“Set Mercy Loose”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
September 14, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
Let’s begin with what is infamously known as one of the “church discipline” passages of Scripture—the “if anyone sins against you” instructions—and let’s begin our interpretation by recognizing that the first order of business is discerning what a “sin against you” is. The church universal has gotten this woefully wrong on many occasions. Perhaps like me you’ve heard (or even witnessed) horror stories where unwed pregnant women are made to “confess” their sins before the whole church, where couples are made to give detailed accounts of their marriage problems or teenagers forced to admit to their wild parties. That is, this passage has been used as a tool to shame and humiliate and control.
I have also heard horror stories on the other extreme—where sin, that is, evil—is not taken seriously enough. I’ve heard about abused women being sent by their church back into dangerous homes. I’ve heard about church leaders covering up for priests who have molested children. I’ve heard about meddlers being allowed to destroy families and churches by stirring up lies and rumors. I’ve heard about pastors who have allowed known sex-offenders to work with the church’s children. It happens all the time that the most insidious and addictive behaviors of those in power go unconfronted and unmonitored and unaddressed—allowed to breed in secrecy—while the mistakes or mere quirks and differences of those on the fringe of a group get frowned upon, spat upon, made a spectacle of, and ostracized.
So, first things first—if we’re going to talk about reproving sin in the church, we must admit that by and large we have gotten it appallingly, horrifically wrong and that we must begin again by redefining sin to mean actual violations and violences against humanity. No more of the piddly nonsense. We don’t need to “go after” folks who cuss, or drink, or wear their skirts too short and their shirts too tight as long as we still have adults taking advantage of children and church-going men addicted to child pornography and “Christian” homes where violence is tolerated as a form of “leadership.” If we are going to talk sin, let’s talk Sin.
Phew, okay, had to get that off my chest before we could discuss anything else.
To put this all in context, chapter 18 begins by placing a high value on children. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus asks, and then he adds, “Unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” which is a statement both challenging and sweet, but then he adds this, which is downright eerie: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea!” It is better to drown than to harm a child. Maybe that is hyperbole, but then again, maybe it isn’t. If you have an addiction to hurting and violating children, cut off a body part if that is what it takes to make yourself stop—this is how strongly Jesus puts it.
Which isn’t all that surprising, really. Jesus is always concerned for the least of these—whether it be young ones, lepers, Gentiles, women, prostitutes, tax collectors.
Here’s the thing about the least of these—whether we are talking about children, about slaves, about women, about minorities, about cripples or about outsiders—all of these groups have been taught not to make objections. And the rest of us who witness the violations, we’ve been taught to keep the silence too. But Jesus says when someone abuses the body of Christ, go to that person and confront them. He doesn’t say be ugly. He doesn’t say be violent in return. He doesn’t say kick ‘em out without a chance for repentance. But he does say, go to them.
Give them the chance to listen, to respond, to be changed. But you don’t sit around and let cruelty happen. Bring it out into the light. Though it can be excruciating and it is not always possible, this process will be most powerful if the violated one is the first spokesperson to set things in motion by telling the truth, but chances are, they are going to need back up. If a perpetrator is not truthful and repentant in return, the community must be relentless about the changes that are required if such a person is going to be restored to the community.
To think this text is about a strict regimen for discipline rather than a loving recipe for reconciliation is to miss the point. This is how reconciliation is made possible: by confronting the evil and persisting until the evildoer listens and complies. But the truth is, a lot of hurtful people do not listen. Even if you brought the whole church to their doorstep, they would not change.
So what then? If reconciliation is not possible, Peter wants to know, do we still have to forgive them or do we get off the hook for that? I mean, we approached them three, six, seven times and they remain belligerent—can we nurse a grudge now? Now that we’ve tried to reconcile, done our duty, and been refused, can we finally get bitter?
No, Jesus says. Even when a person won’t be reconciled, you still must forgive them. Seventy-seven times or seventy times seven—the point is—unceasingly. The forgiving never stops.
Reconciliation is about the relationship being repaired, and it requires confrontation, truth-telling, listening, boundary-setting, boundary-obeying, and restoration. Forgiveness, on the other hand, can happen in the secrecy of your own heart without the other person’s consent and without their knowledge. Forgiveness isn’t about them. It’s about you.
Forgiveness isn’t pretending an offense did not occur or giving up on the steps necessary for genuine reconciliation. Forgiveness is about the condition of your heart. It is about whether you react to pain by boarding up all your windows and padlocking all your doors, or whether you respond to heartache by flinging open all your rooms for any healing God might send your way. Being hurt by others can cripple you or it can strengthen you, and you are the only one with the power to choose whether you shrink or whether you grow, whether you close, or whether you open. Forgiveness is about whether you retaliate and thereby morph into the likeness of the one who crossed you, or whether you let pain teach you how to be even kinder than you were before. Forgiveness is about you and who you become from this wound forward.
Jesus explains it this way: “The Kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts . . . one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him . . . and the lord of that slave released him and forgave the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay.”
Pause there for a moment: This parable has often been mis-preached to say that God has forgiven you so much that any debt a person owes you is measly by comparison. This simply is not true. Try telling that to the parents whose child was murdered, that the grievances they bear are small compared to the ways they have offended God. Try telling that to a child who grew up being abused by her father—that the sins of her youth are worse to God than the drunken beatings and sexual advances of her father are to her. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t compute. It doesn’t match reality. It simply is not true that no one ever harms us worse than we have harmed God.
Here’s what actually happens in this parable: A man with a large debt is forgiven. But then he goes and bullies someone who owes him an even smaller amount. The problem isn’t the amount that is owed—doesn’t matter if were two pennies or twelve thousand dollars—the problem is what the man does. He chokes the other guy. Grabs him by the throat and throws him into prison. Demands what is due him with violence and aggression. No patience, no room for reconciliation, no kindness whatsoever. And this is made all the more abominable by the fact that he himself has just received huge debt forgiveness. But as a result of his violent and demanding behavior, the pardon given to him by the king is retracted, and that is the way the story ends, and all this, Jesus says, is like the kingdom of heaven.
Actually, if you read the text it is even more disturbing than that, saying, “And in anger the king handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”
This ending really disturbed me because I do not believe torture is an acceptable solution to anything. And yet, I know people who have stopped up the flow of mercy to their lives by being harsh, cruel, or addictive, and I can tell you, they are the most tortured souls I have ever met. They may seem tough on the outside but that is because they are covering up the horror of their insides. These are the people who have no peace, no healing, no real hope to grab hold of.
It is important to remember that when we read parables, the king doesn’t necessarily represent God. In fact, in this particular parable, the king represents a kingdom, the king is a sort of metaphor for the whole kingdom of heaven, and the metaphor seems to suggest to us that there is a flow to mercy. First of all, mercy is huge and wide and generous like you wouldn’t believe. You barely even have to ask, and it is yours. But secondly, there’s a sort of physics to the flow of mercy, and that is, you have the power to stop it up, even reverse it. By acting in cruelty towards those who are beneath you, those who are smaller than you, those who owe you something, you stop up the mercy pouring into your life, and in doing so, you run the risk of ending up a tortured and desperate person, like a parched soul without any water, like a bitter old hermit without any friends, like a resentful, boarded up house that wouldn’t offer forgiveness a welcome inside. You might as well have a millstone tied around your neck. This isn’t a cruel trick on you if you end up this way; it is simply the nature of things, that is to say, it is the physics of the kingdom.
But it isn’t all bad news. It works the other way too. If you keep the mercy flowing to others, the mercy keeps flowing to you. The way Jesus put it was, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The flow of mercy is either bond by you or set loose by you. This is the kingdom of heaven: where a scary amount of mercy is in your hands to distribute or to bury, to set in motion or to bring to a grinding halt.
Jesus says if you bind up mercy on earth, it’s like binding it up in heaven. If you set mercy loose on earth, it’s like opening heaven’s mercy valve.
Wherever you are, whatever your vocation, whatever your giftedness—you either bind the mercy or you loosen it, you either constrict the mercy or you expand it. You either reach up into the heavens and turn the faucet on so that mercy gushes down upon our heads, or you plug every hole where a bit of mercy might drip on your enemy or on your irritating neighbor who isn’t anything like you. You are either a mercy-stopper or a mercy-giver and that is what the kingdom of heaven is like—there is a river of mercy so wide and so strong it will amaze you, but the river is fed or the river dries up depending on you.
The great pardon of God either starts a party or a panic. You either bask in gratitude and begin to share, or you flip out that this mercy is too much, and decide it is up to you to contain it. You start building fences. You start deciding who’s in and who’s out and how far this madness gets to go before you yell, “The mercy stops here, folks. I’ve had enough.”
See I don’t think the slave in the parable was just an idiot who did not realize his debt had been forgiven and that he no longer needed one hundred denarii. I think he freaked out. This was too messy, too out-of-the-normal order of things, and he just couldn’t stand the grace. He felt mercy coursing through him, a force more powerful than he, and he got scared. So he set off to find someone or something he could manage and have dominance over, to make sure this mercy business didn’t get too extreme.
I remember this man who wrote me a letter because he found it a bit torturous to sit through a Covenant worship service, first because I was preaching that God’s Spirit could be poured out on anyone, and secondly, he was scandalized by the fact that he had to listen to a woman preach. It was more than he could bear. Were we trying to torture this man with our songs and our sermons and our double X chromosomes? Of course not. But he was disturbed and uncomfortable, because here was a place where the mercy ran too wild and loose for his tastes.
People who remain bound and tightly wound find the joy and freedom of others a torture to their shackled souls.
Finally, Jesus also said, “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” This statement from Jesus has long confused me. Like, if I can get just one of you to agree with me that I deserve a lifetime supply of free ice cream, and we pray about it, will I get what we asked for? If two or three of us gather together and ask God to give our church a million dollars, will it happen?
Read this verse again in its context concerning forgiveness, binding, and loosing, and maybe Jesus is still talking about mercy. Maybe he is hinting to us that the loosing of mercy is tough to do as a solo job. If you go at it alone, for fear of being wounded again, you are likely to close up and close off.
But if you partner with God’s people, with people of like-mind who are struggling to unlock mercy within them too, then the two of you together or the three of you or the thirty of you, together you will ask for mercy and find that it is given. Whether it be ten thousand talents or ten pennies worth of mercy, whatever your need, no matter how great your sin or how terrible the violations against you, God will comply to send you enough mercy. Enough to know you are forgiven, enough to keep you from shriveling up after being wounded. You know this to be true, that friendship makes God’s forgiveness a reality. It is having friends who forgive us and accept us that shows us mercy is real. It is having friends to fall back on when other people betray you that lets you know retreating into a private world of resentment will not make your life better. It is your friends who pull you back out into the world after bitter disappointments, be they your own failures or the grievances against you.
And so, wherever two or three are gathered in God’s name, may it be a great and powerful unleashing of heaven’s mercy. May we never settle for anything less than unceasing flow. Amen.