Reclaiming Mercy

Sunday, September 17, 2017 – Creation II

Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 103: 8-13
Genesis 24:62-68
Matthew 18:21-35

Reclaiming Mercy

It’s been an emotional few weeks, as we worried about one hurricane and then the next, an earthquake in Mexico, and wildfires still raging out west, and then we stumbled into Monday’s remembering of 9/11, exhausted. But we paused to remember, as if we could help but remember that day. We are all part of that catastrophic heartbreak. We are intrinsically connected by what happened on that day. We have been shaped by how we and others responded, that day, and ever since.

Tuesday I turned to the texts for this Sunday and groaned internally – unsure that we would have the energy or the emotional band width to tackle this combination of lessons on the heels of all of that.

It may go without saying, but this story of the binding of Isaac has been unsettling and disturbing for generations, (thousands of years) across all three Abrahamic faith traditions. There’s no time to even begin to do this text justice, but there’s one angle on the story that might give us a deeper insight into the mercy and forgiveness that Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel.

The binding of Isaac is often seen as a story meant to be paired with the story of Abraham’s sending away his first born son, Ishmael. Remember, Abraham has just sent this son and the boy’s mother off into the desert with basically what they can carry, trusting that God will provide for them. This is the son that Abraham had with the servant when he and Sarah no longer fully trusted that God would provide the son they had been promised. Problems arise when God delivers the promised child and now, according to the cultural rules and understanding, there’s this first born son in the way. So Sarah and Abraham send the older, “we lost faith and trusted in our own ways” son away, to what should have been a sure and certain death with his mother. (Two innocent victims in the mess that “righteous” Abraham and Sarah have made.)

Cut to this scene, where God tells Abraham to take his son, his only son, (the only one left, or the only one you are willing to claim?), to make an offering. God has promised to make of Abraham a great nation, and from Abraham all the nations of the earth will be blessed – but so far… well it’s been a little hit or miss. So God tests Abraham’s faithfulness – will he offer this son and trust in God’s ability to provide? Abraham does what he is asked to do, and an angel of the Lord stops him from doing anything foolish but faithful, and God provides a ram for the sacrifice. Once again, God provides for the son, and all is well. God can be trusted to provide mercy equally to both the brothers, even if Abraham and the constructs of the culture cannot.

Which brings us to our Gospel lesson and the parable. Peter wants to know just how many times he should forgive someone. Mind you, Peter offers a perfect number here, a number that should exceed expectations. Biblically the number 7 signifies perfection, completeness, wholeness. The seven days of creation, the seven pillars of Wisdom’s house, seven churches in the book of Revelation… so 7, the perfect number of wholeness, should be the answer. Nice try Peter, but wrong again. For when it comes to forgiveness even the number 7 isn’t complete or whole enough to embody the scope of mercy and compassion. Not 7, Jesus says, but 77 times.

And to make certain that Peter gets it, Jesus tells this parable about a king and his unmerciful servant. While it sounds strange to us, this was an economic power structure that would be familiar to a first century audience. Kings used agents like this servant to organize the laborers under them, to make sure that the wealth, power and honor were conveyed upwards to the top of the pyramid, to the king.When the king forgives the slave’s enormous debt, it’s not meant to be a private act, but one with consequences for the entire system. Just as the wealth moved up the pyramid from the base to the king, the forgiveness of the debt was supposed to benefit all. The king extended mercy to the slave, so that mercy would cascade downward to everyone.

Professor Stanley Saunders writes:
The king effectively inaugurates a regime of financial amnesty, a jubilee, not only for one slave, but for everyone in his debt. The economic revolution, however, makes it not much further than the door. The slave’s immediate encounter with one of his client- slaves, someone with a much smaller obligation, demonstrates that the forgiven slave intends to revert to business as usual. He gives no heed to the second slave’s appeal, although it is nearly identical to the one he had just given the king. His failure to carry on the forgiveness the king granted him not only halts the spread of financial amnesty in its tracks, it also mocks and dishonors the king himself. 1

The parable ends with the king’s rapid and punitive response – treating the unmerciful slave as he treats others. Jesus concludes this teaching on forgiveness by stating that this will be the fate of anyone who acts similarly. He seems to be saying that God’s forgiveness is directly tied to our ability to forgive one another. That any limitations on God’s mercy are put there by us. When we limit our forgiveness for one another, we may be setting parameters on the forgiveness we can receive from God’s self.

Professor Saunders puts it this way:
Matthew’s Jesus seems to tell us that God’s forgiveness has necessary limits, but perhaps these are the limits we set. The unforgiving slave brings judgment on himself by treating his own forgiveness as a license to execute judgment on others. He thus transforms a merciful king into a vengeful judge. . The problem lies not with the king, or even by analogy with God, but with the world the slave insists on constructing for himself, under which terms his fate is now set. With whom, and to what systems, do we bind ourselves each day? 2

The merciless slave has learned nothing about forgiveness, about grace. It’s not that he owed a huge debt that is his downfall, it’s that he’s received grace almost beyond measure and yet he is unable to give even a little grace to another. His response to extraordinary grace is to stand ruthlessly in judgment of others. And so he is treated like-wise.


Do you see the parallels to the paired stories in Genesis? Abraham restricts himself to the system of the world, the ways of the culture in which he finds himself, and what seems reasonable to expect – rather than trusting in what is possible with God. And he and Sarah end up with a son, Ishmael, who complicates things immensely when they finally receive Isaac the promised son. Then, operating by the same confines, they can’t imagine how to incorporate Ishmael into their lives and so they send him out into the wilderness. Thankfully God provides for him and his mother.

When Abraham and Sarah received the long awaited son of the promised, their response wasn’t to extend grace and mercy to others. Instead they find it too difficult to imagine how Ishmael and his mother might remain within the family, and cast them out. God’s grace and mercy is not extended through them, doesn’t continue to flow to others… not without God’s direct intervention.

Like the merciless slave, they have learned nothing from the grace extended to them. And there are consequences for being unforgiving and hard of heart.

In her book, Traveling Mercies, Annie Lamott writes, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”

The truth is that forgiveness is all about us. It isn’t about changing or controlling the behavior of another at all. When hurt by another, especially someone close to us, all we really control is how we respond. When we offer forgiveness: we refuse to let another’s sin to control us, we release ourselves from binding hurt and anger, and we allow ourselves to live past this moment.

But it’s really difficult to do, and it takes time. Perhaps by saying “77 times” Jesus is assuring us that forgiveness is an art that we will have to work at, practice again and again. That it’s hard, and we’re not going to get it right instantly. That we’ll have to forgive again and again… over the course of a life, so we can live life abundantly.

As Professor Saunders asked at the end of his commentary, “With whom, and to what systems, do we bind ourselves each day?” And the follow up question it implies: Can we free ourselves from what confines us, and accept God’s extravagant mercy? So that we can extend that mercy to others in need of it – allowing God’s grace to flow, cascading, grace upon grace… to the glory of God, for the well-being of all people.

Let us pray:

Enlighten our vision, God, so we may not only see and receive your mercy, but also notice the places in our world where you call us to extend mercy to others. Amen. (adapted from Common Worship)

1 Stanley Saunders, Associate Professor of New Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary, Commentary on Matthew 18:21-35, Working Preacher, September 17, 2017.
2 Saunders, Commentary on Matthew 18:21-35, Working Preacher, September 17, 2017.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s