Privilege or grace?

Sunday 14 September 2014
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 19A (RCL)
Exodus 14:19-31
Psalm 114
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Our readings present us with two very different reactions to power. In the Old Testament reading, Israel passes through the Red Sea on dry ground, and rejoices to see the corpses of their oppressors washing up on the shore. In the Gospel, the master is at first merciful, and then extracts vengeance on the servant who did not pay his mercy forward.

I’ve always been troubled by the arrogance of that can creep in to a concept of election as God’s special people. Over and over again, the OT prophets have to remind the people that their election is for the benefit of the rest of the world, but the chauvinistic strand is never far below the surface, and sometimes right out front. Psalm 105 ends with this quatrain: (44) He gave his people the land of the nations, and they took the fruit of others’ toil. (45) That they might keep his statutes and observe his laws. Hallelujah!” How is it that taking the fruit of others’ labor is the fulfilling of God’s laws?

I suspect that the parable we have in our reading from Matthew is directed at forcing us to rethink the privilege of our election by God. The parable is clearly hyperbolic. A talent was equal to about 6,000 denarii, so 10,000 talents would be 60 million denarii. For a slave to be that deeply in debt would have been impossible. His debt was probably several years of the income of a petty king like Herod.

Richard Horsley interprets the parable as part of the Jesus movement’s resistance to Empire. He suggests that the point of the parable is to remind all Jesus’ hearers that they are already so deeply in debt to the empire, that it makes no sense to try to extract their petty debts from one another. Herod, in order to build Caesarea Philippi had taxed them so heavily, that many had lost their land (their patrimony). Turning on one another was just what empire wanted. Instead, they should forgive one another and work on rebuilding the local community without reference to empire.

We tend to read the story as if God were the master. Certainly Matthew’s interpretative setting suggests that: thus will your father in heaven do to everyone of you who does not forgive his brother or sister from the heart. But the imagery of the parable calls for an economic context. 100 denarii would be a quite understandable debt — 100 days wages at minimum wage. Everyone in earshot knew someone with that kind of debt. The first slave in the story could easily be Herod, in debt to Caesar — that’s the realm the hearers would have to put the story in.

Are we in that kind of debt? Looking at the events that have unfolded over the past few weeks in Ferguson and St. Louis, it would be easy to see our debt in terms of privilege. Many of us have hit the birth lottery, through no effort of our own. If we were to learn to think of all our benefits as grace, or as debt forgiven, we might be more inclined to pay it forward. Our school systems are top-notch, our kids don’t have to worry about the police, they are likely to get into college and find a way to afford it. Like the singers of Psalm 105, we have received our benefits at the cost of others.

So, why should we begrudge the folks who need SNAP, or other help? Why should we try to extract their pound of flesh? We will be condemned to repeating this cycle of violence and vengeance, until we learn to see it all as undeserved grace, and be willing to share that grace with others.

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