I worship in a church that follows the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of scriptural readings that was created in 1985 and adopted in 1994. These are the readings in the Semicontinuous Series for Sunday, September 11, 2011:
Wow! What a powerful set of readings for this day! (Remember: these were assigned to this date in 1994.)
First, the presence of God stands between the Israelites and the Egyptians to prevent them from harming one another. How often does God do the same for us, standing between us and those who would harm us — or those whom we would harm?
God then provides a way out of this dangerous situation — an unthinkable, impossible way, but a way nevertheless. The Israelites take it, but the Egyptians fail to see that this is a way out for them, too. They can let Israel go — who would blame them under those circumstances? Instead, they pursue their vendetta — and the Israelites — and God allows them to suffer the consequences of their choice. How many times has God provided us a way out of conflict, but we refuse to see it, let alone take it?
Then we have Paul reminding us that God is the boss of everyone, even those whom we believe to be dead wrong. As God’s servants, our job is to honor God in our living and our dying, not to supervise or pass judgment on others. As Paul points out, God will ask us to account for our own behavior, not for the behavior of those around us. How much time and energy do we expend focusing on everybody else’s business?
Finally, we have Jesus telling a story about a king who forgives an enormous debt. Nothing compels the king to do this, not even the desperate debtor’s plea for clemency, which is only to be expected from someone in his position. The king simply does it because it is within his power to do so. Returned to his own sphere of influence, however, the forgiven servant fails to imitate his master, drawing upon himself the king’s disappointment and displeasure.
Like the king in the story, God offers exorbitant mercy to us and expects us to extend the same ridiculous quality of grace to others, regardless of what we think they owe us. Like both the king and the indebted servant in the story, we are not compelled to forgive, but it is within our power to do so. We know, first-hand, what it means to be forgiven, and it is reasonable that we should treat others as we have been treated. But God’s expectation goes beyond simple quid pro quo reasoning; God’s forgiveness transforms and frees us to be recklessly, fearlessly, foolishly merciful to those who have harmed us and those who mean us harm.
In the story, having his debt forgiven should have been a life-changing event for the servant: without it, everything he had or was or did would have been lost, forfeit to the debt he owed. He certainly didn’t behave like someone whose life had been radically altered in a positive direction, however. By reinstating the debt, the king simply allowed the servant’s external reality to accurately reflect his internal reality. Maybe that’s why God wants us to be so extravagant with our forgiveness: so that the full reality we inhabit is one of unreasonable, unlimited, unimaginable mercy and grace.