PENTECOST 15 – September 17, 2017
Matthew 18:21-35 – The Circuitry of Faith
Part A: Warm up
- My parable or extended analogy: batteries, potential energy, circuits, current.
- The potential energy of a lead-acid car battery is made possible by the electrochemistry of sulphuric acid and lead. We call it voltage. It can exert tremendous power. But the potential energy of the battery does nothing until it is converted into electrical current.
- You have to complete a circuit between the two posts. If you don’t, the electrochemical reaction inside the battery won’t take place and the current won’t flow. When you complete the circuit, then the current flows and performs the desired work … like producing light so you can see when driving at night.
- I think it was the summer of 1972.
- I was driving my 1963 VW Beetle on a narrow, winding stretch of Highway 97 alongside Monte Lake. The face of a cliff was on my left, and the waters of the lake were on my right.
- Suddenly the headlights went out. I wiggled the headlight switch in the dashboard and the headlights came back on. Thank God! I noted that the headlight switch and the dashboard were hot. Hmm. Time for the toolbox.
- The next day I removed the switch, intending to take it to the VW dealer so as to get an exact replacement. But now the car wouldn’t start. The starter wouldn’t engage, and neither jumping from another car battery nor pull-starting the vehicle produced any results. The components were all there, ready to do their work: starter, ignition coil, distributor, spark plugs. And the car’s battery and its posts and cable-connections were in good shape.
- But the current couldn’t flow … because (as I finally learned) all the electrical power for the entire dashboard – including the ignition switch – came from the battery through the headlight switch.
- By removing the switch, I had broken the circuit. The current couldn’t get through. But once I replaced the switch with a new one from the dealer, the car started and the engine ran fine. And the headlights burned brighter than they had in years!
Part B: Pulpit
I have come to appreciate the circuitry of faith among God’s people. And I see now that a pastor is like the headlight switch in an old VW Beetle. That’s my own parable or extended analogy for today. I thought it up last week. And it’s inspired certainly by my own experiences, but first and foremost by Jesus’ parable for today.
You have to wonder what afflicted the first slave in Jesus’ parable. The debt he owed the great king was fantastically huge. It was 10,000 talents. A talent was 15 years’ wages for a day-labourer. The amount was certainly beyond the imagination of Jesus’ listeners, and probably beyond ours, too. So we might translate the amount as “a gazillion bucks.” A gazillion bucks! That’s what first slave owed the king.
But historians of the Bible point out that these amounts were indeed possible in the taxation system of the Roman empire. So Jesus wasn’t telling a fairy tale. Rather, he was teaching something about the reign of God that he himself had come to inaugurate. Jesus deliberately chose terms that belonged not to the world of God’s holy people, but to the profane world of the occupation forces.
Jesus’ listeners regarded such money the tool of powerful and idolatrous foreigners, which they used to exercise dominion over Judean and Galilean peasants, who were accustomed to the simplicity of a barter economy. By using those terms and images, Jesus was teaching something holy and sublime, right in the flow of everyday life.
The day of reckoning had arrived. It was time to settle accounts. So when this particular slave appeared before the king and reported that he could not pay his debt, the king was ready to sell the slave and his family and all his possessions, as a small step toward repayment of the debt. And yet, when the slave fell to his knees before the king and pleaded for more time, the king took pity on him.
To us average folk, it seems that the slave couldn’t possibly repay the debt he owed. But in the taxation system of the empires of the ancient eastern Mediterranean world, it was indeed possible. The collection of taxes for entire countries was contracted out to individuals. They in turn sold subcontracts to other individuals who operated on a smaller scale, collecting taxes for smaller regions within that country. So it could well be that this slave was owed money by others and that in fact he could indeed pay this fantastic debt within a year, when the subcontracts came due.
But look: the king didn’t just give the slave more time to repay; he actually forgave the entire debt and released him! Now, that’s totally unexpected! That’s grace! That’s the spirit of Christ! The king granted not more time to pay, but granted a completely different time – a time in which grace flows like a life-giving current, person to person. It’s a flow created by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Referring back to the model I asked you to imagine, God’s grace in Jesus Christ is the voltage (or potential energy) of faith. Now, what about the circuitry that will support the current?
Jesus’ story is not finished. Somehow the amazing and unexpected pity that the king showed the slave in Jesus’ story did not take hold. It did not claim and transform the slave’s life. Immediately after leaving the presence of the king, he came upon a fellow slave who owed him a hundred denarii, or a hundred days’ subsistence wages for a labourer – a debt which is just a drop in the bucket compared to the debt which the king had just cancelled.
The first slave seized the second one by the throat and demanded that he pay what he owed. Although the second one pleaded for more time, it made no difference. The first slave threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.
Other slaves reported to the king what had happened, and the king called the first slave in once again. And now he was angry. He was angry because the slave was unmoved by the king’s act of amazing generosity. The first slave had short-circuited the intended flow of generosity.
Actually, not only did he stop the flow that the king had initiated, the slave’s pitiless treatment of his fellow slave even stopped up the source of generosity. The king withdrew his forgiveness! And then he concocted a punishment that is shocking to the degree that his previous act of forgiveness was sublime. He sentenced the first slave to a repayment schedule that was beyond ethical imagination, either ancient or modern.
You and I have heard of terms like “pay as you go” and “no interest for the first six months.” Well, try these terms on for size: Tortured until you pay. That beautiful flow created by Jesus in the first half of his story – the flow of unexpected forgiveness cancelling a fantastic debt – that flow is completely gone. Or, in the terms of my new parable: the battery and its potential energy have been obliterated.
Where are you in the circuit? Are you a short in the circuit? Has God’s grace in Jesus Christ failed to take hold of you? Do you find it impossible to forgive others … or perhaps yourself? Do you hold grudges … or should I say, Do grudges have a hold on you?
How is it possible that God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ does not compel us, in and of itself, to forgive one another? How can we not take up life within the flow of faith when embraced by love so sublime? And yet, it is indeed possible. And when that happens – when forgiveness has no circulation, no circuit – then what we get is outrageous, terrible wrath.
It looks like the big difference between hell and heaven is that heaven is where people receive and pass along forgiveness, while hell is a broken circuit.
As a Pastor of the church, I’m like the headlight switch in a 1963 VW Beetle. Remember, I learned that all the electricity for the entire dashboard came from the battery through the headlight switch, and the operation of the rest of the car depended upon the presence and reliability of that switch. If I, as a Pastor of the church, am not proclaiming the forgiveness of sins, how can anyone expect the members of the church to do so?
We need God’s Spirit to complete the Circuitry of Faith. We need the Spirit to connect us with others – and keep us connected, even when it hurts – so that all might likewise speak and enact forgiveness.
What can we do but proclaim God’s mercy in Jesus Christ? That is our only hope. All we can do is ask God to start the flow of grace in Jesus Christ, and make it flow in you and me, and through you and me, and create the circuitry that God desires – for our own sake, and for the sake of the humanity which God loves so dearly.
Let’s give the final word to Rosamond E. Herklots, the poet who penned the words of our Hymn of the Day, Forgive Our Sins As We Forgive:
Lord, cleanse the depths within our souls and bid resentment cease / then, by your mercy reconciled, our lives will spread your peace.