SERMON IN CR CHAPEL        Sunday 11 September 2011        Trinity 12.

Year A; Proper 19: related readings.        Gen 50: 15-21. Romans 14:1-12. Matt 18:21-35.

Today’s readings are about perhaps the most difficult of all subjects for us Christians: revenge or punishment. In modern, politically correct society, when parents and teachers have stopped beating or slapping, few if any of us have ever been punished by someone who loves us. We find it hard to believe that God himself can be concerned with punishment.  

That was not so in the past. Until the Reformation the church was largely funded by donations and endowments to pay for intercessory prayer for the living and the departed. In the ancient world there was this enormous but comparable sacrificial industry, in Judaism as  in paganism. In those days, if we’d done wrong, if we’d sinned, we reckoned we’d get away with it if we offered sacrifice, gold, or property. Even in ancient Israel it took a tremendous campaign to prevent human sacrifice, which continued, we are told, throughout the 1st Temple period – though not in the Temple itself. The stories of Isaac and of Jephthah’s daughter are there to teach that human sacrifice is NOT what God requires. Perhaps it took the experience of defeat and exile, where Jews were exposed to the full horrors of the idol worship, to stop them offering their sons and daughters.

In Genesis we hear the story of Joseph and his brothers, terrified of what he’s going to do to them now that he has them in his  power. They invent a message from their dying father, “please forgive your brothers”. Joseph’s reply is extremely significant: “Am I in the place of God?” If God doesn’t punish you, who am I to do it? In fact, God meant it for good. What you did has saved the lives of countless people.

Joseph leaves punishment to God. That is the message of all three readings. Leave punishment to God.

Paul writes to the Romans about the extremely difficult situation of having former Jews and former pagans in the same church, if not in the same congregation. Former Jews were certain that they were still required to keep the Law, while former pagans knew that they certainly were NOT to keep up former pagan customs but didn’t see why they should take on a whole lot of new ones from Judaism. Of course, the strict former Jews looked down on the lax former pagans. They condemned them. They judged them to be inferior Christians.  The issues - what to eat or not eat - might seem trivial to us today. Yet we are ready enough to condemn other Christians, members of our own church, or of other churches, even members of our own community, our brothers, for their laxity, or for their different customs. As Isaiah had said (quoted twice by Paul)) "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to ME and every tongue give praise to God”. (Isaiah 45;23). Leave judgement to God.

It would have been so easy for Paul to say: "Gentile Christians do this, Jewish Christians do that" but that would be to allow walls to be built between Christians of different ethnic origin. Paul won’t  allow that to happen.

The New Jerome Commentary, by no means a radical publication, judges the Gospel parable of the Unjust Steward to be a midrash, composed by the evangelist, to illustrate the Lord’s prayer: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”. Whether from the mouth of the Lord, or the pen of the evangelist, it certainly is terrifyingly vivid. Ten thousand talents is one of the enormous totals of which both Testaments are so fond: literally it means “A myriad of talents”. God has forgiven us so much, who are we to take it out on others ? Yes, once again, we must leave the judgement to God. 

Yet there is a hidden twist here. It is clear that even God’s patience is NOT infinite. He doesn’t let the unjust steward off. If we do NOT forgive our debtors, we can’t expect him to let us off. God is just. He’s not an indulgent grandfather, who’ll give a prezzie to all of us whatever sort of life we’ve lived, however many people we’ve starved, killed, imprisoned, tortured; however judgemental we’ve been in our attitudes to fellow Christians. There may well be consequences which follow on from monumental, unrepented wrongdoing. Experience and  history seem to show this to happen. God’s judgement doesn’t often come like a thunderbolt from the clouds but it comes all the same. There seem to be consequences but to start off on that tack is to set myself up as a judge myself in the place of God. I can only ask for forgiveness of my own debts and pray for the strength always to forgive – to leave judgement to God.

        Antony Grant CR