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Whether We Live or Die

  • September 14, 2014
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for September 14, 2014 (Proper 19, Year A)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts: Romans 14:1-12; Psalm 114; Matthew 18:21-35
Title: Whether We Live or Die

“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:7-8).

This, my friends, expresses the most fundamental facts of human life.
1. We did not bring ourselves into being.
2. Each one of us is alive for a very brief period of time.
3. We have little control over the circumstances of our coming demise.

These statements express the truth about every human being who has ever lived.

And those who have sought after wisdom in every generation and in every culture have consistently agreed on this guiding principle in life:

Because our lives are so fragile and brief, it is foolish to hold a grudge and to withhold forgiveness from another.

This, of course, is the primary teaching of today’s parable from Matthew.

Remember that Matthew’s Gospel offers specific teaching about how members of the Church are to relate to one another. This is distinct from the other 3 canonical Gospels, and Matthew is the only Gospel which uses the word “church” when referring to the community of disciples.

This bizarre parable is presented as a response to Peter’s very practical question:
“How often should I forgive?”

I do hope that you can see how completely absurd this parable is intended to be.

It is so absurd that we are supposed to laugh at it! At least, in the beginning.

The master wants to settle his debts with his slaves.

It is important to note that slavery was widely practiced throughout the Roman Empire.
It was not based on race like the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, but the lives of slaves were entirely within the control of their owners. Conditions for them could be harsh, indeed.

Scholars think that perhaps up to 30% of the total population in the Roman Empire were slaves of one form or another.
Jesus spoke in these terms in this parable because it was part-and-parcel of the people’s everyday life as subjects of Roman aggression.

So the king, the slave master in the parable, decides to settle up with the slaves.

One is brought before his master who owes him 10,000 talents.
Do you have any idea how much that is in today’s terms?
It’s somewhere around $5 billion dollars. Five billion!

Everyone in the first century listening to such a story would have laughed at it. It’s ludicrious.

And what follows is even more ridiculous! The slave begs for time to repay this debt. A slave!? To repay $5 billion dollars!? How could that ever be possible?

Then it gets even stranger. The king, the slave owner, who could by law do whatever he pleased with the life of this slave, is somehow moved by this lunatic speech, and he forgives the debt! Who needs an extra $5 billion anyway? Right?

Now a free man, forgiven and unshackled from his crushing debt, he comes across a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii – which today would be about $10,000.

But he cannot – or will not – forgive this paltry sum, and so begins his own downfall.

A forgiven and free human being who brings about his own imprisonment by withholding forgiveness from another.

As a presbyter, an elder, a priest, when I stand and declare the truth of God’s forgiveness in the Messiah (Moschiach in Hebrew), as I am called to do on most Sundays, I will say these familiar words:

8- “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”


10- “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, keep you in eternal life.”

This, my friends, is a statement of fact. It is a declaration of truth.

God forgives. It is the divine nature to do so.
Forgiveness, reconciliation, is built into the very fabric of the universe.

To go against this divine and universal life-principle is to submit ourselves to a yoke of slavery. It is to throw away our natural freedom and to enslave ourselves to forces that do not bring life.

After 27 years in a South African prison, the great Nelson Mandela was set free. And as a free man, he chose to forgive.
“Forgiveness,” he said, “liberates the soul. It removes fear. That’s why it is such a powerful weapon.” And when asked about his jailers, he responded that forgiving them was a choice to set himself free. He could leave those guards there in the prison instead of carrying them with him always by becoming bitter, by nursing resentment.

The day is coming soon when each of our bodies will cease to function and when the carbon atoms which are the building blocks of every organic cell are released back into the cycle of life, and when that day arrives, all of our petty grudges and our self-absorbed bitterness will mean nothing – nothing at all.

I know that I am supposed to be the expert about such matters, but I confess to all of you that I do not know how this bit about “standing before the judgment seat of God” is going to be.

After our brain ceases to function, and when other organisms begin to disassemble our bodies, how will our consciousness continue in another dimension of the universe and come into contact with the intelligent, loving Creator behind it all?

I do not know how this works, but I know that justice will be done, and that all human lives will be measured in some way against the standard of God’s own being.

And I know that, if we are to live in a manner that is consistent with the nature of God, and the nature of the universe, then we must learn to practice pity.

Why pity, you wonder?

Pity includes the kind of forgiveness that is called for in Matthew’s parable, but it goes much further than that.

Pity requires that non-judgmental stance that Paul envisions for the disciples in Rome. An attitude of pity is the environment in which forgiveness naturally occurs.

My friends, the fact of the matter is that there is no way for human beings to share life together in any meaningful and healthy way WITHOUT us having pity on one another.

I need your pity because I am a flawed and foolish human being.
I am a weak and blind man who is trying to do the best that I can, with all of my personal idiosyncrasies and strange proclivities.

I keep trying, and by the grace of God, I am growing and becoming more. But I am still human, and I make mistakes, and I forget, and sometimes I act foolishly.

This will never change. I will never cease to be human.

The truth is that I cannot live without your pity, without the pity of everyone around me.

It is this perspective of pity which precedes forgiveness. Pity is the fertile garden which allows forgiveness to spring up naturally.

As Dallas Willard explains, “I need more than a break. I need pity because of who I am. If my pride is untouched when I pray for forgiveness, [then] I have not [truly] prayed for forgiveness” (The Divine Conspiracy, p. 264).

It is the atmosphere of pity which strips away the trappings of our pride and our ego and brings us face-to-face with the reality of who we are.

“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:7-8).

My friends, live each day in light of this reality. You did not bring yourself into being. You cannot control when your final day will come. Your life now is brief and fleeting.

So then, whether you live many more years or whether your days are few, you are the Lord’s – designed to live as a free soul in God’s good universe, as forgiven and forgiving others, as knowing the fragility of life and having pity on the weakness of others.

This is the path to a life of abundance, a life lived in harmony with God.

May you always walk on that path, my friends, and find joy and peace on it. Amen.


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