Theme(s): Forgiveness. Quality not quantity. Accepting those who are weaker than us. Accepting those who think differently to us. Conflict resolution. Judge not for you will be judged.
Sentence: Forgive your brother or your sister from the heart (Matthew 18:35)
God of infinite mercy,
Grant that we who know your pity
May rejoice in your forgiveness
and gladly forgive others in the power of the Spirit
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
This is a story about very naughty boys! When the general run of the Bible speaks of the importance of genuine repentance and of freely given forgiveness, here we find the brothers of Joseph manipulating their brother into forgiving them (i.e. formally, publicly forgiving them) by lying about what their father said.
However the whole story of Joseph suggests that he would not have been fooled by their attempt to claim knowledge of something their father Jacob had not himself shared with his favourite son! Thus we can think of Joseph forgiving his brothers because he chooses to do so. A forgiveness which extends to include forgiving their continuing brazen attempts to save their skins.
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
With an eye looking ahead to the gospel reading, on forgiveness, who is the God who calls us to forgive one another? It is the 'merciful and gracious' Lord (8) who 'does not deal with us according to our sins' (10).
If Paul has been focused in chapter 13 on what it means to be a Christian and a citizen in the Roman Empire, he now turns to what it means to be a Christian and a member of the church, with special reference to a matter which must have been of grave concern to the early church (see also Acts 10 and 15, 1 Corinthians 10, the letters to seven churches in Revelation 2-3, Mark 7).
That matter was what food Christians may eat with clear conscience.
There were two significant factors at work in disagreements over these matters, one concerning the movement from Jewish constraints on diet to Christian openness to eating all kinds of meat, the other concerning the provenance from which meat came or was intended for, that is meat 'sacrificed to idols' (Acts 15:29). Jewish Christians seemed to have both concerns on their minds (as here in this chapter). Arguably the (apparently similar) concerns Paul tackles in 1 Corinthians 10 were concerns Gentile Christians had as they sought to demonstrate exclusive loyalty to Christ.
The problem Paul is tackling in Romans 14 is subtle and complex. In the Roman church (so his informers were telling him) were some with such a strong faith (and appetite!) that they could and would eat anything (any meat, sacrificed to any idols) and there were some with such a weak faith that they avoided any difficulties over meat by eating only vegetables (1-2).
While presumably this caused some practical problems at shared meals, the problem Paul tackles is the attitude of each group to the other. Each appears to think they were not only in the right but had a moral platform to cast judgment on the other (4). Paul instructs both sides to not 'despise' nor 'pass judgment' on the other (3).
His point is that there is one judge, the Lord, and each side is accountable to the Lord and only to the Lord (4, also 12). But to make this point Paul himself must have believed that each option was honourable and holy. One option might be less preferable to the other, a point seemingly indicated by his description of the 'the weak' as eating 'only vegetables' (2, but note that he might have simply been using the language of the debate going on in Rome), but Paul sees no inherent difficulty before God for either approach. (For a comparison with "Pauline comparisons" we could head to 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul argues that both celibacy and marriage are honourable and holy options, though the overall effect of the chapter - in my view - is that Paul thinks celibacy is the better option.)
The verses between his initial opening statement and closing statement (with reference to our selected passage), i.e. verses 4-11, offer two matters for reflection by his audience.
First, on these matters of indifference, each must act in accord with their conscience, a conscience that should be informed futuristically by what it will mean to account for their actions before the Lord.
Secondly, we should not be passing judgment on one another over such matters. Only the Lord is fit to make such judgment and only to the Lord do we owe account for how we have eaten.
This passage follows on neatly from last Sunday's reading about resolution of conflict in the life of the church. Note how Peter's starting question involves 'if another member of the church sins against me' (21). When we flow from last week's passage to this week's we effectively have, in 18:15-35, a charter for conflict resolution which involves both a mechanism for resolution and a means for making that resolution effective: the injured party forgives the one who wounds.
Peter's supplementary question, 'As many as seven times?' (21) demonstrates both his embeddedness in Jewish culture and theology (see Genesis 4:24), and his generous spirit, no doubt infected by the gracious example he was already seeing in his Master's life.
But Jesus' response is challenging. To forgive seven times is extensive - most of us won't return to a relationship in which we need to forgive for an eighth time! Yet Jesus says 'seventy-seven times' we should forgive the one who sins against us (22, noting, according to a footnote, this might even be translated as 'seventy times seven').
On the one hand, this much larger (and obviously hyperbolic) number is a way of saying "there is no count to be put on forgiveness, Christians keep on forgiving through all of life."
On the other hand, this much larger number underlines something about church relationships: once in the church we are to stay in the church, to stay in relationship with brother and sister Christians, just like (say) marriage, for it is that kind of relationship in which one does not walk away after seven wounds but may, literally, need to forgive the other seventy-seven times, even on seventy times seven occasions.
The story which is then told, a parable (noting its parabolic introduction, 'the kingdom of heaven may be compared to ...' (23)), does not deal in numbers of times re forgiving but in numbers re 'amount' of forgiveness.
Two slaves owe two different amounts. One owes ten thousand talents to his master and pleas successfully for mercy. The other owes one hundred denarii to the first slave. The first slave, despite having had a debt of 60 million denarii (= 10k talents) forgiven, will not forgive a debt of 100 denarii!
The parable concludes with the point being made that all the numbers involved in verses 21-34 amount to this, Christians must 'forgive your brother or sister from your heart' (35). In an important sense, what begins with 'quantity' ends up with 'quality.' There are two lessons in the parable.
(1) Our multiple forgiveness of others should not be superficial: each act of forgiveness is to be from the heart.
(2) We forgive from the heart, we forgive multiple times, we keep on forgiving because no matter how many times we forgive or how deeply we forgive, it is tiny in comparison to the extent of the forgiveness God offers us.