Sermon: Nothing Changed?

14 September 2014 – Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin: What if the messiah came, and nothing changed? What if the chosen one of God came bringing the good news of liberation, healing, and peace, and nothing changed?

That’s the question raised by today’s passage from Matthew’s gospel, according to the biblical scholar William Herzog.[1] It might not be an obvious question at first reading. This is not a user-friendly passage to begin with, and Matthew’s approach to it doesn’t help. We might understand this gospel better if we separate the parable of the unmerciful servant from the awkward framing device that Matthew uses. Whenever the transitions within a passage are really obvious and clunky, as they are here, it’s a sign that the compiler of the biblical book has done some editing. Matthew has been talking about forgiveness within the church community––we heard some of it last Sunday––and he’s trying to force this parable to fit in with that theme. Except that it doesn’t really work. So let’s pull the parable out and consider it on its own.

There are a couple important pieces of context that we are missing, some two thousand years after Jesus first told this parable. First, the forgiveness of debt has a specific resonance in Judaism. When first-century Jews heard someone talk about forgiving debts, their minds went straight to the concept of jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor. Leviticus chapter 25 spells out the observance of the jubilee, which is kind of like a sabbath year. Every forty-nine years, the people of Israel are to set free all indentured servants and slaves among them. All property that has been sold to another family is to be returned to its original owner. The jubilee amounted to a massive program of debt forgiveness every forty-nine years. An Israelite who survived hard times by indenturing themselves and selling land would get it all back, their freedom and their property. According to Leviticus, the purpose of the jubilee is to remind the people of Israel that they and their land ultimately belong to God. The people hold the land in trust for God. And for the Jewish people, the jubilee is associated with the messiah; when the messiah came, he would inaugurate a jubilee. Indeed, that’s exactly what Jesus does in the gospel according to Luke. He proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor––a jubilee year.

The second piece of context we are missing is the political and economic system of the first century. The Roman Empire ruled through a network of client kings. Think of it as a pyramid with the king at the top and a small group of bureaucrats immediately below him. All the wealth from the bottom of the pyramid flows up to the top. Heavy taxation is how the king has the resources to maintain his power against his enemies out there and closer to home. The system ensnares peasants and poor people in an inescapable bog of debt, and it was common for peasants to lose their land and become destitute. We see why the concept of a jubilee resonated so deeply with them. The king exercises power through a bureaucracy made up of high-status retainers, and the king depends on these bureaucrats’ absolute loyalty to him as the bureaucrats depend on the king for their position.

This parable starts with that relationship between king and bureaucrats. The king decides to test one of them as a symbolic act. The king knows the bureaucrat has become rich in the king’s service, because that’s what bureaucrats do, so the king asks for money. The bureaucrat responds by challenging the king’s power; of course he has the money, or at least some of it, but he’s not going to give it to the king. The king threatens to sell the bureaucrat and his family into slavery, and not a nice soft slavery either, but laboring in mines or on galley ships. Hearing this, the bureaucrat gets scared and caves. He agrees to pay whatever the king asks for and begs for mercy. Now the king knew this would happen. He never had any intention of enslaving the bureaucrat; the king is creating an opportunity for a jubilee year, for a general cancellation of debt. So the king forgives the vast sum the bureaucrat owes. The bureaucrat is supposed to go and do likewise with subordinates who owe him money, spreading the forgiveness of debt throughout the kingdom. But the bureaucrat doesn’t do that. He shakes down the first debtor he meets, and the debt forgiveness stops before it really starts. Jesus means for his audience to identify the king with the messiah. So the messiah has come, the jubilee is supposed to be here, but nothing has changed. Poor people remain trapped in a bog of debt. Slaves remain in bondage. It’s enough to make people ask, “What was the point of the messiah anyway?”

What if the messiah came, and nothing changed? It strikes me that we are in a similar place, in Menlo Park two thousand years after the time of Jesus. The messiah has come; he has come to the world and to us. If we didn’t expect a year of jubilee, we expected some things to change, maybe an end to war, fewer acts of violence, less human suffering. Not only did we not get any of that, society around us seems baffled by Christianity at best, and hostile to it at worst. We try to proclaim the gospel in words and actions, we try to share the good news we have heard, and our society responds with an overwhelming “Meh.” The messiah has come, and nothing seems to have changed. What’s the point of any of this? Why are we still trying to live out our Christian faith when it doesn’t seem to change anything?

I found the answers to those questions for myself in the best novel I have read all year: The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan. It is smart, funny, timely, and beautifully written. Set in England in 1877, it revolves around Miss Frederica Marshall, a feminist and suffragette who edits a newspaper by and for women that advocates for women’s rights to education, the vote, and political power. It’s a tall order in the Victorian era. Society regards Miss Marshall as laughable, deluded, or dangerous. She faces constant threats to her life and livelihood from an aristocrat who propositioned her and was refused. After this enemy burns her house down, Miss Marshall and her team work through the night to get the newspaper printed. Her friend Edward, who admires her enough to stay up all night helping her, is exhausted enough to be bluntly honest. He says, “Your cause may be just. But you’re delusional if you think you can accomplish anything. You’re pitting yourself against an institution that is older than our country, Miss Marshall. It’s so old that we rarely even need speak of it. Rage all you want, Miss Marshall, but you’ll have more success emptying the Thames with a thimble.”

And Miss Marshall replies: “Do you think I don’t know that the only tool I have is my thimble? I’m the one wielding it. I know. There are days I stare out at the Thames and wish I could stop bailing… But do you know why I keep going?… You see a river rushing by without end. You see a sad collection of women with thimbles, all dipping out an inconsequential amount….But we’re not trying to empty the Thames…. Look at what we’re doing with the water we remove. It doesn’t go to waste. We’re using it to water our gardens, sprout by sprout. We’re growing bluebells and clovers where once there was a desert. All you see is the river, but I care about the roses.”[2]

We Christians are not trying to change the world. That would be like trying to empty San Francisco Bay with a thimble. Carrying our thimblefuls of water may look delusional to the world, but we aren’t doing it to be liked and respected. We’re doing it because we are trying to be faithful to the teachings and practice of Jesus Christ. And look at the garden we are growing in the desert. Hungry children in East Palo Alto being fed through Pack the Bag. Those who are ill or homebound being cared for. Music and prayer drawing people closer to God, and God changing their lives. People of all ages growing in their faith, with their minds, hearts, and spirits. The bay is no smaller, but our thimblefuls of water have made all the difference in our little garden.

What if the messiah came, and nothing changed? The world may not have changed, but maybe we have. We allow our lives to be shaped by the teachings and practice of Jesus, and it changes us. We carry our thimbles of water from the bay, and we use them to grow a garden in the desert. It may not seem like much to the world, but to us, the bluebells and clover and roses make all the difference.

[1] William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 131-149. I depend on this chapter for the exegesis that follows.
[2] Courtney Milan, The Suffragette Scandal (Kindle e-book, 2014), ch. 9.

Proper 19A: Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:8-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

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