There are some parables in the Christian Scriptures that I’ve never liked, and I have to admit that this one Christine read is one of them. I know that Matthew put his spin on a story that Jesus told, but even so, why would Matthew put such a negative spin on the story. Is this really the good news of Jesus Christ?
I don’t know what Jesus really said or what the original story was. Certainly, it was something about forgiveness, and maybe it had elements of the story that we have in Matthew’s Gospel. But the parable as we have it is an unpleasant story. And besides, on this 2nd Sunday of the Season of Creation, what does it have to do with land?
Let me say a word or two about the parable before thinking about land. What makes it a challenging story is that none of the characters illustrate forgiveness. The very rich king or landowner, while forgiving the servant originally, did not forgive the servant the second time—certainly not the 70 times 7. The servant, even after being forgiven, didn’t in turn forgive a debtor. Even the others who turned the servant in didn’t behave in a very forgiving manner. So, no one in the story illustrated forgiveness!
To try and make some sense of it, Ched Myers and his friends have suggested that maybe this parable is a cautionary tale of the dangers of becoming trapped in a cycle of vengeance. The telling of the story may have been a bit of irony. The Kin-Dom of God, Jesus and Matthew might have said, is not about an endless cycle of vengeance where no forgiveness exists at all. God’s way is very much about reconciliation, and we’d better wake and change our ways.
What the parable points to is that the failure to forgive leads to a degradation of human community; I would add in terms of the land, that a failure to forgive leads to a degradation to the ecological health of the earth, too. A failure to forgive leads to estrangement and alienation. A failure to forgive leads to hard-heartedness and further violence. Just ask Lamech.
Who is Lamech, you might ask? Lamech’s story is told near the beginning of Genesis and is thought to be a back-drop to the parable in Matthew’s Gospel. Cain was Lamech’s ancestor by not too many generations. Remember Cain? Cain killed his brother Abel because he was jealous of God’s appreciation of Abel’s agricultural offerings. Lamech, following Cain’s way of violence, when he was injured by someone, killed the person and bragged to his family, “See, sevenfold vengeance for Cain, but seventy-sevenfold for Lamech.” Prior to this, earlier in Chapter 4 of Genesis, we’re told that Cain was afraid someone would exact vengeance on him for killing Abel and we are told that God said, “whoever kills Cain will suffer sevenfold vengeance.”
Really!? Is this how God works? The short answer to my own question is that there is more going on in these early stories of Genesis, but it would take a couple of sermons to unlock their meaning. For us, the cautionary tale of both Lamech and the parable in Matthew is that the cycle of vengeance is very real in our world and we can all get caught up in it. We see it all the time.
God’s Kin-Dom, not about the cycle of vengeance, is rooted in Jubilee and Sabbath. During the Jubilee, which was supposed to happen every 50 years, debts were to be forgiven and there was to be a radical renewal. The Sabbath year, every 7th year, was a smaller version of the Jubilee.
The Jubilee was not just to be a time of celebration and partying; it was to be a time of restoring community. Forgiveness was to be practiced and wrongs let go. Slaves were to be freed. People who had been forced off the land because of economic hardship were to be restored to the land. People indebted by crippling debt were to be forgiven.
So, the essence of a Jubilee was a radical restoration of human community and a move away from the cycle of violence and vengeance. And it was holistic; it involved more than just the human community. It was a time of rest for the land. It was a time of reflection to rebuild relationships with the land and with human beings. Jubilee was also meant to reduce the separation between the poor and the wealthy; it was an economic policy that recognized God’s preferential option for the poor, outcast and those who’d been dispossessed of their identity and place in society. Part of the Jubilee was the impact of forgiveness across so many sectors of society.
Today, we’ve spiritualized or psychologized forgiveness; when we’ve been wronged, we seek reconciliation, we seek an apology and hopefully, that relationship is restored—all good. But some of us talk about forgiving debts, and it doesn’t get much traction. It doesn’t get much traction because Capitalism is so entrenched in our Western Way of being.
Forgiveness in Jesus’ day was both economic AND spiritual. Lives weren’t easily separated out between the spiritual and the physical, the mundane and the sacred. All were one whole and so, forgiveness was forgiveness of debts AND reconciliation for wrongs committed.
So, with respect to the land, how do we think about forgiveness and land today? How does the land forgive what we as human beings have done? How do we mend our relationship with the land?
For me, it’s all tied up in the Kin-Dom of God that Jesus proclaimed, part of which is the idea of Jubilee. If we shift our thinking from the ideas of both vengeance and the idea of hoarding resources, we enter the realm of Kin-Dom/Jubilee thinking. That’s what Matthew and Jesus were getting at in the parable through the use of irony, I think. Vengeance leads to more vengeance and sets up a cycle of despair. Greed and acquisitiveness lead to hoarding of wealth and the increasing separation between the poor and the rich.
Jesus’ ministry was all about dismantling the cycle of vengeance that seems to be present in one form or another through history. Jesus proclaimed a Jubilee that was to be perpetual that he named the Kin-Dom of God. We are called to practice debt-forgiveness, forgiveness in general, and a return to a holistic relationship with the land. Jesus proclaimed a non-violent Kin-Dom of justice—distributive justice where all the earth has a fair chance at life, liberty and freedom. Where the land is treated with respect. Where the creatures are treated fairly and with dignity. Where the plants and vegetation of the earth are held to be sacred. Where the whole community, not just the human community, is the Peaceable Kin-Dom of LOVE.
And this isn’t some idyllic dream as some want to suggest. It is a real possibility if we live with discipline and change the cycle of vengeance to one of forgiveness and wholeness, and if we shift our thinking from scarcity to abundance, and if there’s justice. It’s a tall order, but the beautiful outcomes of shifting to a vision of the Kin-Dom of God rooted in Jubilee is what we need: loving communities, abundance thinking, and seeing our connections to life in all aspects of our lives.
The Season of Creation invites us to extend the vision of forgiveness to the whole earth. When we pray in the prayer Jesus taught, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” it isn’t just our human companions in this process of forgiveness. It is the whole earth. We invite the earth to forgive us so that we, in turn, can live in harmony, and share that forgiveness in a paying-it-forward cycle, not of vengeance, but of life, of love, of compassion. To be forgiven and to forgive is indelibly wrapped up with the earth and what it means to live the love and compassion of the Kin-Dom of God!