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The Railroad Crossing

The Railroad Crossing
September 13, 2020
Passage: Genesis 15:1b-11,20-21; Psalm 103:8-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
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The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.

That is practically a Creed in the Hebrew Scriptures. I know that’s the image of God I count on, I believe in, the God I worship. Not only that, I believe that is how God calls us to live, to be in the world, to interact with our neighbor and all of creation: Full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness.

How do we reconcile that with the image of God we see at the end of the parable, where the slave is condemned to eternal torture? And just in case they missed it, Jesus puts it bluntly, “That’s what God will do to each of you if you don’t forgive your brother or msister from the heart.”

Parables are meant to shock, to make the hearers pay attention and think; to reevaluate some aspect of their life. This parable is full of excesses that reach the absurd. The amount of the debt is beyond imaginable. It would take many, many lifetimes to repay. It is beyond the imagination that the king would have lent that much and even more so that the slave could have spent it.

When the slave promises to repay – a promise that is impossible to fulfill – the king cancels the debt in an act of abundant, excessive grace and generosity.

The slave’s lack of mercy, in turn is excessive. He not only refuses to grant his debtor more time, he grabs him by the throat and has him thrown in prison.

And finally, the king’s response. He rescinds his forgiveness and sends him to be tortured until he can repay – which means for the rest of his life.

The parable shocks. It stops us in our tracks like the flashing lights and clanging bell of a railroad crossing. It’s the gate that comes down to protect us from the speeding train.


When we fail to forgive, we are forever bound to the past, to the harm or pain we have suffered. We are imprisoned and it is like torture as we relive it, hold onto it, feed it and allow it to take hold of our lives and our decisions; of our future.

But let’s not miss the core of the message of the parable: God’s abundant, extravagant-to-the-point-of absurdity GRACE and MERCY. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.

Not only does the king forgive the impossible debt, he enables the slave to extend that same grace and mercy to his debtor – freeing both of them.

It is through God’s grace that we are able to so freely forgive. That ability, that grace is a gift from God.

Let’s back up a bit though and get some context. Jesus tells this parable in response to Peter’s question, “yeah, but how many times do I have to forgive someone?” And note, here, that they are talking about a member of the community of faith.

And Peter asks the question in response to the teaching we heard in last week’s gospel reading, about the lengths one should go to in order to be reconciled when someone in the community harms you.

To refresh our memories, Jesus is talking to his disciples and he says that if another member of the community sins against you, talk to them about it. (I would add, if it’s safe.) They may listen and say, repent or make amends, change their behavior. If not, the community gathers in support, and maybe even protection, of the person who has been hurt. They are physically present in confronting the other and entreating the needed change. The goal is to restore the relationship and heal the pain. Jesus also recognizes that at times that isn’t possible and the relationship ends.

“I forgive you,” does not mean, “what you did was ok or acceptable or you can do it again.”

Forgiveness first recognizes the fullness of the harm; that this should not have happened to the person. Forgiveness means, I am no longer bound to that past. It means I am ready to look toward the future with hope. That may or may not include continuing a relationship with the person who harmed me. Forgiving sometimes means letting go of the person, leaving the past behind. Forgiving frees us from the past and invites us to live.

Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question is that there is no limit on how many times a person may fall, fail, repent, and be forgiven.

That is the extravagance of God’s grace and mercy; the extravagance of grace and mercy God invites and enables us to extend to one another.

Now that we’re stopped at the railroad crossing with the lights flashing and the bells clanging, what about us – individually and as the church and for that matter, as a society?

For what have we been forgiven? And for what do we need forgiveness; what harms have we caused or been a part of? Do we even realize the enormity of some of it? We are still living out some of the sins of our ancestors as well as our contemporary society. How do we repent, make amends, seek forgiveness?

And second, what do we still need to forgive? What hurts or grudges are binding us to the past? Is that blinding us to the goodness and dignity of others; causing us to see them defined only by their past bad actions?

It’s important to remember that not liking another’s choice or action, having hurt feelings, or feeling uncomfortable doesn’t necessarily indicate someone has sinned against us. Are we harboring any of those that we need to let go?

Forgiving is hard; it’s a process. It is by God’s gracious gift that we have the grace to forgive.

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.

In forgiving, we are freed to truly live; to fully love.

Thanks be to God.