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Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Our first reading this morning, from the Book of Exodus, describes the crossing of the Red Sea; the event where the Israelites fleeing from Egypt are rescued from the Egyptian army by an act of God. How much truth do you think there is in this story? 

Most people in the twenty-first century, particularly those who are not from a faith background, would more than likely dismiss the story as being either a myth or legend. Some among us might also question its historical authenticity.

However, when I was completing my study of the Old Testament some 8 years ago now, I read a book titled Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction, by Lawrence Boadt. In the section of the book that comments on the crossing of the Red Sea, Boadt recounts the experience of a nineteenth-century English explorer who observed a very similar occurrence that took place at Lake Sirbonis, which is just to the north of the present-day Suez Canal, and is also believed to be located quite close to the area where the Israelites crossed the Red Sea during the Exodus.

In the occurrence that Boadt refers to, a strong north-easterly wind had resulted in the low tide of the canal being abnormally low, and this wind also prevented the high tide from coming in for several hours. During this time, it was possible to cross the canal on foot. Once the wind shifted to the south, the high tide which had been held back, returned to its normal flow, and passage by foot across the canal was impossible. 

This event raises the possibility that a similar event did in fact take place at the time of the Exodus. The “strong east wind” referred to in the Book of Exodus could have created an abnormally low tide. This could have allowed the Israelites to cross on foot during this low tide, and when the Egyptians tried to follow them in their chariots, the chariots would naturally have become bogged in the muddy ground. Then the wind could have changed direction, moving around to the south, causing the high tide to quickly return and swamp the Egyptians. It would therefore have been understandable for the Israelites to think of this event as a miracle. 

Boadt makes the point in reference to the story, that the miracle is not so much in the actual events of what happened, but rather it is in the timing of what happened. He suggests that the timing, which allowed the Israelites to escape and caused the Egyptians to perish, cannot be explained in any way except by design or because of prayer. In other words, the Israelites only escaped from the Egyptian army because God chose to protect and guide them. Today’s passage closes with the following verse, “So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” The Israelites now have faith in God as a result of their experience.

In another reference to faith, today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans opens with the verse, “Welcome those who are weak in faith.” In this passage, Paul is dealing with tension in the church community in Rome, between what he describes as those who are “weak” in faith, and those who are “strong” in faith. 

The “weak” in faith are probably Jewish Christians, who still observe Jewish dietary laws and festivals because of a deep personal conviction arising from the Jewish way of life they were born into, whereas those whom Paul describes as strong, are probably Jewish and/or Gentiles believers who have never observed, or no longer found it necessary to observe, these practices because of similar deep convictions about their faith in Jesus. In this passage, Paul counsels the “strong” against passing judgement on their fellow Christians.

In today’s gospel passage, we are presented with the issue of forgiveness. After asking Jesus how many times he should forgive a fellow member of the church who sins against him, the Apostle Peter suggests his own answer, which is seven, the number for perfection, as in the seven days of creation. Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Jesus then proceeds to tell Peter the ‘Parable of the Unforgiving Servant’, in which a king, demonstrating mercy, forgives one of his servants a debt so large, that it could never possibly be repaid in the servant’s lifetime. 

Having been shown such mercy and forgiveness by his master, you could reasonably expect that the servant, who in turn was owed by a fellow servant a debt considerably less than the amount he himself owed, would treat his fellow servant with the same mercy and forgiveness. Instead, he does the complete opposite, having his fellow servant thrown in prison until he repays the debt owed. When the king hears about this he is furious, and he reverses his decision and has the unforgiving servant tortured until his entire debt can be repaid which, of course it never can be, meaning he will be in torture for eternity.

The message that Jesus communicates in this parable is that God’s forgiveness is both undeserved and total. We don’t, and can’t, earn God’s forgiveness; it is a gift given to us by the grace of God. We can however lose God’s forgiveness if, like the ‘Unforgiving Servant, we don’t pass on to others the forgiveness that we ourselves have received from God. However as I’m sure we all know, forgiveness is not easy. In some situations, depending on the circumstances, it might actually seem to be impossible.

For example, how difficult would it be to forgive someone who caused the death of our child, be it intentionally or unintentionally? Similarly, could we easily forgive our spouse if they were unfaithful to us? Could we forgive a hustler or swindler who defrauds us of our life savings? These of course are extreme examples. We may not have experienced circumstances as severe as these, but I’m sure that all of us nonetheless have faced situations which have been painful or hurtful to us. Have we been able to forgive the person who caused us that pain or hurt?

When Jesus forgives the sins of a paralytic in the synagogue in Capernaum (Mark 2:7), the scribes ask, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” ‘Because only God can forgive, Jesus, who is divine as well as human, can forgive.’  But Jesus insists that we too must forgive as God forgives. Is that even possible? 

Protestant theologian Miroslav Volf believes that it is. He explains it this way, ‘In Christ’s death, humanity died, and by virtue of that death, human guilt was removed. God alone has the power to make us all die and rise with Christ, even while we continue to live. God alone has the power to forgive. And in Christ, God has in fact forgiven.’ 

Volf goes on to say, ‘Because God has forgiven, we also have the power to forgive. We don’t forgive in our own right. We forgive by making God’s forgiveness our own. And even then, we don’t forgive the fact of someone’s guilt, the so-called objective guilt. God has already done that.’ ‘We help remove the offender’s feeling of guilt in regard to us, the so-called subjective guilt.’ 

When we tell someone that we forgive them, we are effectively saying to them, “Because God in Christ doesn’t count your trespasses against you, and because God has removed your guilt from you, I too don’t count against you the fact that you’ve wronged me, and I don’t consider you guilty. God has made you innocent, and therefore I consider you innocent.” 

We can relieve the guilt an offender might feel towards us because God has already removed the burden of guilt from that person.

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