Throwing out the shoes
A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on September 1, 2019
•Deuteronomy 15:1-2,7-11; Luke 15:11-32•
This week I read about an orphan who wanted nothing more in the world than to belong to a family. Finally, his opportunity came. He was eight years old and a family wanted to adopt him. Introductions were made, papers were signed, and just 6 days after his eighth birthday he left for his new home. He took with him his hope and his possessions – the old worn and torn clothes he was wearing and a single soft toy.
His new parents were excited to have him with them, and wanted him to feel like one of the family. A special celebration dinner was held, he was given his own room, and he was introduced to the other kids in the street. His new parents took those old clothes, threw them away and bought him beautiful new clothes. They bought him a bike and more toys, and pretty soon he began to feel just like all the other kids in the neighborhood, loved and part of a family.
One thing however was curious. The young boy’s old shoes, the ones with the big holes in them, weren’t tossed out with the rest of his clothes. His new father placed them on the mantelpiece. It wasn’t long before the newly adopted son found out why. Every time that boy did something wrong his father would go and get those shoes and say “Look at all we’ve done for you. We took you in when you had nothing, but look at how you’ve behaved”
It is unfortunate and yet too often we do the same thing in our relationships. We dredge up the past and throw it back in someone’s face, never letting them forget how much they’re in our debt. Thankfully, God recognizes how insidious our mindset can be, how easily sin can creep in and entice us to build ourselves up at others’ expense, to guard and protect our perceived worth, which can lead to our ignoring others’ needs — even those we are closest to.
To combat this tendency God lays out a rhythm to assure this won’t happen. We call it jubilee and as Old Testament Professor, Richard Lowery points out it “is a unique holiday for a distinctive deity, who defines the divine-human relationship by rest, not by work.”[i] Lowery goes on to point out how remarkable this relationship actually is. For instance “in the Babylonian creation myth…(their gods) create human beings to do the gods’ grunt work.”[ii] Whereas in Israel’s sacred story, humans were created to steward creation, not to do all the work the gods didn’t want to. In Israel’s story, humans are created in the image of God. And later, God “re-creates” the people by actually liberating them from forced labor, canceling their debt, buying their freedom from slavery, and restoring their household property.
Lowery points out that the Sabbath rhythm actually “celebrates this jubilee relationship with God. Sabbath rest is God’s distinctive mark, a deep symbol of Israel’s intimate relationship with the one who frees rather than enslaves, who offers lavish blessing rather than endless toil.”[iii]
The detail of the practice of jubilee comes in a couple places in the Bible — one of which is our reading from Deuteronomy today. In the reading God’s people are challenged to share God’s commitment to liberty for the captive and oppressed, not just in theory, but in a similar radical act of debt cancellation.
Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed.[iv]
There is no escaping the intention, nor radical nature of this command. Four times in two verses, debt remission is lifted up as the expectation. God’s people are not to hold others in the chains of indebtedness forever. Every seven years, creditors are to tear up the IOUs that could make their neighbors into servants. Every seven years, debts are forgiven. Every seven years the books are made to balance by an act of radical forgiveness, and those who have been in debt are given a new beginning.
Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann has said, “this is perhaps the most astonishing command in the Bible.”[v] When you consider all the other commands in the Bible — Love your enemy… Pray for those who persecute you… Forgive seventy times seven times — Brueggemann is making quite a statement. But perhaps the command to grant such a remission of debts is in fact the most astonishing. For the command challenges the people of God to let go of economic advantages that are there for the lender, as an act of community building and neighborliness.
We are told in the reading: there will never cease to be need upon the earth — no amount of vigilance or tireless work on our part will end the world’s need — and so God invites us to open our hands to those who are poor and those who are in need. This week we are once again reminded that God is God and we are not. Rather as creatures of our Creator we are invited to join with God in the ongoing meeting of one another’s needs. This is the way of freedom and trust.
Which leads us to the story of the prodigal son. It is perhaps one of the best known stories and it has been interpreted all sorts of ways. But there is something intriguing about seeing it in connection with Sabbath and jubilee. Because we are so tempted and habitualized to measuring and comparing and earning our worth, that we feel threatened when someone is shown grace. Even though grace is the space in which we all exist. Each claimed by God, not because of what we have done or not done — said or not said — but, simply because God says so.
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are![vi]
The younger son returns with his tail between his legs. His efforts to define himself outside of his father’s love have proven self-destructive and harmful. He sheepishly returns having rehearsed a statement of defeat. But rather than let him fully deliver his carefully laid out plan the father interrupts and reminds him he is loved and claimed simply for being a child of the father. His place is restored in the midst of a great celebration to working beside the father toward freedom and wholeness. The older son is invited to the party as well, but finds it hard to let go of the idea that our places are earned, not freely given, especially when he has spent his whole life living under that lie.
You see when the rules of this world are taken off the table — if we can no longer assess our value by our productivity — if we can no longer compare ourselves to one another by our level of self-sufficiency — if we can no longer gauge our standing by what we are owed — it is a pretty scary and even threatening proposition. One might even say it is offensive.
But the thing is grace isn’t meant to make us feel better. It is not meant to give us a warm feeling inside. It is not meant to be permission to feel and do whatever you want. No — Grace is meant to free you. Grace is meant to transform you. Grace is meant to send you into the world to share God’s grace with all the other people.
Now there is always a danger trying to impose an ancient law and command from a time and society long ago into our current context. But what if the real crux of the story for us today isn’t about the command itself — it isn’t about forgiving anything anyone owes us every seventh year, but instead is a reminder that how we tend to one another truly matters to God. And that gaining advantage over someone by holding their past before them, puts the community at risk and comes with a cost that ends up impoverishing us all.
Perhaps for today we might simply say that forgiveness means throwing out the shoes, as well as the clothes and realizing that nothing is gained by dredging up the past as a reason for action in the present. Instead the forgiveness and grace God so freely shows us is meant to be freely shared with others as well. For God’s grace and forgiveness can lift us from slavery into freedom, can awaken us from death into life, can draw us back into the loving arms of a God who is filled with compassion, watching and waiting to meet us just as we are. Amen.
[i] Richard Lowery, Sabbath: A Little Jubilee, Center of Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2002.
[iv] Deuteronomy 5:1-2 (nrsv)
[v] Quoted by Edward A. McLeod in “Deuteronomy 15:1-11,” Interpretation, vol. 65, no. 2, Apr. 2011, pp. 180. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLA0001835654&site=ehost-live&scope=site..
[vi] 1 John 3:1 (niv)