What first stands out for me this time I read the passage about unforgiving servant is the hypocrisy of the servant who was first shown mercy by the king who forgives the entire debt.
It’s easy for us who read or listen to this story to condemn that servant for not forgiving-it-forward and showing mercy in turn. I think that’s what the Gospel writer wanted us to see in the way the story is told.
And isn’t that one of the major criticisms by those who are disaffected, disenchanted by the church today: that church people are hypocritical – saying one thing but behaving in completely the opposite way. In the case of the Gospel – being shown mercy but dissing out judgement and condemnation. It is clear by the end of the Gospel that the king – God – is also not pleased with this hypocrisy.
At some level, it’s hard not to live that way. We can probably all confess that at times in our own lives we have said one thing – announced some ideal – but behaved inconsistently with that principle. It’s part of our human nature. We pronounce we are welcoming but say disparaging things under our breath about those who differ from us or who don’t follow the rules or who break the law or who act in some way we disapprove; we say we must protect the environment and live simply but produce waste and live beyond our means; we confess to follow Jesus but act in ways that are completely counter to his way of peace and forgiveness.
Next week we begin a new step towards being together, in-person, for worship. One of the ways we will be together is by wearing our masks during the short worship service. I, for one, will find this practice vexing though ironic and hopefully for us all a learning experience if anything.
Diana Butler Bass describes some of this background of mask-wearing in a recent article: She ties our concept of mask-wearing to ancient Greece, where masks were used in theater. They were a way to place actors into a space that mediated between reality and story, allowing actors to disappear into the role they were playing and become who they were not, creating an alternative reality for the audience.
A mask became the person we show to the world, regardless of who we really are under the mask. Greek theater gave Western culture another term to describe this disconnection between the actor and the mask—a word that meant “play-acting” or … literally “to judge from under a mask,” a word we know in English as “hypocrite.”
Western people mask what they want to hide, and masking has a long association in European societies with naughtiness, lying, criminality, and sin. Masks provide distance between our inner selves and outward actions.
Masks are wrapped up in Christian notions of sin, selfhood, and salvation. The Biblical narrative lurks in our memories—after Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they covered themselves and hid. The first act after sinning was putting on a mask. And so the story of our hypocrisy begins.
Human beings are well-practiced in masking our sin so as not to be known. In the Bible this is a necessary first step towards salvation; acknowledging our common humanity, our brokenness and woundedness. We confess our sin. We are half-way on the journey. And we keep going.
In doing so we pivot towards God’s vision for ourselves and the future in God’s reign. We change. In the Hebrew scripture, Jacob and Moses both saw God “face to face”; and then we read about a hope that the New Testament claims on behalf of all who follow Jesus when St. Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” It is not unreasonable to argue that the Biblical story is one of masking and unmasking, until God is finally and fully seen in each human face. Salvation means everything will be one day uncovered.
Wearing masks is a loving act, first, because we all wear masks. None of us is exempt from the burden and brokenness of sin. None of us sits in a position to judge and condemn others. When we all wear masks it is an outward confession that each of us finds ourselves on the same level playing field. Each of us lives from God’s grace, forgiveness and mercy.
To show love is to accept our own contribution to a problem. To show love is to accept our own complicity. To show love is not about getting even but about getting it well. To show love is to seek a solution for all rather than seek punishment and blame someone else.
Forgiveness is not a transaction. The disciples seek a way to measure, count and calculate this aspect of love and mercy. Jesus’ answer, in effect, says, ‘you have to forgive always’. You can’t measure this. It’s like when St Paul says to ‘pray without ceasing’. How is that possible? It isn’t, if you are after measuring, counting and calculating aspects of faith – like forgiveness or prayer. Our faith is not transactional, it seeks transformation. Forgiveness, as an expression of love, is more about a style, a tone, of life heading towards something bigger rather than something you can control, keep straight, formulate and equate on a ledger. It is about an approach and an attitude. A posture.
On the journey, it feels more like we are always only half-way there. But we keep going, head held high.
This past week Jessica and I accomplished a milestone on our virtual Camino walk. On June 1stthis year we decided to walk the 835 kilometres of the Camino del Norte and Camino Primitivo in northern Spain. Obviously we weren’t actually going to walk there, but rather walk the distances in segments across eastern Ontario. Each time we walked we checked the distance from one way-point in Spain to the next small village or town – and then translated that distance on the ground in this area.
Since June 1st we’ve averaged 5-6 kilometres each of the 75 days we walked. And this week, we reached the half-way point. Only 416 kilometres to go! Because we don’t have a schedule, and we don’t know how far we will go or when we will finish so much of our endeavour is clouded in uncertainty. We are committed to walking this together, but because of our busy Fall schedules with work and family, we are not even certain we will finish before the snow flies.
But I felt that it was important to pause and celebrate if for a moment that we had walked half-way. We have gotten somewhere even though our ultimate goal still feels out of reach. Better to celebrate going half-way somewhere than not having walked anywhere. We move forward, now. That’s all.
I suspect our eventual success, if we will enjoy that down the road, will come not because we were convinced of our own superior moral, physical and willful efforts. Not because we felt we were somehow deserving of glory and better than others. But that we made, by the gifts of time and health, imperfect small steps towards the goal.
What Jesus describes in these Gospel stories over the past few weeks, is the nature of love in community. Forgiveness comes out of a love that is accepting of one another including our masks of sin and our need for God’s first, underlying and steadfast love and forgiveness of us all. Living out of that primary grace, we make imperfect sometimes tentative steps forward towards God’s vision for all people. The road forward isn’t perfect. But we trust that no matter what – even if it’s only half-way to somewhere – God’s love and grace will never abandon us.
Matthew 18:21-35; Gospel reading for Pentecost 15A, Revised Common Lectionary
Diana Butler Bass, “Pieces of Cloth” in Spirituality and Healthy; Soul-Body Connection (www.spiritualityhealth.comSeptember 1, 2020).