Pay What You Owe!
September 17, 2017
By John Partridge*
Exodus 14:19-31 Romans 14:1-12 Matthew 18:21-35
How many of you have ever seen the 1976 movie, “Rocky” starring Sylvester Stallone?
We might be missing some of our younger friends, but I would think that by now, most of us have seen it, if not in movie theaters, then on television or on Netflix, or video, or something.
In any case, at the beginning of the movie, we learn that Rocky is a down on his luck, amateur boxer and to emphasize just how far down he is, we see that he makes extra money as a collection agent for a local loan shark. The trouble is, he is too nice and gets in trouble for not breaking someone’s thumbs as he was told to do. That is typical of how loan sharks have appeared in movies and television for years. When you fall behind in your payments to a loan shark, some big thug pays you a visit and reminds you, often violently and painfully, that you are expected to pay what you owe.
And if you think about it, that’s something of a common theme in our lives. We get letters from the bank, and the utility company, and the department store, and the credit card company, the Internal Revenue Service, and all sorts of other places every month that urgently remind us, just as forcefully and only slightly less threateningly, that we are expected to pay what we owe.
When people do things for us, whether they loan us money, or mow our grass, shovel our snow, they expect to be paid in return. We expect the same when we work for others. Not many of us would show up at work if our boss told us that there was no money to pay us. But that brings us back to the story of the people of Israel in the land of Egypt. Today we rejoin their story after they have fled their captivity, but now, having been pursued by the chariots of the army of Egypt, find themselves trapped between the swords and spears of the Egyptians, and the Red Sea. (Exodus 14:19-31)
19 Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, 20 coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
23 The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. 24 During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. 25 He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.”27 Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. 28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.
29 But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. 30 That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. 31 And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.
All along, the god of Abraham has been a god of miracles. He introduced himself to Moses by appearing in a burning bush, gave Moses a staff that turned into a snake so that he could re-introduce himself to the Pharaoh as a person of power, then brought about ten plagues to afflict Egypt until Pharaoh finally consented to allow the Israelites to leave, and finally leads and protects the Israelites with a pillar of cloud and fire. And now, when it seems that hope is lost and the Egyptian army will either kill them or return them to their captivity, God creates a dry pathway through the sea through which the Israelites cross safely and in which every single Egyptian soldier dies.
God has done all these things, and yet he still promises more. God still intends to keep his promises and lead Israel into the Promised Land where Israel can become a great nation and rule over themselves. And in exchange for all of these miracles and the display of all of this power, what is it that God wants in return? What will be required when God asks Israel to pay what they owe?
God’s generosity toward Israel is a gift and comes not from a desire to be repaid, but from the love that he has toward his people and the honor that God has in keeping the promises that he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The only thing that God gets in return for his generosity… is trust.
“And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.”
But God does want something in return for his goodness. In Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus explains.
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold [ten thousand talents – about 20 years’ wages for a laborers wages] was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
The story of the Exodus told us that the people of Israel put their trust in God, and Jesus is clear that a part of trusting God is forgiving others in the same measure that we have been forgiven by God. The debt that God has paid on our behalf is astronomically more than we could ever repay and while God does not send thugs to threaten us to pay what we owe, he does insist that our forgiveness flow down to the people we live with and work with every day. So important is this principle, that Jesus warns us that failing to forgive others and treating them harshly, will cause God to judge us with the same measure and lack of forgiveness with which we treat others.
Finally we come to Romans 14:1-12, where we find Paul’s explanation of how we are to honor God.
14:1 Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:
“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.’”
12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
We are called to accept those people whose faith is not as strong as ours or whose understanding of scripture, at least in non-essential theology, leads them to a somewhat different interpretation than ours. In Paul’s time, particularly because most meat was sold by butchers who cut, and resold, meat that had been sacrificed to idols, some Christians felt that it was a sin to eat meat. Others felt that since idols weren’t real, that the meat was not “tainted” in any way and was acceptable to eat. Paul’s advice was that these two groups should respect one another and not treat one another with contempt. This idea of contempt and respect is important and it comes up again later in this same passage.
Paul also addresses the issue of which day should be a holy day because believers had come to worship on different days. Just as Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, and a few others worship on Saturday, while most Protestant churches worship on Sunday, and Catholic churches often have worship on both days. Paul points out that what is important is that both groups are, in their own way, attempting to honor God. In fact, the same thing applies to the people that were arguing over meat, each group was, in their own way, doing their best to honor God in the way that they understood scripture.
And this is where Paul returns to that idea of contempt and respect, but here he asks why people judge one another. This is a little puzzling because only last week we heard Paul say that we should take someone aside if we see them falling in to sin, but here he tells us that we should not judge a brother or sister in Christ. How can we understand how these two ideas are not in conflict? If we look closely, Paul associates judgement with contempt and he is also careful to note that these arguments were over what he calls “disputable matters.” In that regard, it is important for us to distinguish between judgement and discernment, and also between sin, and disputable matters. Paul wants to be sure that the followers of Jesus do not fall into sin and that we do the things that God has called us to do and avoid those things that God has called sin. At the same time, Paul understands that not every dispute is critically important theologically. We are called to be discerning over which disagreements are simply disagreements, and which are clear matters of God’s instruction. In Paul’s time, some believers thought that eating meat was a sin and others didn’t, while some believed that worshiping on one particular day of the week was critical, while others didn’t. Today we have similar disagreements between fellow believers. Methodists believe that everyone should be invited to share at the communion table, while Catholics do not. We believe that it is possible to turn you back on God and lose your salvation while our Baptist friends do not. We believe that each individual has the free will to choose whether they will follow Jesus or not, and our Calvinist friends would describe that choice as predestined by God. The followers of Jesus Christ have many theological disagreements over things that Paul might describe as “disputable matters” or that John Wesley might have described as “non-essentials,” but although we disagree, we are not to judge one another in such a way that we treat one another with contempt.
In the end, Paul reminds us that each of us will eventually stand before God and give an account of our lives. And although we may disagree on how it is to be done, we must all do the best that we can to bring honor to God and to follow his commands. We must all do the best that we can to treat one another with respect even when we disagree about what things are, and are not, important. And all of these things are important because God has done so much for us that we can never hope to repay our debt.
God is not a loan shark that will send Rocky Balboa or some other thug to insist that you should “Pay what you owe.”
But what God wants in return is for us to forgive others and show mercy in the same measure that God has forgiven us and has been merciful toward us.
What God wants is for us to trust him enough to live as if scripture matters.
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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646. These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.