Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a period of 40 days of self-examination and self-discipline in preparation for Easter. Those few who were able to attend the Ash Wednesday service heard a lengthy address concerning the origins of Lent. For those here today who missed that, I will read just a brief excerpt: “This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”
This explains why all three of today’s Bible readings deal in some way or other with the sacrament of Baptism. The first reading from Genesis gives us God’s covenant with the remnants of humankind, those who were saved from the Great Flood. As you may recall, God was disgusted with the sinfulness of his people, and he decided to “reboot the system.” He drowned all the creatures on Earth, with the exception of eight members of one family and the animals that they had collected into the ark. God then made a covenant with those eight survivors, and with their descendants, never to do such a thing again.
Now, if we take the story literally, it is horrific. Millions of people must have been drowned. But our ancestors in the faith, including St. Peter, sought a deeper, more spiritual meaning in this tale of mass destruction. And they accomplished this by reading the story of the Flood as a kind of allegory. The waters of the Flood were understood as symbolic of the waters of Baptism. In their understanding, the drowning of the Earth’s many sinners symbolically represented the drowning of our sins in the holy font. Noah’s ark of wood was understood as a symbol of either the wooden Cross of Christ or his salvific Church. Lastly, the covenant of the rainbow that we heard about in the first reading was seen as a prefigurement of the baptismal covenant.
Last week, the Gospel reading was about church discipline. Specifically, it dealt with how to handle someone who is causing trouble in the congregation. (Father Webber quite understandably opted to preach on the Epistle.) Today’s Gospel reading has to do with forgiving a fellow Christian who has sinned against you. In both cases, the common theme is how to get along with one another in a small, tight-knit community.
The Gospel reading starts out with Peter asking Jesus a question: How often do I have to forgive a fellow disciple who keeps on sinning against me? What a telling question! It tells me that things haven’t changed much in 2000 years. We still struggle to get along. We still struggle to forgive one another. If you have ever served on a parish committee, you know what kind of little sins can happen. Someone interrupts someone else, and the person who was interrupted feels that his or her opinion isn’t valued. Someone tends to talk a bit too long, and another church member makes a show of not listening. Someone is trying to get something done under a deadline, but someone else doesn’t want to rush into the wrong decision. In the course of community life, we inevitably hurt each other’s feelings. Now, these are all little slights, little sins. But they can disrupt the whole community!
Jesus’s answer to this problem is quite simple: forgiveness. Now, Peter imagines that he should forgive someone no more than seven times. That seems like a reasonable limit to him. But Jesus responds that we should forgive one another seventy-seven times. In other words, forgiveness has nothing to do at all with being reasonable.
Figuring that Peter won’t understand this teaching, Jesus tries to explain it with a parable, a short story about a rich king and his slaves. The king forgives a huge debt to a slave who cannot possibly repay what he owes. By rights, the king could sell the slave and all his family in order to recoup a tiny portion of the debt. But when the slave pleads for mercy, the king shows compassion and forgives the entire debt. Now, you have to realize just how large that debt was. Ten thousand talents is just under seven billion dollars! Unfortunately, the slave whose huge debt was erased does not himself learn forgiveness. He accosts a fellow slave who owes him around eleven thousand dollars and demands payment in full. When he doesn’t get it, he has that slave imprisoned!
There is a common thread tying together the first reading from the book of Sirach and the Gospel reading from Luke, and that commonality is human pride, one of the so-called seven deadly sins.
Sirach, a book of the Apocrypha, was written by a wisdom teacher, someone we would probably call a “life coach.” His purpose was to teach young men how to get along in life without forsaking God. He teaches that human pride is a sinful forsaking of God our Maker and results in ruin.
Jesus, speaking at a dinner party, comments on the guests’ scramble for the best seats at the dinner table by telling a parable. The moral of that parable is “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Pride is clearly considered problematic. For English-speakers, the very word is problematic. Pride can mean “a reasonable or justifiable self-respect.” When we see parents displaying bumper stickers about their kids’ being on the honor roll, it doesn’t seem particularly sinful. When San Francisco hosts a Pride Day Parade, it is not meant to promote a deadly sin (though some might disagree with me there!). The kind of pride that is condemned as sinful is the state of mind in which a person lives as if they are the very center of Creation, that their accomplishments are unique, and that everything in this world matters only in so far as it affects them. Such a person forgets that everyone, and I mean everyone, is a beloved creature of God, and that every gift and every accomplishment ultimately derives from the Creator. But there is another way of looking at pride. One writer on patristic spirituality says, “[Pride’s] essential quality is not found in having too high an opinion of oneself so much as too low an opinion of everyone else” (Roberta Bondi, To Love as God Loves). I kind of like that!