Differences, Debts, Dominance, and Forgiveness
The Rev. Philip Tierney
September 21, 2014
My four children are remarkably different one from another, and what’s even more remarkable is that their differences were obvious from the start. Brendan, the oldest, is gentle, sensitive, passionate, liberal, artistic, gregarious, and compassionate. Jessica is disciplined, logical, insightful, circumspect, scrupulous, introverted, and parsimonious. Andrew is physical, energetic, diligent, conservative, imaginative, and spontaneous. Rachel is quiet, analytical, self-reflective, tender-hearted (especially toward animals) and environmentally active. Each one, as all of us do, has strengths and challenges. And because they’re so different from one another, there are times when they grate on one another’s nerves or sensibilities, and may even try to change each other from time to time.
People have so much in common, so many similarities, and yet people are also so different from each other. Everyone is unique. And those differences, those unique-nesses, can be sources of appreciation, or indifference or aggravation. It’s obvious in family relations, as I’ve already said. But it’s also true in neighborhoods. Neighbors may have differences over property lines, or their standards of property appearance, noise levels, pet etiquette, or vested interest.
In my neighborhood there’s been one property owner who’s filed seventeen law suits against the other homeowners to block people from using the shared road. It’s a shared right-of-way through his property. His goal, during the past twenty years, has been to have the road diverted around his property with no road between his house and the lake. And so he’s blocked construction vehicles wider than the right-of-way from traversing the road, effectively preventing construction of homes and additions to existing homes. Consequently, his neighbors on that road have demonized and ostracized him. Differences among neighbors can be aggravating.
Likewise, differences exist among people in towns and other communities. Just consider what’s been going on in Ferguson, Missouri. Differences also exist among people in states, and we’re told that more than ever before people are moving to states where they perceive that others are more like themselves in all sorts of ways, including culture, worldview, and ideology. Differences among people within and between nations have also heightened in these latter years. The nations of the Middle East are only the most dramatic examples, but differences among people within nations are less tolerated than at many times in history.
It is this lack of appreciation, of acceptance, of tolerance, for the differences among us that today’s scripture readings speak to.
The reading from the Book of Exodus describes one of the most familiar episodes in Jewish history. It is perhaps also one of the most inscrutable and controversial, as well. If it weren’t for the help that Cecil B. Demille gave us in The Ten Commandments, it would even be hard to visualize it, let alone explain it.
On first reading, you might latch onto the brutality of the fate of the Egyptian army. And you might wonder how the God of love and justice could act in such a way. But the overall plot of the story is that God was aiding and abetting the escape of the Hebrew slaves from their Egyptian overlords. There were, after all, differences between Egyptians and Jews at that time. They were ethnically different. Their skill sets were different. They had different original languages and religious traditions. The Egyptians regarded the Hebrews as outsiders, immigrants, and aliens. Over the centuries, they had increasingly come to resent them — resent that they remained different, separate, and apart. More than that they resented and feared that the Hebrew population had increased more than the Egyptian’s did, that they had prospered materially at a faster rate, and that their loyalty was suspect. They imagined that the ship of the Egyptian state might flounder due to their growing power. Sound familiar? Consequently, the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews and attempted to perpetrate a program of ethnic cleansing.
Differences between the Egyptians and the Hebrews gave rise to negative feelings. The Egyptians reacted with feelings of intolerance, resentment, threat, and fear. And so the Hebrews became objects of those feelings and appetites. That enabled Egyptians to judge them as inferior to themselves. And that allowed them to enslave and mistreat them. God, the Creator of all, is not sympathetic when people objectify those who are different from themselves or judge others for being different, or treat others with intolerance, resentment, or contempt, no matter how justified they may feel, like the neighbors of the litigious neighbor that I mentioned. God is intolerant of intolerance and judges judgementalism.
God’s attitude extends beyond violent intolerance like the Egyptian’s. It also applies to those who think, believe, or behave different from ourselves. That was St. Paul’s point in the reading from the Letter to the Romans. He described differences among Christians in Rome and how they regarded each other. There were all sorts of little differences in belief, religious sensibility, spiritual devotion, and practice within the Church in Rome. Since Christians are only human, perhaps not surprisingly, Christians there had begun to identify themselves in groups by their differences. They squabbled over doctrines. They argued over practices. They looked down on each other. They criticized each other. They resented each other. They developed contempt for each other. They ostracized each other. That did not please God. St. Paul was fond of comparing the members of a church with different parts of the human body. Just imagine if the different parts of our bodies treated each other as people treat those different from themselves. We’d call that an autoimmune disorder or a serious neurological or psychological disorder. God much prefers that our differences augment each other in symbiotic relationship. We need each other’s differences, and should appreciate, or at least tolerate differences.
This principle of mutual appreciation for the tolerance of those who are different from our selves goes one step further. In the Gospel reading, Jesus applies it to those who actually wrong us — who owe us something or seem to us to have injured us. Now, surely, God knows about the human propensity to sin, and we have every reason to think that God isn’t very fond of it. So certainly, God must understand it when we judge, resent, condemn or try to punish someone for sinning against us, right? Not according to Jesus, in this passage and elsewhere. Peter knew that Jesus was all about forgiveness, and so he must have thought he’d be given kudos for suggesting that forgiving someone who hurts you seven times would be more than sufficient. Nope; seventy times that! Not only does Jesus teach us to treat others who are different from us the way we want to be treated by them, but to forgive those who hurt and sin against us the way we want to be forgiven by God for our sins and failures. God wants us to have no limits when it comes to forgiveness and mutual tolerance, even appreciation. God yearns for us to overcome our negative reactions to others; to tolerate the differences that exist between us and others, even to try to appreciate them; and to forgive those who hurt and wrong us. That’s Christ’s way of dealing with differences.