The Rev. David Gunderson’s Lessons Commentary for Sept. 7, 2014

Rev. Gunderson was away this week, so he left a written commentary on the lessons for our Morning Prayer Service. Here are the lessons and the commentary.

The Lessons for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The First Lesson: Ezekiel 33:7-11

You, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.

Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: “Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?

The Second Lesson: Romans 13:8-14

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. 

The Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20

Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

 Pentecost 13 Commentary

The Gospel for today continues with the imagery of “binding and loosing”, which to this day is understood as a transfer of power to the Church, especially the power to bestow or withhold forgiveness. Listen to what the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says about today’s Gospel:

…the discourse now turns to how they are to deal with one who sins and yet remains within the community. First there is to be private correction; if this is unsuccessful, further correction before two or three witnesses; if this fails, the matter is to be brought before the assembled community (the church), and if the sinner refuses to attend to the correction of the church, he is to be expelled. The church’s judgment will be ratified in heaven, i.e., by God. 

(As a side note, I have always wondered about this passage when it says, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. This does not sound like Jesus to me.  Tax collectors and Gentiles were people to whom Jesus, during his lifetime, showed not condemnation but special concern.  So this passage feels late, originating not from the time of Jesus but in relation to the emerging Church, which already seems to have forgotten something about its founder’s teachings.)

We are not, however, going to dwell on the issue of human power in relation to God. There is another way to look at these stories of forgiveness and power; it requires us to make one crucial substitution. Notice how everything changes if we hear these teachings about “binding and loosing” in relation to ourselves, not as an exercise of power over another.  When this change occurs, the teachings begin to make sense in the larger context of Jesus’ teaching, which always directs us to look at ourselves first—take the log out of your own eye.

This sequence of teachings concludes with next week’s gospel and the parable known as “The Unforgiving Debtor”.  The man in question is indebted on a mythical scale, a hopeless debt, as if one individual were to take upon himself the burden of our current national debt.  Yet the higher power, the king, releases him from this debt.  It is a gesture of pure gratuity, without mention of how the debt was incurred nor the reasons for its cancellation.  There is only the release; he is free to live, unbound.

But the debtor does not really understand or appreciate what has happened to him.  His heart is not changed by the liberation which was bestowed upon him.  It is as if he thinks he “got away” with something, rather than understanding that his own vulnerability and powerlessness were not exploited by a greater power, and that he was set free, given back to himself to live as a free person.

This failure to understand is revealed in his first encounter with the world after his own “loosing”.  He meets a fellow servant who owes him a pittance and attempts to “bind” this other man to the consequences of his insignificant debt.  It is this act of exercising power over another that lands him once again in prison.  In his attempt to “bind” another, he has bound only himself.  Although in the story it is the king who sentences the unforgiving debtor to prison, it is imperative that we do not hear this as if God were an external force observing us and waiting to punish us for our failures.  The hardness of heart exhibited by the debtor is its own punishment, and the imprisonment which is its consequence is something the debtor has done to himself.

Jesus is consistent in his teaching that whenever our inclination is to judge another, our first “soul” move is to consider what we are bringing to the encounter. Again, take the log out of our own eye first! Look at our unnoticed prejudice; do we believe that we already know enough about the situation to form a conclusive judgment about it?  And what about that emotional urgency?  Are we “borrowing” energy from experiences in the past, which introduce an intensity of feeling that the current situation does not require?  And are our motives always as pure as we like to believe? Are we trying to engineer an outcome based not on truth, but on self-interest, about which we almost always prefer to remain unconscious?

So the sequence of teachings about the Church, forgiveness, and power, ends with this warning about the exercise of power over another.  When we do not forgive, we harm ourselves; as the old saying goes, “Not to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting the other to die.” What we do not forgive in another, we “bind” not to them, but to ourselves. Anyone can verify this by looking at his or her own heart and seeing the things that are carried there. We hold ourselves captive by what we refuse to release in another.  Our heart’s energy, its “space”, is taken up with a sterile tallying, the keeping track of who owes what and for what reason—such dreary work, like prison work, like breaking rocks under a hot sun.  The prison is of our own making, and we sentence ourselves to an incarceration from which we would be released, if we would but extend that release to others.

The Rev. David Gunderson



Categories News, Sermons | Tags: | Posted on September 9, 2014

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