A sermon on Exodus 14: 19-31 and Matthew 18: 21-35 by Alison Sampson
Let me start by admitting that tonight’s readings terrify me. From the Hebrew Bible we heard that the Lord ‘threw the Egyptian army into panic.’ They decided to flee, but before they could get away, the Lord ordered Moses to stretch out his hand over the sea so that the waters would return; and then ‘the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh… not one of them remained’ and the Israelites saw the dead bodies wash upon the shore.
Then in the parable from Matthew’s gospel we heard that a slave who is forgiven an unimaginable debt, but then fails to extend forgiveness himself, will be handed over to be tortured until the debt can be repaid. Then Jesus said, ‘So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
So in the first text, God is a murderous force who destroys an army even as it’s running away. In the next, God looks like a fickle sadist who one moment forgives and yet in response to our weakness whisks that forgiveness away and sends us away to be tortured. I don’t know about you, but these images of God terrify me.
Of course, many Christians are happy with the image of God the mighty warrior fighting for righteousness’ sake; and such language is often used to shore up Christian support for war. But other theologians are troubled by such imagery, and have attempted to explain the violence. Some theologians justify God’s violence in Exodus as a necessary consequence of oppression, although this skips over the way the liberation of the Israelites led to the genocide of the Canaanite people. Others suggest that the violence should be understand as God’s anger at the military violence of empire, since it is the chariots, or armoured vehicles, the tanks, the Hummers, which are particularly and repeatedly mentioned in the text.
Still others suggest that the event never happened. Despite an obsession with records, the Egyptians never recorded the major news of the escape of a nation of slaves, nor the destruction of the army. This suggests that this story is a tale told by a band of escaped slaves, which tells us what they wish had happened, and how much they hated their oppressors.
Most of these are useful ways of understanding the violence in the text, and most of them contain some truth – but there is still another way. But before we discuss that, let’s go to the text from Matthew.
It begins with Jesus saying that we need to forgive seventy times seven times – that is to say, countless times. Then he tells a story. In the story, someone who has experienced forgiveness and yet fails to extend it to others will be handed over to be tortured; so, too, will it be with us if we fail to forgive.
How is this possible? First, Jesus tells us that we need to offer forgiveness over and over and over again; then he suggests that if we fail to forgive, God will retract the forgiveness once shown us, and send us away to be tortured. Surely this is contradictory!
The nub of the question lies, I think, in who is doing the torturing. If it is God, then we have a violent sadistic God who punishes those who fail to live up to God’s standards. And since we all fail, time and time again, this is absolutely terrifying. We are all destined to burn in hell. If, on the other hand, the torture is about the natural consequences of our choices, then the text might make more sense.
Taking a step back, the text is part of something bigger, the book of Matthew. In chapter 7, Jesus urges his followers to ‘Judge not, that you not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.’
In this light, tonight’s parable suggests that, if you choose to keep track of the debts of others, so too will you be held to the debts you incur. We are already forgiven, loved and free. We can embrace this reality, and extend it to others. But if we turn our backs on this forgiveness, this love, and this freedom, then we will find ourselves no longer free, but trapped in cycles of retribution and hatred – and that is the road to hell.
It’s not God who wields the torturer’s whip. God does not delight in our shrieks of agony, or our groans of pain. Again and again and again, God will offer forgiveness to us – but it is up to us to accept the gift. It is when we refuse the gift, freely extended, that we choose to live in hell.
In the same way, the Exodus story might be seen as a story about what the Egyptian army did to itself. God did not mete out the punishment. Instead, the soldiers drowned because they insisted on pursuing the Israelites, despite all the warnings and all the plagues that told them that the Israelites must go free. They followed the Israelites even into the boggy seabed. Of course the heavy chariots got stuck. Of course the sea came back, and drowned them all.
But in the coming days and years, as the story was told and re-told around campfires, the tale was embellished. The destruction of the Egyptian army was seen as a sign of God’s action on behalf of the Israelites, and so God was said to have actively drowned the lot of them, even to the point of tossing the Egyptians into the sea.
Yet even in this telling, there are traces of a different version. God keeps the Israelites and the Egyptians separate from each other, placing the angel of God and the pillar of cloud between them. God sows panic among the Egyptians, so that they decide to flee. In other words, there are signs that God protected the Israelites just by keeping them separate from the Egyptian army and then encouraging the Egyptians to flee. Perhaps these are hints of an older story, a truer story, of a God who sidesteps violence and finds a peaceful way.
I don’t know for sure. This is only one interpretation, and some of the other explanations I offered earlier have truth in them, too. But as Christians we must understand God through the lens of Jesus Christ. And in him we are made to understand that ‘the measure you give will be the measure you receive’. Violence leads to more violence. The Egyptian army was so reluctant to let the Israelites go free that it trapped itself. Then this army of a violent nation, which had inflicted so much violence upon its slaves, suffered violence in turn: not of God, but of the sea.
I wonder what would happen if this interpretation was taken up by the leaders of nations. Do we meet violence with military intervention, or with peace? It would be nice to think that the military interventions we engage in are neat, tactical strikes which take out the evil oppressors and leave everything and everyone else intact, but I hope none of us are that naïve. Violence is messy; and almost all deaths in modern wars are women and children.
The price they pay for our righteously liberating action is unimaginable to most of us. More easily, we can see that even we pay a heavy price. Our soldiers come home profoundly traumatised, young men and women scarred for life by the violence they have experienced, and the violence they have done to others. Many are unable to re-enter the workforce; many come home with drug and alcohol addictions; many take their own lives. The devastating impact this has on their families and our communities is immeasurable. That is the human cost to us; the cost to those we go in to ‘save’ is much worse. Just think of the wreck that is Iraq. Yes, it was a terrible situation, but it was Western military interventions that left the power vacuum now rapidly being filled by the Islamic State. I am not saying that we should never intervene; but I am yet to be convinced that military intervention leads to peace.
Violence is the road to hell – for those who will be bombed, certainly, and also for us. I wonder what would happen if violence were met with bread, with blankets, with hospitals, with forgiveness of debts which place so much pressure on the economies of the developing world? What would happen if people were lifted out of the radicalising climate of poverty? What would happen if violence was met with kindness, the sort of kindness that some Israeli and Palestinian families are offering to each other now? What would happen then?
These are big questions about violence, and forgiveness. To answer them well, we also need to think small. And to illustrate that, I will tell you a story.
I know it will shock you, but a couple of times a year, my husband and I have a big fight. And we had one last week. He said things he shouldn’t have, and I said things I shouldn’t have; and it ended, as always, with me telling him to go to hell, and with him going there. He went for a long angry walk around the suburb and he was in hell. Because for a deeply uxorious family man, there is nothing worse than being estranged from his wife and kids, and knowing himself to be intemperate and reactive. Meanwhile, at home I too was in hell, unforgiving and unforgiven, wondering where my good husband was, and confronted by my own foul temper. I felt sick, weepy, and alone. I thought of all my friends who have been divorced, and I wondered if this is how it starts; yes, I was in hell.
My husband finally came home, and we found a polite truce. It wasn’t until the next day that real forgiveness was possible, from either of us. And that forgiveness was a deliberate decision, and hard to carry out. But when we finally got there, I felt a sense of freedom, a renewed connection, my husband returned to me.
Our time in hell was not a punishment from God. It is a description of how it feels to be estranged from one another, when we cannot find either the courage or the humility to forgive. But we have to forgive, because God has already forgiven us. Being forgiven is our starting place. If we choose not to live under this forgiveness, under grace, we consign ourselves to the tortures of hell. But if we accept it, and extend it to others, both as individuals and as nations, then we will experience the wide-open freedom and intimate connection that are part and parcel of forgiveness.
We all find it difficult to accept this forgiveness, and to forgive. It is not the normal thing to do, which is why human history is filled with stories of violence and retaliation. But forgiveness is at the heart of our calling, and Jesus shows us the way. ‘Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy times seven.’ ‘Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they do.’ In a few minutes we will use one of the tools he gave us and pray together, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive the debts of others.’ It is a daily reminder of our calling, a way of shaping our expectations and our behaviour. It is the prayer I needed to help heal the rift with my husband; it’s a prayer our nation could use, as we seek ways to answer violence not with yet more violence, but with love.
Violence, retaliation, revenge. Countless voices justify this pattern with cherry-picked stories of a violent God. But these stories are part of a wider picture of salvation, in which we are liberated from this hellish cycle. The one we follow bore the wounds of our violence on his own body, yet he cried out not for revenge, but for forgiveness. Ω