We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that our unity will one day be restored
And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yeah they'll know we are Christians by our love
We sang this well-known song a few weeks ago; and, of course, it isn’t only Christians who are called to love extravagantly, who are called to radical compassion that then leads to unity—but love is a marker, a characteristic of those who follow Jesus, who walk this way of Love. Love isn’t limited to Christianity, but it is to be our hallmark.
Dr. Cornel West, an American philosopher and political activist, once wrote: Justice is what love looks like in public. Today’s readings are full of statements about justice, mercy, compassion and love—but here’s the kicker: These statements seem to be contradictory. What do we do with that?
First we have Joseph, after being asked to forgive the crime of his brothers who sold him off and proclaimed him dead, Joseph says: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people….”
That word “intended” is a bit troublesome for me because it sounds like God wanted the brothers to do this harm to Joseph so that, in the end, it would all work out. It’s a way of thinking about God that we hear throughout Scripture. And a way of thinking about God that we hear echoed around us today. You know that nefarious saying: God will never give you more than you can handle. But the Hebrew here in Genesis reads more like: you brothers devised evil for me, but God devised that action for good. The action, itself, came from the brothers—not God. But God, working in and through Joseph, transforms what has happened within Joseph and so what ends up coming out, is not vengeance, not punishment, but mercy, compassion and forgiveness.
Much like we see on the cross. The betrayal, the evil, the turning a blind eye to what is happening to an innocent man is all taken into Jesus who allows it to be transformed within him and it comes out as: Today you will know paradise and Forgive them, they know not what they do.
The beauty in the Genesis story is that when lives are grounded and centered in Love, even the cruelest things that humans do to one another can be transformed into life-giving mercy and grace.
But then, did you hear that end bit in the Gospel passage today, when Jesus ends the parable by saying: then in anger the master handed over the unmerciful servant to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. And Jesus continues: So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Man alive, sounds like we don’t want to get on the bad side of God! There’s a price to pay. That’s how Joseph’s brothers understood the law of the land when they were about to confront Joseph: What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?
Isn’t that how we have often been taught to think about God? That if we don’t do what God asks of us, that God will hold it all against us and pay us back in full…..I mean, the evangelist Matthew seems to be putting those very words in Jesus’ mouth. What do we do with that?
Now, Beloved, there are theologians and scholars who will interpret this differently than me. And perhaps they are right. I may be wrong. But I want us all to be a bit more critical when we read the Bible—especially bits and pieces that seem to make God a God of vengeance and punishment rather than a God of mercy and love. This is kinda hard to do, especially when we add the word “justice” into the mix.
In our world, in the human way of being, justice equals punishment. But when we look at the life of Jesus, the One who was sent to show us what God in the world looks like and acts like, and when we listen to Jesus’ stories of The Prodigal Son, the story of leaving the 99 to find the one, we can see that God’s justice is about restoring the outcast into community, it is about equity and everyone having what is needed to live—our daily bread. God’s justice comes from collective and communal living that leads to the flourishing of each part and parcel of Creation. That life, health, shelter, community is, actually, a God-given right.
Even in today’s story, we see justice enacted when the slave who experiences radical compassion then denies that same compassion to another—out of a self-centered mindview—and so their fellow slaves then go and report what has happened. Maybe the point of the story is those fellow slaves who saw injustice and took action to end it. Of course, we also clearly hear that it is proper for those who have much to share the wealth, rather than continue to hoard it for themselves in order to gain even more profit. Not just today but in several stories in scripture. If one makes record profit off of others’ labor, then the laborer’s lives should be enriched as well—not just the CEOs.
This particular story we hear today, that has Jesus sounding not very Jesus-like, is only found in Matthew; no other Gospel has it. Partially because Matthew, as did Luke and Mark and John, Matthew has a particular agenda. Matthew is presenting Jesus as a teacher and authority greater even than Moses. Matthew is presenting Jesus as the Messiah. And here we hear Matthew putting into Jesus’ mouth an accepted way of understanding how God might act: Do what I say or it’s gonna be bad for you.
Unfortunately for Matthew, that is not how Jesus lives….or dies for that matter. These words conflict with Jesus’ actions: Forgiving his betrayers from the cross; sitting down to the table with Judas–knowing Judas was about to betray him; allowing Peter to confess his love 3 times after Peter has betrayed him 3 times. In fact, this ending to Matthew’s parable conflicts with Jesus’ intro to the parable: “Not seven times, but, I tell you seventy-seven times.”
There’s a Facebook meme going around right now that, I think, nails it: 2000 years from now, people will not understand the difference between “butt dial” and “booty call,” and this is exactly why the Bible is hard to understand.
The Bible is complicated. Misunderstood or unknown historical contexts, language barriers, years of institutionally manipulated translation. This is why we read and discuss the Word in community. It is why we use the life of Jesus as our lens and litmus test. It doesn’t matter if Joseph said it or Matthew wrote it. If it doesn’t look, act, sound or behave like Jesus—-it might not be Gospel. As Bishop Curry says, if it isn’t about love then it isn’t about God.
I think, even more than the book of Genesis or the Gospel of Matthew, the Psalmist got it right today:
[God] You are full of compassion and mercy,* slow to anger and of great kindness.
You will not always accuse us,* nor will you keep your anger for ever.
You have not dealt with us according to our sins,* nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,* so is your mercy great upon those who fear you.
As far as the east is from the west,* so far have you removed our sins from us.
May it be so, Beloved, may it be so….and may we live what we have been given.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.