Exodus 14:19-31 † Psalm 114:1-9 † Romans 14:1-12 † Matthew 18:21-35
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?
Perhaps I should stop talking and just sit down.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Thus ends the reading of the word. Thus, ends the sermon.
Why do we pass judgment? There is plenty here in this simple question. Just take time to reflect on it, live in it. “Explore the space,” as Christopher Walken says in one of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits. If we were to do this, and this alone, to consider our quick path to judgment, it would be time well spent.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?
That’s what the slave did to the other slave in the parable, isn’t it? He decides not to forgive the debt he is owed, despite having just experienced forgiveness that has given his own life back to him.
It is worth pointing out, I think, the extremes captured in the amounts that are forgiven and not forgiven. The master forgives his servant a debt of ten thousand talents, while the servant fails to forgive his brother a debt of one hundred denarii.
Let’s do the math. A talent, as the footnote in the pew bibles notes, is worth “more than fifteen years’ wages of a laborer” while the denarius was “the usual day’s wage.” In other words, the first servant has been forgiven a debt equivalent to 50 million days of a salary for a laborer, while he cannot find his way to forgiving a debt equal to a salary of 100 days of labor—4 months or so. We are talking, in other words, about a proportion of 500,000 to one.
The parable is absurd. The contrast of the debt owed is absurdly huge. In truth, I suspect the point of the story is the absurdity of it all—that the debt is, quite simply, an impossible one. And the comparison between the two debts is a measure not of degree but substance, a relationship not in-kind but of a fundamental difference.
The terms slave or even servant and master are troubling, and may distract us from the question the parable is pointing to. Perhaps creator and creature might be more helpful. Let’s put it this way, the debt owed or forgiven a fellow creature is a different thing than that owed the cosmos. How does one repay the universe, we might wonder? And more importantly, how does one stop the universe once it starts to repay you?
How does one stop a hurricane or the rising waters? How does one stop radiation once it is unleashed? How does one stop a universal arc that bends toward justice?
Or to return to the other side of the equation: Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?
Let’s look at it from a different angle, a more practical angle, if you will.
Over the years we’ve talked and even done some work drawing on the resources of Love and Logic. Love and Logic started as a child-rearing resource for parents and educators built on the idea that an authentic, loving connection between parents and their children, or teachers and their students is the root of a healthy, thriving relationship.[i] Some local school systems, including Issaquah Schools, in which Derona Burkholder teaches, draw on Love and Logic resources. We encourage it at St. Andrew—and we even have a small library of resources available—because we believe it parallels the values we see in the way of Jesus and in the Christian story, and it is supported by sound, peer-reviewed psychological and social theory.
According to the website,
The “Love” in Love and Logic means that we love our kids so much that we are willing to set and enforce limits. This “Love” also means that we do so with sincere compassion and empathy.
The “Logic” in Love and Logic happens when we allow children to make decisions, affordable mistakes and experience the natural or logical consequences.
Love and logic balanced together, genuine empathy and human autonomy, including the freedom to make mistakes, leads to the understanding that the quality of my life depends on the quality of my choices.[ii]
And what is true in parenting or teaching is true in all human relationships. Forms of behavior that call into questions past choices, that rub insult into deep injuries not only lack the compassion embedded deep in the Christian story, deep in God’s love for us, but it is counter-productive.
Let’s consider a recent national event. Why, for example, should we bail out Houston when, for years, they resisted all forms of building regulation and encouraged sprawling developments with poor drainage that made flooding and overall devastation from Harvey worse?[iii]
Logic offers at least two reasons. First of all, that log blown down by the storm gets lodged in our own eyes, and it can obscure our logic. The truth, as it usually is, is more complicated than we would like to admit or care to explore. Slate Magazine in a post-Hurricane Harvey analysis[iv] notes that, despite recent coverage linking Houston’s unregulated growth[v] and lax zoning laws, the truth is much more complicated and involved, and it resists our ideological simplification.
More importantly, no community is immune from criticism. The problems in Houston are not, by any means, unique to Houston. “Thanks to the federally subsidized flood insurance program, Americans [everywhere] continue to build their houses in food zones without pricing out the consequences. Nationally, there are 9.6 million American households in the 100-year-flood plan, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.”[vi]
And what about the really big one that has a one in ten chance of hitting Seattle in the next 50 years? Those of us who paid attention to the analysis that first appeared in the New Yorker[vii] and then received extensive regional coverage of what would happen—what will happen[viii]—when the next really big quake hits our area given our lack of preparedness should remember that we have little right to criticize. That enigmatic phrase comes to mind: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Which points to the second logical reason why we should resist the temptation of “I told you so:” if we pay attention to human behavior, we know it doesn’t actually get us anywhere good.
One of my favorite insights of Love and Logic is the dead-end that is “I told you so.” The essential value of compassion, of feeling with, of sharing the pain of others is the key that unlocks learning and progress. Respect breeds respect. Practically, the empathy that grows from love prevents us from becoming an antagonist, or worse, an object for the anger that grows from loss and pain. If we lock in empathy, the learning that flows naturally from experience can result for someone—whether a child, or an unemployed coal miner, or a world leader. If we fail to do so, the pain that would move that one toward more deeply considered choices based on the awareness that the quality of my life depends on the quality of my choices will instead be converted to anger projected at the arrogance of I told you so, and the possibility of real change is all but lost.
Jesus leads into the parable of the talents with a command, telling us to forgive 77 times, in other words, to be utterly extravagant and unlimited in our ability to forgive and thereby remain connected with one another.
Note, he does not say to lose ourselves or our convictions in the midst of it. He doesn’t say to sacrifice those things that we hold most central to who we are. He doesn’t say to lose our maturity at the door. He doesn’t say that love must abandon good logic, but that they are siblings. He says to remain connected to one another by forgiving because we are one in the cosmos. We are creatures, human siblings who belong together. Because our future is a shared future and our choices affect everyone.
The story, which is brutal and violent, is told by the one who refused, when wronged, to use brutality or violence. When wrong was done to him, he did not say, “I told you so.” He did not say, “I’ll get you back for this!” He said, “Father, forgive them.” He made a way through, much like the Israelites, who with the help of the clouds and the water, found a way through when there seemed none. And it is our way through as well as we find our fortunes entwined with those who are profoundly different from us.
Al Weenink, a Presbyterian pastor for over 60 years, and his wife Virginia were participants in a trip to Cuba I took some years ago. I was drawn to them because they seemed to handle whatever came our way with ease and grace. Near the end of our time together, he said something that explained much of this to me.
He said, “I take confidence in the 1st century church—7 million were converted to Christianity within 300 years without means of modern communication one loving heart setting another aflame.” Why do you pass judgment on one another when we have so many other good options? We are free to love and free to leave judgment to God because we are no longer our own, we belong to love. And one loving heart sets another and another aflame.
[i] See, for example, the Love and Logic web page “Love and Logic Parenting Skills and Techniques,” retrieved September 15, 2017 at https://www.loveandlogic.com/parents/what-is-love-and-logic-for-parents.
[iii] See, for example, Katherine Mach and Miyuki Hino, “What Climate Scientists Want You to See in the Floodwaters”, New York Times, September 2, 2017. Retrieved September 15, 2017 from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/02/opinion/climate-hurricanes-flooding-harvey.html.
[iv] Henry Grabar “Don’t Blame Houston’s Lax Zoning for Harvey’s Destruction”, August 31, 2017 in Slate. Retrieved on line September 15, 2017 at http://www.slate.com/articles/business/metropolis/2017/08/how_houston_and_harris_county_s_zoning_approach_affected_hurricane_harvey.html.
[v] See, for example, Thom Patterson, “How Houston’s layout may have made its flooding worse”, August 31, 2017 on CNN.com. Retrieved September 15, 2017 at http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/31/us/houston-harvey-flooding-urban-planning/index.html, and Shawn Boburg and Beth Reinhard, “Houston’s ‘Wild West’ growth” in the Washington Post, August 29, 2017. Retrieved on September 15, 2017 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/investigations/harvey-urban-planning/?utm_term=.18052c388a51.
[vi] Henry Grabar “Don’t Blame Houston’s Lax Zoning for Harvey’s Destruction”, August 31, 2017 in Slate. Retrieved on line September 15, 2017 at http://www.slate.com/articles/business/metropolis/2017/08/how_houston_and_harris_county_s_zoning_approach_affected_hurricane_harvey.html.
[vii] Kathryn Schulz. “The Really Big One” in the New Yorker, July 20, 2015. Retrieved September 15, 2017 from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/20/the-really-big-one.
[viii] The New Yorker article points to the scientific analysis of Chris Goldfinger which notes the likelihood of a big Cascadia earthquake in the next 50 years at 1 in 3, and of a very big one at 1 in 10.
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