Scripture Readings: Romans 14:1–12 and Matthew 18:21–35
Before I dig into the scripture readings from Romans and Matthew, I want to mention three notes on these readings.
First, there is a third scripture reading assigned for this morning, from the Old Testament, that we did not read, that gives a great context to the words of Paul and Matthew. The Old Testament reading would have been from Exodus chapters 14 and 15, which tell the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery, crossing the Red Sea while God holds the waters back, and then the song of freedom and victory when they reach the other side. This picture of God setting his people free gives us a proper background for these two New Testament readings, because it gives us a picture of God’s mercy and power to set us free from sin and death.
When Jesus talks about forgiveness in the reading from Matthew – it is humanly impossible to forgive the way Jesus says to forgive, unless we know we are God’s people and God is with us. When Paul talks about not judging others – it is impossible to not judge others unless we know our own sins have been forgiven. It is human nature to point out the flaws of others; but as Christians we have been set free from the power of sin and death, through the mercy and power of God, and because of this we are able to live lives of mercy and compassion. So I recommend to your reading this week Exodus chapters 14 and 15.
Second, these two readings from Matthew and Romans are related to each other. They are both close to the very heart of the gospel. Jesus started his public ministry preaching, “the kingdom of God is near – repent and believe the good news.” The word ‘repent’ means to change course, or to change direction, or to change one’s mind. Repentance is not about regret or guilt or shame, it’s about facing into a new direction. So Jesus is saying basically, “The kingdom of God is near – change course and believe the good news.” The coming of the King, the coming of the Messiah, is what makes it possible for us to have changed minds and changed direction.
Third, both of these passages – from Matthew and from Romans – are difficult. They’re difficult to hear, and they’re difficult to live. This is going to be one of those sermons where I’ll be preaching to myself as much as I am to you.
With all that said, let’s dig in. We’ll start with the reading from Romans. Paul is writing to the church at Rome because the Roman church is on the brink of a church split (something that seems to happen a lot throughout church history!) Paul is writing to correct the attitudes of the people who are tearing the church apart.
The division in the Roman church is over the subject of eating meat. Should Christians eat meat or shouldn’t they? That’s the question. This is not about vegetarianism; the issue in the ancient world was that most of the meat a person could buy in the open market – not all, but most – came from religious sacrifices. In other words, these animals had been sacrificed to false gods. Some people said meat sacrificed to a false god was tainted by false religion and was therefore evil and should not be eaten. Other people said a false god isn’t a real god and therefore has no power to harm the meat or the person who eats it. The people who said the meat was tainted by false religion started to question every piece of meat they came across – at a dinner party, for instance, they might ask the host, “where did this meat come from?” You can imagine people started to take offense to this. On the other hand, the people who saw no harm in such meat tended to flaunt their freedom, deliberately eating meat in the presence of the non-meat-eaters in order to offend them.
To give a somewhat more modern parallel, there was a similar kind of debate in many churches when I was growing up. Some of you may remember it. The issue was rock n roll music, particularly its use in the church, and the argument went something like this: one side said, “rock music promotes sex and drugs and a godless lifestyle… and besides the Beatles claim they’re more popular than Jesus… so rock music is evil and must be avoided.” The other side said, “a musical style is not in and of itself good or evil. Rock music can be good and can be enjoyed.” Cliff Richard even wrote a song about the debate called Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?
It’s the same species of argument, the debate over eating meat and the debate over rock music. People who are against, are concerned with holiness – they want to do what pleases God and avoid what doesn’t please God. People who are for, are concerned with freedom and justice. They know we are set free from sin by the death of Christ on the cross, and therefore we don’t need to live in fear. So both sides start out with legitimate concerns. But then the arguments quickly devolve into name-calling and finger-pointing and arguments at church councils and nasty messages on Facebook.
It’s interesting to note that Paul describes the abstain-from-meat argument as being the weaker of the two. In Romans 14:2 he says: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” So on this particular issue Paul sides with the meat-eaters. But Paul does not press that point. He goes on to say each person must obey their own conscience. In other words, if a person believes eating meat offends God then for that person it would be wrong to eat meat.
And more importantly, whatever a person does, whether abstaining or enjoying, it is to be done (v. 6) “in honor of the Lord, [giving] thanks to God.” Those who eat meat are not to despise those who don’t… and those who don’t eat meat are not to pass judgement on those who do. The most important issue is the attitude of the heart towards God and toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul nails that argument down by saying (v. 4), “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
Paul says so much in that one little verse! Every one of us is someone else’s servant. Each of us answers directly to God. Each of us belongs to God. It is before God that each of us stands or falls.
This is where Jesus’ parable from Matthew chimes in. Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wishes to settle accounts with his slaves.” One slave owes him 10,000 talents. We don’t know exactly how much money that would be in today’s terms, but scholars generally agree it’s far more than a person could earn in a lifetime. So the slave and his family, and all that he has, is to be sold to pay off the debt. The slave begs for mercy and the king forgives the debt. Erases it completely. The slave then goes out and sees another slave who owes him about a day’s wages. This other slave begs for mercy, but the first slave says ‘no’ and has him beaten. The king is furious – he says to the first slave “I forgave you all that debt just because you asked me to, and you won’t forgive the little bit your fellow slave owes you?”
We forgive each other, not because it’s a nice thing to do (though it is), but because we know our forgiveness has come at a higher price than we could ever pay. How can we possibly demand payment from a fellow slave?
Having said this I need to step back for a moment and point out some things people sometimes say about forgiveness that need to be addressed. Three notes, and the first two are caveats:
- Caveat #1. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is often misinterpreted and mis-applied where it comes to people who are in danger. Are we expected to forgive someone who threatens us? Are we expected to forgive someone who deliberately hurts us or bullies us? Are we expected to forgive someone who is self-destructive and is pulling family and friends down into a vortex of self-destruction? The Christian answer is “Yes, but…” Yes, but forgive from a safe distance. Get away from danger first. And know it may take a long time before we’re able to forgive these kinds of things. Christian forgiveness does not mean being a martyr to someone who may injure you or someone you love.
- Caveat #2. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is not a command to look the other way or let people off the hook where it comes to immorality or injustice. As much as it is possible, as Christians we need to address issues and concerns without attacking persons.
- Third note (not a caveat) : Alcoholics Anonymous gives us one of the world’s best examples of Paul’s teaching in Romans, so much so that I would like to spend some time with it.
Most of you have heard of AA’s Twelve Steps. Step Four of the Twelve Steps has to do with “making a searching and fearless moral inventory” of one’s life. This step is essentially a confession, in which the person in recovery writes down everything they’ve ever done wrong, as best they can remember, with the purpose of making reparations where possible. In the process of recovery, the inventory is shared with God and with one other trusted person, and that’s it. As you can imagine this inventory is extremely personal.
What Paul is describing in Romans – the way people were passing judgement on each other – is what AA calls “taking someone else’s inventory”. And it’s a huge red flag in recovery. Focusing on someone else’s inventory is more than just fault-finding. It is one of the primary characteristics of addiction. On a spiritual level, when we’re taking someone else’s inventory we’re not leaving room for God to work in that person’s life – or in our own.
The apostle Paul didn’t have the Twelve Steps to pull from, but he’s got the idea in spades.
So where does this all lead us?
First, where there is disagreement between Christians on an issue, each one of us must do what our own conscience dictates, as best we are able, based on what we know. It helps to be informed on the issues, but ultimately the questions are spiritual, and we will answer to God for what we choose.
Second, we need to remember that our Christian brothers and sisters are someone else’s servants. They belong to someone else, and they will answer to Him. Our job is to do whatever we do “in honor of the Lord, giving thanks to God.”
Third, we need to remember God has already forgiven us far more than any person will ever owe us. Therefore we are in a position where we can afford to show mercy to others.
Fourth and finally, above all we need to remember that the kingdom of heaven is near, and our salvation is already secured. Just as the Israelites passed through the Red Sea to freedom, Jesus has passed through death into life, giving us freedom from sin and death.
Therefore the victory is already ours. We have nothing to fear, and we have nothing to lose.
Lord, help us to forgive and be forgiven. Help us to remember the price you paid for us… and for our brothers and sisters in the faith. Help us to include… understand… confront fairly… and listen with compassion as we seek to follow You. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/14/14
Soli Deo Gloria