as we are reminded, “For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”
It’s easy to get turned around in the questions like Peter. It’s easy for meat-eaters and vegetarians to go after each other in self-righteous grandiosity. It’s easy in the face of real hurt to strike back in revenge, justifying our own acts of violence. When we take the easy way, we are reminded that we are weak, at the same time we are reminded of our need. This need levels us all at the foot of the cross. Each one of us in the shadow of the cross that illuminates the frailty and the sin we use to separate ourselves from God and each other.
Someone asked me a few weeks ago what it might mean when Jesus tells his disciples to, “take up their cross and follow me.” Taking up their cross, in part, means waking up to the reality of our need every day. Waking up in need, realizing our dependence on the One who was tortured and died on the cross; and through that very cross offers infinite forgiveness for me and for you. So that each day, within the ambiguity of what constitutes our success or failure, we can say with certainty, along with the Apostle Paul:
“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”
 Tom Petty singing “Don’t Do Me Like That” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dL6XwAl_hNo.
 SB (SportsBlog) Nation http://www.sbnation.com/nfl/2014/5/23/5744964/ray-rice-arrest-assault-statement-apology-ravens
 David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia on his blog “…in the Meantime” for Pentecost 14A: Forgiveness and Freedom. Link: http://www.davidlose.net/2014/09/pentecost-14-a/
 The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7126.The_Count_of_Monte_Cristo; Clint Eastwood http://www.clinteastwood.net/; Iron Man 3 (2013) http://marvel.com/movies/movie/176/iron_man_3
Eye for an Eye (1996) – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116260/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl.
 Edgar Allan Poe, The Complete Edgar Allan Poe Tales (New York: Chatham River Press, 1981), 542.
 David Lose at http://www.davidlose.net/2014/09/pentecost-14-a/
 Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.