09/17/23 – Burden of Judgment – Rev. Chip Roland

THE BURDEN OF JUDGMENT

September 17, 2023
Ex. 14:19-31, Rom. 14:1-12, Matt. 18:21-35
Rev. Chip Roland

I’m going to tell you some dirty secrets.  Not on you exactly, not on me, exactly.  But on all of us.  Remember being a kid at school watching a teacher laying into some other kid for being caught doing something?  It was kind of fun, wasn’t it?  Vindicating, maybe.  Because as long as that other kid was being pan-fried, you knew that you were one of the good ones.  It doesn’t matter if you did that same thing yesterday and were just lucky, the grim eye of educational judgment wasn’t upon you.  It’s become a fixture of our daytime media.  Those guilty pleasure judge shows that radio shows where people ostensibly call in to get moral advice.  For the viewer, for the listener, it all scratches that same itch as those kids watching the teacher lay into their classmates.  At least I’m not as bad as them.  At least I can get a little hit of superiority.

An office can’t function without its designated incompetent employee anymore and a family can function without a black sheep any more than the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son could maintain his identity without his mess up of a younger brother.  We are compelled to judge!  How do we orient ourselves in society otherwise?  How do we establish where we are in the social hierarchy?

I assume that’s sort of what was happening in the Roman church.  Heck, even as Paul was talking to people about not judging or disposing of each other he was participating in it.  That’s how insidious this stuff can be.  He characterized those who only ate vegetables as weak in faith.  They were probably being as diligent as they could be to avoid meat from animals sacrificed to other gods.  Because they didn’t have access to kosher meat or just simply didn’t want to take the risk at all, they ate vegetables.  They certainly didn’t think to themselves that they were doing so because they were weak in faith or didn’t take seriously the promise of freedom in Christ.  They almost certainly thought those who would eat whatever they wanted were the flip-floppy ones, the loose cannons.  Same with the people who observe specific days, probably holy days on the Jewish calendar but possibly significant days in whatever traditions they emerged from and those who didn’t.  They both sincerely thought what they were doing was natural and right.  So, here’s the Roman Church, divided among different practices and ways of being.  Judging each other with narrow eyes.  So much unlike our churches today, right?

Jesus tells Peter a somewhat gruesome parable about forgiveness, about a great letting go of judgment and, in this case, a letting go of debts.  Maybe because letting go of judgment feels like you’re losing something of value, like money.

A king confronts a slave who owes him ten thousand talents.  And we should know that ten thousand talents weren’t just a huge sum or an impossible sum.  It was a mind-blowingly crazy sum.  A single talent was somewhere between 20-30 kg of, probably, silver.  In current U.S. dollars, assuming silver, it could be upwards of 19,000 bucks.  This slave owed 10,000 of those.  It’s meant to be an absurd sum.  It’s not only in excess of the tax revenue of any particular kingdom, but the tax revenue of whole regions of the Roman Empire.  We’re talking Fort Knox plus here.  Commentators have argued because of this that he must have been a highly appointed official in charge of tax collecting.  But I sometimes wonder if that’s just a way to soften a story that takes for granted the reality of slavery.  We’re bothered by that because we should be bothered by that.  I think the more important point is the sum is extravagantly, fantastically absurd to lift up the enormity and sheer power of the King’s forgiveness.   The slave even compounds the problem by basically insulting the king’s intelligence by promising to pay it back!  But, the king lets it all go.  This appalling, overwhelming, dreadful power of judgment he had over the slave, and he put it down.

So, this parable is ultimately a warning about the need to forgive as freely and as wildly as God forgives us. To withhold judgment.  I wonder though, and maybe this pushes the parable beyond its boundaries, why the slave was forgiven the 10,000 talents laid into the slave who owed him 100 denarii.  Sure, hypocrisy, yes.  But I wonder how many times he had felt powerless in the face of the authority and judgment of others.  And I wonder if, like many people who are the victims of abuse and judgment and denigration, he sought to compensate for that by abusing the next person down the line.  And perhaps that’s the point of the intense harshness at the end of this parable.  It’s the stakes.  A society that allows for harsh judgment, unforgiveness, and cruelty wounds people in such a way that they would other people.  Then the tenner of society becomes that.  It becomes “just the way things are”.  The way of things that is the opposite of the Kingdom of Heaven.

So, when you’re reading the lectionary, it’s fun to sass out the nuances of the interpretive thread that ties these passages together.  And Exodus 14 is a cinematic, for the Egyptians apocalyptic display of God’s power and authority.  Clearly, God can be the only legitimate judge, the ultimate being to which we are accountable, to which all our knees can bow and our tongs give praise.  But this is also a story of liberation and God’s extravagant, overwhelming, bloody-minded intention that his people be free.  And perhaps that’s a clue to the intensity of God’s harshness of us passing judgement on each other.  Because it is a cause of and symptom of our chains, it’s a burden on us.  Think back to watching the kid get scolded or the TV judge yelling at somebody.  It tickles our brains because of insecurity.  Because we are adapted to a world of hierarchies in which there’s not enough of whatever to go around.  Esteem, love, validation.  So to get some, we need to take from others.  We need someone to feel superior to.  But that makes us all slaves, slaves to the very idea of scarcity of love, of esteem.  Enter the Kingdom of God that calls us all beloved children.  We need not judge others, we need not hold on to unforgiveness because our ultimate identity isn’t in relation to each other, but to a God that loves us.

Though I feel the need to clarify certain things, call it a legal disclaimer at the end of this sermon.  When we talk about judgment, we aren’t talking about a clear-headed assignment of someone’s strengths and weaknesses and we aren’t talking about wisdom in who is and who isn’t safe for you.  Forgiveness does not mean the resumption of toxic or abusive relationships.  It’s more about the presumption that we can say who is greater or lesser in the eyes of God.

Also, I know there are those listening to my sermon for whom forgiveness is a struggle, that the concept might seem absurd or violating.  We struggle with forgiveness of ourselves.  We struggle with wounds others have given to us and are horrific in their scope.  Sometimes forgiveness isn’t a sudden letting go of grievance, but a lifelong journey.  Sometimes it seems impossible.  I know there’s no pithy saying or theological insight I could give to heal your pain.  But we should, we should all offer a loving community of compassion that refrains from judgment, that is willing to sit next to you in your pain and be your companion.  We should offer the faith that forgiveness is ultimately about God’s bloody-minded striving that you be free, be healed, be anchored in His love for you.

 

 

© Rev. Christopher ‘Chip’ Roland, 2023, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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