Monday, March 31, 2014

...Like A Gentile Or Tax Collector (part 13 of 13)

However, something disturbing happens.  “After he went out, that same slave found one of his fellow slaves who owed him one hundred silver coins.  So he grabbed him by the throat and started to choke him, saying ‘Pay back what you owe me!’” (Matthew 18:28).  Applying this parable to Israel’s historical narrative, Israel, forgiven by their God and restored to their land and supposedly re-committed to their role to be the Creator God’s light-bearer to the nations, once again closed ranks.  Gentiles, who had certainly been tools in the hands of Israel’s God to chastise Israel, but who had also been used by that same God to restore Israel to its land and to rebuild its Temple, were again looked up as enemies by the covenant people.  

By Jesus’ day, the barriers of exclusion had again been raised, and Israel was concerned only with their position as their God’s covenant people and with their God acting on their behalf to establish His kingdom for them and set them above all nations.  Gentiles were not only not their concern of course, but they were widely understood to be a source and locus of defilement.  At the time of Matthew’s composition, the ongoing battle within the church was whether or not Gentiles had to accede to the ancient covenant markers of Judaism (circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath keeping) in order to fully participate in the covenant.  That, presumably, and playing off the parable, was the debt that they owed to the Jews.  They had failed to understand that they were the slaves that had been forgiven a great debt, and now they carried an obligation to extend that forgiveness to their fellow slaves, the Gentiles. 

Predictably and not unlike the first slave had done when confronted with his debt and its consequences, “his fellow slave threw himself down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you.’  But he refused.  Instead, he went out and threw him in prison until he repaid the debt” (18:29-30).  Continuing to draw the analogy then, while Gentiles had been locked away from participation in the covenant, Jesus goes to them (metaphorically---they generally came to Him) and brings them within its fold.    

However, this was not a universal situation.  Not all were guilty.  One must continue to recognize the multiple levels on which this is being heard (by Jesus’ original hearers and by the church communities in the late first century), acknowledging that some had understanding and were accepting of the non-exclusive (when it came to who could participate and who could not) kingdom message that Jesus had brought.  Consequently, “When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were very upset and went and told their lord everything that had taken place.  Then his lord called the first slave and said to him, ‘Evil slave!  I forgave you all that debt because you begged me!  Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?’” (18:31-33) 

Now, this is not a judgment against the Jews, but rather an illustration of the historical situation, while also being an illustrated sermon of what Jesus has said is demanded of His people.  With the final words of this parable it is made clear what is the response of the God of Israel to those that fail to treat an offending brother as a Gentile or tax collector (according to what has been seen as the way that Jesus treats them), or if one fails to offer unending forgiveness to their covenant brethren.  Matthew writes: “And in anger his lord turned him over to the prison guards to torture him until he repaid all he owed.  So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart” (18:34-35).  As forgiveness and love form the functional basis for relationships within the body that calls Jesus Lord, all believers do well to consider themselves fortunate enough to be considered as Gentiles and tax collectors, while also having the opportunity to consider others as Gentiles and tax collectors as well.        

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