Today in the Spirit: Proper 19A

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In the Bible readings assigned in the BCP for Proper 19A the overall theme is that of active forgiveness that exists between members in the community of believers empowered by the Holy Spirit. The texts reveal abundant reward from the hand of God where it exists and deadly consequences where it does not. In the Gospel reading from Matthew 18:21-35 we hear the second half of that Gospel’s major teaching discourse of Jesus directed to the disciples (and by extension the whole church). To Peter’s question on the limits of forgiveness, Jesus replies: “I do not say to you seven times [shall you forgive your brother], but seventy-seven times,” followed by the chilling Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. 

For a supporting OT reading, the church selects Ecclesiasticus 27:30-28:7 in the Apocrypha, in which it is taught, The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance, followed by repeated exhortations to the believing community to remember to forgive the sins of others and avoid facing the judgment of the Most High. Psalm 103, that monumental tribute to the forgiveness of God, is assigned this week to make God’s mercy toward us the basis on which we unfailingly forgive others.

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The last reading assigned in the sequence from Romans in Year A is Romans 14:5-12. Here Paul urges the mixed Jewish and Gentile church in Rome to stop sowing division by judging one another over differing religious practices. And once again, we see the unity of Scripture displayed by this unintended connection to the overall theme of God’s judgment against unforgiveness in the concluding line, So then each of us will give an account of himself to God (12). The Collect, as always, reminds us that “we are not able to please [God],” and to ask for the Holy Spirit’s power to “direct and rule our hearts” (perhaps this week especially in the matter of forgiving others); “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”         

The Collect

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Set Enmity Aside (Ecclesiasticus 27:30-28:7)

Anger and wrath, these also are abominations,
    yet a sinner holds on to them. 
The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance,
    for he keeps a strict account of their sins. 
Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done,
    and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. 
Does anyone harbor anger against another,
    and expect healing from the Lord? 
If one has no mercy toward another like himself,
    can he then seek pardon for his own sins? 
If a mere mortal harbors wrath,
    who will make an atoning sacrifice for his sins?
Remember the end of your life, and set enmity aside;
    remember corruption and death, and be true to the commandments. 
Remember the commandments, and do not be angry with your neighbor;
    remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook faults.

Note: The Anglican Church does not recognize the Deuterocanonical books (or the Apocrypha) to be part of the canon of Holy Scripture, but, according to the historical Anglican Articles of Religion, “the Church doth read [them] for example of life and instruction of manners”  Enjoy.

Especially if you tend to be an even-tempered person, you may be tempted to hear wincing phrases like anger and wrath, these also are abominations or set enmity aside and think, well, this is not for me. Be careful here. What circumstances in your life have you feeling uptight just now? Is there anything pertaining to life at home, work or school keeping you awake at night? Prayerfully before God, begin to attach the faces and names of other people involved with those circumstances. Whom do you secretly blame for the difficulties? At first, you might say you yourself, or even God, but then, is there anyone else? While you may have no thoughts of personal retribution against any other individual, you may find, before God, that you are deep down enraged with something they are doing, or not doing, to contribute toward your red-faced anguish. 

Here, just here, is where this hard-driving text from the Apocrypha may be speaking to you. Here is where you need to remember the end of your life, and set enmity aside. Here is where you need to repent of your anger leading to hardness of heart and renounce it as evil before the cross of Christ. At the conclusion of their massive book “The New Testament in Its World,” N.T. Wright and Paul Bird write: “The New Testament’s appeal to people for a new way of relating to one another, a way of kindness, a way that accepts the fact of anger but refuses to allow it to dictate the terms of engagement, is based four-square on the achievement of Jesus.” At the cross, we find the only place of refuge to flee to with our vengefulness and leave it to be washed by the precious blood. 

Today, Holy Spirit, meditating on this reading, I ask you to grant me the grace to put aside any vain confidence I have placed on my even temper and easygoing personality and find in you the atoning sacrifice for my sin of harboring resentment toward or wishing harm on another.

He Remembers That We Are Dust (Psalm 103)

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 
He will not always chide,
    nor will he keep his anger forever. 
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities. 
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; 
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us. 
As a father shows compassion to his children,
    so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. 
For he knows our frame;
 he remembers that we are dust (8-14).

Or, For He Himself knows our form, He is mindful that we are nothing but dust (NASB). The steadfast love of God is offered to us with his full recognition of who we really are. He knows the full measure of our shortcomings; thus, there is no danger whatsoever that he will, like another human being might, withdraw his eternal, covenantal devotion to us once he discovers what we are really like. As “David” has learned by experience, God knows our form, not merely as one who has studied it in the manner of a scientist observing natural phenomena, but as the Maker, and the Installer of his own image–his own nature, minus the sin. 

This means forgiveness from God to the extent of removing our sins from us as far as the east is from the west, can always be counted on. Our asking forgiveness is not a burdensome interruption in his rush to get things done in the world. On the contrary, the missio deo is curiously advanced through it. He enthusiastically welcomes the humility of his servants, their confession of sin, as the way forward toward the redemption of all things. This perhaps sheds additional light on that beloved passage from Micah 6:8: O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Remembering God’s unreserved kindness (or mercy NIV) toward us, we offer it ourselves–even (maybe especially) if it is after repentance; and somehow the plan of God pushes forward.

Today, Holy Spirit, help us to see that, far from disdaining our constant coming to you with repentance, you love it, expect it, and want it for your own glory, and for the completion of your work in the world.

We Belong to the Lord (Romans 14:5-12)

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For 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, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
    and every tongue shall confess to God.”
So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.

We are the Lord’s, or we belong to the Lord (NIV). In his move to make this broad statement, Paul is shifting from a simple argument about everyone respecting one another’s religious practices to a much deeper one about shoving aside pride of place. In the course of the whole letter, Paul has addressed the issue of entitlement existing in both the Jewish (chapters 2-4) and Gentile (chapters 9-11) groups within the city’s church. Now near the end, Paul will say neither group must feel they have the right to dominate the church, for no individual or group lives to themselves (or, is entitled to put themselves in the place of ownership), for we belong to the Lord. He is the maker and judge, the beginning and end of us all. Each one of us individually comes under God’s right of ownership, and the church as a whole is his.

As mature Christians, you and I might say, yes, yes; but I wonder how much we have seriously come to grips with the stranglehold our own internal pride of place has on us, and how much it affects our walk with the Lord. It should be noted that Paul himself will declare, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (Philippians 3:8) only at the end of his missionary career, and probably after a prolonged journey of his own to personal humility.

Down deep in each of us is that sense, born into us through sin and nurtured through cultural orientation, that we are entitled to have things our way. Our conversion to Christ never knocks pride out of us in one punch, but only by the slow accumulation of stinging blows over time. It is the Holy Spirit’s project of our lifetime to communicate in the depths of each one of us that we belong, not to ourselves alone, but to the Lord. He alone is entitled to use us as he will, and each one of us will give an account of himself to God on that very point.   

Today, Holy Spirit, lead me to ever deeper repentance over my own sense of entitlement playing out in me in society in general, and particularly in the Christian community. 

Forgive Your Brother from the Heart (Matthew 18:21-35)

[Jesus to Peter]: “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant[c] fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii,[d] and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers,[e] until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

We need to be precise in our understanding of the issue at hand here. Jesus replies to Peter’s question about forgiving the sins of others with a parable on that very subject. Devotionally, we must avoid putting this teaching of our Lord in a compartment where it does not belong. This parable is not addressing greed for worldly wealth (The Parable of the Rich Fool in Proper 13C will cover that topic), nor unwillingness to show compassion to the needy (The Parable of Good Samaritan, Proper 10C, is strong medicine against that particular illness). Here we are asked to face that part of our sinful nature which seeks out the opportunity to inflict retribution against another who has wronged us. Note how the unforgiving servant in the parable pursues the other servant who owes him a debt.

The parable is not about your feeling forgiveness so much as forgiveness from your heart which will manifest itself in concrete actions to release your debtor from bondage to wrongs they have committed against you. See how the master in the parable goes beyond setting up a payment plan to canceling the debt. We see Jesus in him, and his cross is the means for us to participate in the activity of forgiveness. Part of the quotation from Wright and Bird I included in the commentary on the Ecclesiasticus reading is worth repeating here: “[The] way of kindness, a way that accepts the fact of anger but refuses to allow it to dictate the terms of engagement, is based four-square on the achievement of Jesus.”

Today, in the Spirit, under the exposure of this hard passage, bring to mind the names and faces of those who have sinned against you, release them in your heart in Jesus’ name from any indebtedness they have with you, and hear from God his command to take whatever actions necessary, however radical, to forgive them in the open air.

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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