The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19), September 17, 2023

August 1, 2023 | by Paul Nancarrow

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Exodus 14:19-31 Psalm 114 Romans 14:1-12 Matthew 18:21-35

The readings for this day ring some changes on the theme of liberation, viewing it as inward and outward, political and personal.

The Exodus reading is Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea, the quintessential liberation text in the Hebrew Scriptures, the touchstone story from which derive all concerns for justice in the Law, all condemnations of oppression in the Prophets.

Central to this liberation story is the claim that this is no sort of military victory. Even though the Israelite host is referred to as an “army,” even though there are repeated mentions of “horses, chariots, and chariot drivers” on the side of the Egyptians, this is not a story about an armed clash. The liberating work here is done by God. What sets the Israelites free is not their prowess in armed rebellion, but their readiness to respond to God’s freeing action.

In that respect, I am particularly intrigued by the aspects of this story that might be called “naturalistic,” as distinct from the more overtly supernatural and miraculous elements. There are certainly non-ordinary features in the story: the waters stand up around the Israelites, “forming a wall for them on their right and on their left,” in a way water doesn’t usually behave; “the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea” in a physical divine intervention we don’t see every day. But side by side with these elements are features that seem more typical of water and weather and the way things work. A “strong east wind” blows all night, and it pushes back standing water to reveal mud flats beneath, mud flats where people can walk but “horses, and chariots, and chariot drivers” would find their wheels clogged and their going slow. Caught off guard by this muddy impediment, the soldiers get frustrated, disorganized, “panicked,” and they lose their ability to fight. In the morning, the wind shifts again, the waters return, the mudflats retreat under streams and pools and channels, and as the fearful soldiers turn and run they fall into deeper water they can’t see in front of them and are drowned. The Israelites escape because they can read the wind and water, and they know how to turn their unarmed, underdog status into their advantage.

In the midst of all of this, Moses is able to look at what is happening and to discern God’s will at work in it. The east wind is not just a lucky coincidence, but is God acting to drive the waters back and open the way through the salt marsh. The panic among the soldiers is not simply a psychological reaction, but is God turning back their intention to commit violence. The return of the waters is not only a wind-shift, but is God closing the way with the Israelites safe on one side and the Egyptians stranded on the other.

Moses construes this combination of events not simply as a lucky escape, but as God’s intentional action — God’s streams of influence luring series of actual occasions into favorable combinations, we might say — to set the people of Israel free from the oppression of Egypt. When the people in turn are led to see how this series of events is the outworking of God’s will for their good, they “feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.”

In this sense, the people’s liberation is more than just the political reality of their extrication from the imperial domination of Egypt. Their freedom comes also in their new relationship with God, their “belief” that God is at work in worldly phenomena for their good and their own responsiveness to that good work, their willingness to trust in God and follow God’s guidance — even into something so absurd as running away from an army by venturing into mud flats — rather than relying on their own arms or prowess or militaristic violence. What liberates is giving up the will to power, turning instead to discerning what God is doing in the actual world and following God in that doing.

That same insight is given in a smaller scale, more domestic kind of way, in the alternative Old Testament reading for the day, the final reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers in the land of Goshen. After the death of their father Jacob, Joseph’s brothers are afraid that old grudges will come to the surface again, and that Joseph will seek revenge on them for selling him into slavery in Egypt so many years before. Now that Joseph has used his immense political power as second-in-command in Egypt to bring them to Goshen, they are completely dependent on him and his generosity; if that should turn instead to anger, they would be doomed.

So they invent a story of Jacob sending a deathbed message to Joseph to forgive them, and they bring that story to Joseph. Even if the story is a fabrication, their admission of their own “crime” and their desire for true reconciliation are genuine, and the emotion of the moment overcomes both them and Joseph. As recompense, to avert revenge, they offer to become slaves.

But Joseph does not need to be persuaded to give up his vengeance. He does not want vengeance. “Am I in the place of God?” he asks, to act as judge over his brothers in that way. Even though his brothers did wrong, Joseph has become able to see that wrong in a larger context, specifically the context of putting him in a position to provide food in a time of famine, “in order to preserve a numerous people.” Without the brothers’ wrong, the much larger good of preservation of life would not have been possible. So Joseph can reinterpret and reconstrue their entire situation: “even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” Joseph chooses to embrace God’s good, giving up his right for vengeance, his will to power, and joining God’s good work of preserving life by promising his brothers to “provide for you and your little ones.”

Joseph thereby accepts God’s liberation from the burden of grudge and judgment, the inward liberation of his spirit, and acts in turn to liberate his brothers from their burden of guilt and shame. Though this liberation is interpersonal rather than political, as in the Exodus story, it bears the same hallmark of being made free by discerning what God is doing and following God in doing it.

There is a similar dynamic of inner and interpersonal liberation at work in the passage from Romans. Here Paul takes what was a personal decision of Joseph in the Genesis reading and generalizes it into a principle of church order. In the Christian community, Paul says, all persons should be liberated from the burden of judging and of being judged.

Paul recognizes that in the community in Rome, as indeed in all Christian communities, then and now, there are differences of “opinion” in practice and devotion, which can coexist with a central, shared commitment to the Way of Love of Jesus. There are some who practice dietary restrictions as a matter of devotion: in the pluralistic society of Hellenistic Rome, meat sold in the marketplace could come directly from the farm, or could come from having been offered in sacrifice in a non-Christian temple. Believing that eating sacrificed meat could compromise their devotion to the one God of the Jesus tradition, some abstained from meat. Others had no such scruple, and would eat meat and vegetables and foods whatever the source, since all good gifts, they believe, come from the one God.

In the community there were some who kept special days of fasting, abstinence, and devotion — other ancient Christian sources suggest that Wednesdays and Fridays were customary fast days — while others did not. While most Christian denominations today recognize special holy days and feasts — Christmas and Easter being the principle feasts shared among varieties of Christians — historical evidence suggests that the only day observed in common among the earliest Christians was the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week. The development of special holy days was gradual, and not without controversy.

All such things, Paul asserts, are “opinion,” and are important only insofar as they are recognized as ways of acting “in honor of the Lord” — but it is the act of honoring the Lord that is central and important. Judging each other as “better” or “worse,” “faithful” or “faithless,” based on the manner of honoring God is pointless, but it is the enactment of honoring God and loving each other that matters. Because all members of the community “are the Lord’s,” it is not appropriate for any of them to “pass judgment on the servants of another.” Only God can do that.

This liberates members of the community from judging and being judged, and frees them to love each other, with their distinctions and differences of devotion and “opinion” intact, united in a shared commitment to honor God and follow Jesus in their varied actions. It is their new relationship to God, and through God with each other, in the Way of Jesus, that empowers this transcending and including of differences.

That same dynamic is being illustrated in Jesus’ parable about the unforgiving servant in Matthew. The parable is a vivid little short story about debt and cancellation and forgiveness and treating others as you want to be treated. And the point is clear: the proper response to being liberated from a crushing debt is to liberate others from their debts to you. Whereas some parables use ambiguity and surprise to communicate their meaning, the ethical implication of this parable is lying right on the surface, almost allegorically eager to be seen.

It is important to remember, however, the framing occasion of this parable. Jesus’ story is about a one-time crisis of account-settling and one servant’s failure to get the point. Peter’s question, to which Jesus’ story is the answer, is about ongoing life in the Christian community. Peter wants to know how often he is required to forgive someone in the community who persistently mistreats him.

This is not an idle question. Many of us have had the experience of being let down, annoyed, disappointed, hurt, perhaps even injured, by members of the faith community whom we had trusted to treat us better. Returning to right-relationship with someone who has ruptured relationship in this way is not easy. Sometimes, in cases of sexual misconduct or intentional physical injury for instance, expecting to restore relationship would be a prolongation of trauma and serious additional danger. Even in less egregious cases, the difficulty of restoring ruptured relationship cannot be taken lightly.

To Peter, suggesting that he might restore relationship with a community member who has mistreated him “as many as seven times” seems exceedingly generous.

Jesus’ response to Peter undercuts that entire calculative, tit-for-tat reasoning. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” is not a numerical answer. Jesus is not simply increasing the scorecard, but throwing the scorecard out altogether. Forgiveness, Jesus is saying, is endless. Forgiveness is recurrent. Forgiveness is an ongoing Way of living.

And that is because the heart of forgiveness is choosing not to judge the other. The core act of forgiveness is allowing yourself to be liberated from holding grudges and nursing wounds, turning instead to discerning how God is offering healing and love and right-relationship in the present moment. The essence of forgiveness, as Jesus presents it here, is recognizing that, even in your hurt and anger, you are loved by God and valued by God and opened to right-relationship by God, and intending to regard the sinning other in the light of that divine love.

That does not mean that all ruptured relationships can be restored. That does not mean that community members who have committed crimes or serious misconduct should not be held accountable. That does not mean that “forgiving” reduces to being a doormat to be walked over by anyone who chooses.

But it does mean resetting the experience of being hurt and injured and sinned-against within the larger context of God’s overarching will for right-relationships and reciprocal well-being — God’s overarching will for justice and peace — particularly as it is revealed and lived in the Way of Jesus. It means giving up, being liberated from, the burden of judgmentalism, and taking on, being liberated for, the discernment of new creative possibilities of relationship in God.

Liberation, inward and outward, personal and political, is thus the theme of this day’s readings. Being set free from oppression and judgmentalism, being set free for right-relationship and restoration of hurts, is the good news of this day.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Nancarrow is an Episcopal priest, whose theological work has focused on process-relational interpretations of spirituality and liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action in sacramental work and worship. He has taught Theology for ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, and is currently the author of the theology blog “Transfigurations” at He can often be found contemplating the Adventure of the Universe as One from the saddle of his bicycle on back roads and rail-trails in the Midwest.