Readings: Exodus 14:19-31 ~ Psalm 114 ~ Matthew 18:21-25
For the past few days I’ve been at the Church in the Wildwood in Lancaster for an EfM [Education for Ministry] training event. And we have been discussing – at length – our images of God and the challenging concept of forgiveness. So, let’s begin with the image of God portrayed in the crossing of the Red Sea. In the story, Moses is working with God to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt in to freedom in the land of promise.
After a series of plagues in Egypt, Pharaoh tells Moses to take his people and go. But some time later, Pharaoh changes his mind and sends his army to bring back the slaves. Horse and chariot are faster than people on foot, and the Egyptians catch up with the Israelites. And the Israelites find themselves trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the Red sea – with no way to cross. But then something totally unexpected happens. Moses raises his staff and the Lord causes a strong east wind to blow through the night which pushing back the water and creating a path for the people to pass safely through to the other side. When the Egyptians try to follow, their chariots get caught in the mud, the sea comes back on them and they drown. And this victory is attributed to Moses and his staff and the God of Israel who throws the Egyptians into the sea.
The people rejoice. And why not? The God of the Israelites took on the gods of Egypt and Pharaoh – and won, setting the people free. And I think most of us would cheer when God helps the trapped and powerless Israelites find a path to escape.
But then there’s that bit where God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and tosses the Egyptians into the sea even though the Israelites are safely on the other side. That seems unnecessarily violent and vindictive. What kind of God would do that?
So, its always important to put the story into context. To ask questions like: Who wrote it? When and for whom was it written? And that helps us understand why the author would attribute such actions to God. It was written, of course, for the Hebrew people at a time when people believed in many gods. It was really empowering if your god was more powerful than all the others – especially if you were vulnerable and in need of rescue.
Now we know that this story can explained through earth science. And that need not take away from God who uses nature to rescue the people from the powerful army that wishes them harm. But that bit about God throwing the Egyptians into the sea – not to mention the poor horses – still leaves an unpleasant taste in our mouths.
There is a lovely rabbinic story that acknowledges this. As the Hebrew children are dancing with Miriam (Moses’ sister) on the far bank of the Red Sea – and the Egyptian army is drowning – the angels peer down from heaven. When they see the chosen people moving out safely from the sea as it closes in on the Egyptian army, and they see the people rejoicing, the angels start their own dance of rejoicing. Then one of them says…Wait … the creator of the universe is sitting there weeping. They ask God, why are you weeping when the Israelites have been delivered by your power? I am weeping, says the creator of the universe, for the dead Egyptians are somebody’s sons, somebody’s husband, somebody’s father. And one version adds… I am weeping because so many of my Egyptian children have perished.
There is much we can ponder about this passage. What’s important to keep in mind is that this is how the people of the day understood what happened. And they needed a strong and powerful God to love them and lead them through the wilderness. Fortunately, the image of God revealed to us in Jesus is much more palatable … or is it?
This morning’s gospel is all about the imperative to forgive. We have talked about this before but it is so central to the way of Jesus, the way of peace, that it is worth having another look.
In the parable, God begins by offering extravagant forgiveness. The first slave owes an impossible amount to repay but asks for time to so. The master simply forgives the whole thing! One would expect that slave to be equally forgiving of a much smaller debt owed to him. Instead, he is anything but compassionate. And when the master finds out, he reinstates the unforgiving servant’s original debt and has him tortured until the debt is repaid. O dear, that’s not very nice, is it?
But then we know that rabbis and scripture writers use a lot of hyperbole – exaggeration – to get their point across. Matthew does not expect his audience to take things literally, but they do know about debtor’s prison.
All this to say that God wants us to take forgiveness seriously. Forgiveness has been described as a quality of the heart and it involves not losing sight of the person while responding to the wrong with clarity and fairness. Bishop Tutu says that no one is incapable of forgiving and no one is unforgivable… and those who say that forgiveness is a sign of weakness haven’t tried.
So, it’s really important that we understand what forgiveness means- And to help you with that there is a hand out in your bulletin [click here for Forgiveness is Not…].
It’s really important to keep in mind that forgiveness is not saying that what happened is okay; that it doesn’t matter. Nor does it mean the person should not be held accountable for their actions. And it does not always include reconciliation; going back to the way things were. Forgiveness is a process of letting go so that we don’t hold a grudge and let it poison us. And when we find it hard to forgive, it’s good to keep in mind just how much and how often we have offended God and been forgiven.
For us, today’s stories are all about being set free from the things that would bind us and get in the way of our being truly free. And in that freedom, we are called to be loving, forgiving, compassionate people of peace.