In both the sermonette and sermon message today, there was the curious phenomenon of there being two insightful and excellent messages that nevertheless failed to comment on particularly relevant contexts to the messages within the intended audience. I found it curious that the speakers were able to discuss much of great worth, but would entirely neglect very relevant contexts to the messages within the local congregation to open and obvious contexts. Nevertheless, both messages operated from the same principles that I operate from in my own reading and which others would be well-advised to do with my writing. In fact, both messages put together provide the opportunity to discuss some of these lessons at greater length, given that the principles themselves were discussed in some form, but were not necessarily applied in the most helpful or straightforward manner. Let us seek to do so now, as best as we are able.
In talking about the book of James the sermonette speaker commented that many people view James as the New Testament version of Proverbs, full of wise aphorisms but lacking in any kind of uniform structure. In his short message, he managed to admirably demonstrate at least two levels of unifying structure. The first layer of structure may seen from the concern that James has for controlling the tongue, which, in its expanded meaning, includes all communication from someone, not only spoken but also written communication, and both direct and indirect communication. This is obviously an area of strong personal concern. The second level of organization was described by the speaker, but the term for the type of organization that James uses was not mentioned. To put it directly, James uses a chiasmic structure , where he begins and ends with the same concerns.
An illustration of this can be seen when one first looks at the beginning of James and then the closing of James. James 1:2-5 reads: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” Comparing this to the ending, in James 5:13-20, one reads certain parallels: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit. Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.” In both of these passages we see a focus on what God gives mercifully, whether repentance or wisdom, but also that we must ask for it, and also that when we communicate with God and with others well, our lives will correspondingly be blessed. Oh, how I wish that was easier to do.
So, what lessons can we learn from this? A few seem straightforward enough to discuss. For one, we should always give the benefit of the doubt to the writer of a text. Although at times a writer may be incoherent on several levels , generally speaking writers have a purpose and intent and generally speaking it is a sensible one that is executed to the best of their abilities. If we are not sure of what a text reads, we need to be quicker to seek to understand the context and where the writer is coming from before we seek to condemn. Another lesson can be learned from the error of the speaker in assuming that the problem of controlling the tongue and interpersonal drama where harsh things are spoken of others and where people feel it necessary to pick sides of the kind spoken of in James was not a problem in our particular congregation. Although, to be sure, there does not appear to be a class conflict within our congregation, there are plenty of interpersonal problems relating to certain longstanding situations where communication has, not surprisingly, been difficult to maintain, and plenty of deeply divided families where people have tended to pick sides between one side or another. In such situations the problems spoken of in James concerning a lack of generosity to others, a tendency to speak harshly and contemptuously, and the problem of partiality are all serious ones that we (and I include myself in this) need to improve in.
Intriguingly enough, the sermon message, which featured an excellent passage analysis of a difficult and often twisted scripture (namely Colossians 2:14), also featured the same blind spot of not applying the insights discussed to relevant local context. Specifically, the passage is dealing with the general context of what is blotted out in the Bible, namely the record of our sins and debts as a result of disobedience. The message was resolutely focused on the debts that are owed to God, and the technical language of the promissory note that is used in Colossians 2:14 is one that is familiar to us in many other contexts that are worthwhile to examine. At the risk of embarrassing myself a little bit, I would like to talk about the issue of blotting out debt and wiping it away, or not doing so rather, in one personal context, and then look at a verse that expands this concern merely from looking at our relationship with God, where our inability to pay debts and our need for mercy is deeply profound and obvious, to the less obvious level of our relationship with others which is also discussed in scripture.
More than most people, I am painfully aware of the difficulties of the “handwriting of requirements” that can be against us. Recently, as a matter of fact, it became a matter of daily frustration. Like many Americans, I have had a particularly troublesome time with college loans, especially relating to my graduate studies. Once I had finally decided to seek to pay the debt I owed, and that I contracted fairly, I was faced with the need to sign a promissory note over and over and over again, because of various problems with the signature, because the amount of payment increased $1 after my income was precisely known from the tax return, and so on. What should have been a straightforward process involving a couple of forms filled out in one day ended up taking over a week, where the issue of promissory notes and the stereotypical language of the handwriting of requirements against us was continually brought to mind over and over and over again. At what point does it become overkill?
One of the very relevant passages in the Bible for discussing the matter of the debt we face to God and to others is a parable of Jesus Christ’s in Matthew 18. Not coincidentally, this is the chapter that discusses the process for conflict resolution in the Church of God about going to your brother and then seeking witnesses to show good faith efforts at reconciliation before taking matters to the general church assembly and congregational leadership. This is also the chapter that speaks about how often we should be willing to forgive our brother (or sister), a matter of surprisingly awkward personal relevance . The passage in question that is our immediate context, though, is Matthew 18:21-35, which reads: ” Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.””
There are a lot of lessons that can be drawn from this passage. Keeping in the context of particularly important congregational matters that would have been helpful to address, this passage would make it obvious that our focus on being forgiven of our sins by God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ has massive personal relevance. If we are at any level reflective people who are conscious of our own sins, our own weaknesses, or our own shortcomings, we will be aware that the debt of sin we owe to God cannot be paid, and that if we are to enter into eternal life in the Kingdom of God that debt will have to be forgiven. Yet it is often difficult for us to transition between seeking and appreciating the forgiveness of our debt towards God and recognizing the seriousness of the command to forgive the debts of others. While we are aware that we cannot pay our debt to God short of our own death and destruction, we are often of the belief that others can certainly pay their much smaller debt to us. If there is nothing that we want them to do for us to repay the debt, we like to use the real or imagined offenses of others against us to wipe out the handwriting of requirements in terms of treating others with love, or respect, or concern, or kindness, or friendliness. Clearly, this is a subject of direct congregational relevance, given the fact that there are brothers and sisters in Christ in our congregation who find it impossible even to wave or say hello to others, or even attend services when others are there because of the level of personal offenses. If we praise the merciful nature of God towards us, then why do we find it so hard to apply that same standard of graciousness towards others? Since the Bible makes the connection clear between God’s mercy towards us and our mercy towards others, what is necessary for us to develop mercy towards others as part of our ordinary and daily personal example?
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