Like bulky orange barrels along a construction zone, there are red flags and caution tape that catch my attention as I read this week’s Revised Common Lectionary texts:

1. Forgiveness (Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35) is a theme that can tempt us preachers toward unhelpful generalizations about injury and reparation.

Caution: Check whether your definition of forgiveness, if misheard or misunderstood (because that happens in the preaching moment) could be construed to suggest that people should remain in or return to situations of harm. Double-check whether your message of forgiveness could be sung by an animated ice princess, as though all you need is your own mountaintop castle and then forgiveness is really no trouble at all.

Good news (or maybe hard news): Forgiveness is measurable, concrete. It’s seventy-seven times. Or seventy times seven. It’s choosing to make ends meet without 10,000 talents (Matthew 18). It’s hospitality & provision through a season of famine, despite a history of rejection & violence by brothers (Genesis 50). It’s deliverance across the Red Sea in spite of growing doubt (if you backtrack to verse 11 in Exodus 14). It’s every day, knowing that someone who harmed you cannot undo or adequately compensate for the injury. It’s every day, pursuing justice so that the perpetrator’s debt doesn’t increase by causing harm against others.

2. Grace (Romans 14:1-12) is a tangible & relational practice, not a pie-in-the-sky sentiment.

Caution: “We are the Lord’s” is not an excuse to ignore our differences & diversities & disagreements, like a theological Don’t ask, don’t tell. Avoiding quarrels isn’t the purpose of grace or forgiveness. If we’re honest, we avoid quarrels because we want to maintain our own comfort or — to borrow Romans 14’s words — because we want to “live to ourselves.”

Good news: We are called not to live in judgment of others’ eating habits or of their experiences of the Divine or of their sabbath practices (said the soccer mom, #ahem). We are called to brave grace in relationships around the banquet table and to cower before the grace of God’s throne.

3. Language about slaves (Matthew 18:21-35) inevitably echoes through the history of slavery before it reaches our ears.

Caution: Don’t assume that a parable about a slave can be read without the overtones of modern knowledge of slavery. How can you best attend to this dynamic — in your sermon, in the Scripture reading, in both?

Good news: Not much, actually — I mean, forgiveness is good news, but the parable itself is messy. If forgiveness is tangible, concrete, then is it appropriate for us to theologize the parable as though it only refers to God’s by-and-by forgiveness…without taking a hard look at forgiveness between persons and within unjust systems? In desperate & evil circumstances (say, for example, slavery), ethics and forgiveness are necessarily recalculated. See also: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, among other literary examples. A man will beg for his family to stay together and also demand the hundred denarii owed to him. Does 70 x 7 hold true when life and family are literally on the line?

4. Power. Often when reading Scripture, we Christians identify ourselves in the position of powerlessness — the ones being rescued (Exodus 14:19-31), the ones being forgiven (Genesis 50:15-21), and/or the ones who have been harmed (like Peter in Matthew 18:21). While we are all very much powerless before the One Holy God, many of our congregations aren’t actually powerless in their communities: even a small church building and an even smaller budget represent a certain amount of wealth, and many churches with predominantly white congregations (I know, I know, #notallwhitechurches) opt for social & theological color-blindness to sustain their unexamined power of whiteness.

Caution: Before aligning your congregation with the powerless in these texts, consider whether or not that’s really their alignment. See also: Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” which, of course, no one did. Maybe you’re actually preaching to a congregation of Egyptians (metaphorically speaking) who need to be reminded to get out of the way of someone else’s deliverance & justice. Maybe you’re preaching to a congregation that has the financial security of the man whose debt has been erased, which in turn is choking a building renter into debt.

Good news: Despite the accolades of society, positions of worldly power are, in fact, the Pit (Psalm 103) — and when we recognize it as such, we are able to bless the LORD who can redeem us from it.

You know all of this, of course, and more from your own exegetical work and life experience. Most likely you have your own red flags when you read these texts. Hopefully you’ve found your own articulation of the good news, too, to share with folks who need to forgive seventy-seven times and who need to be forgiven seventy times seven.

Share your ruminating and sermonizing in the comments to encourage one another toward Sunday’s sermon!

Rachel G. Hackenberg is a United Church of Christ minister, soccer mom, blogger, and author. Her book Sacred Pause plays with words to refresh our relationship with The Word.

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6 thoughts on “Revised Common Lectionary: Forgiveness

  1. Working with the Matthew text this week. I’m beginning with a modern re-working of the parable and asked myself what sort of circumstances might enslave a person today (I used systemic poverty in my version), talking about forgiveness (including both of your caveats – forgiveness is not forgetting, and it is not easy) and ending with a powerful story of forgiveness after the Rwandan genocide. Shad is a Canadian rapper with Rwandan roots and his mother had several family members killed in the genocide. They worked together and wrote the song “I’ll Never Understand” (you may need to Google the lyrics to get the full impact of what they are saying).

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  2. Rachel, thank you for this. In preparation for Sunday’s sermon, I just read The Book of Forgiving by the Rev.’s Desmond and Mpho Tutu. Powerful stuff and refers to your very important points. May I quote you (with appropriate reference of course) in my sermon? I think you said it even more powerfully than the Tutus!
    I am working through a short series on “Living in Community” Last week Living in Love, this week Living in Forgiveness, then Living in Hope and finally Living in Trust. It’s going to be just basic stuff, as it is my first year here. Stories of what forgiveness has done, and the differences between retributive justice and restorative justice. Of course this has led to my own needed work on forgiveness, forgiving others and forgiving myself 🙂

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  3. Thank you, Rachel. I’m making life difficult for myself and continuing to use the semi-continuous readings. So Exodus 14 is where I’m heading. The liberation of the Hebrew people and the demise of Pharaoh’s army. In the midst of receiving a whole lot of hate this week. So here’s what I’ve got:

    Liked by 1 person

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