Luke 14.1-2; 7-14
Thomas Wheeler, the former Chief Executive Officer of the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, told a good story about himself. He said that while he and his wife were out driving he noticed they were low on fuel. So he pulled up at this grubby little petrol station with one pump. There was only one man working the place, so he asked him to fill the car up while he checked the oil. He added a quart of oil, closed the bonnet, and he saw his wife talking and smiling at the petrol attendant. When they saw him looking at them, the station attendant walked away and pretended as if nothing had happened. Wheeler paid the man and he and his wife pulled out of that seedy little station. As they drove down the road, he asked his wife if she knew the attendant. Well, she admitted she did know him. In fact, she had known him very well. For it seems that they not only had gone to high school together, but they dated seriously for about a year. Well, Wheeler couldn’t help bragging a little and said, “Boy were you lucky I came along. Because if you’d married him you’d be the wife of a petrol station attendant instead of the wife of a Chief Executive Officer.” His wife replied, “My dear, if I had married him, he’d be the Chief Executive Officer and you’d be the gas station attendant.”
Well there is a story of sin if you like to use the word; the sin of pride and arrogance. But it is also a tale of debt and debtors. For as his wife argued, Wheeler is in debt to her for his exalted position and success.
And that’s why the Scottish translation of that phrase from the Lord’s prayer is I think more useful than the more common one of sins. For the words debt and debtors not only take us to the heart of our serious faults it also shows us a way over them.
Let me explain.
Whilst I was penning this sermon, I suddenly realised that I was nibbling on a bar of chocolate. Now there is definitely the sin of indulgence. There is the debt of calories loaded on. But if we leave it there, we might regret the unthinking snacking, we might close the drawer on the tempting confectionary and we may even promise ourselves not to fall prey again. But the word debt challenges us for more – it challenges us to take some extra exercise to burn of the consumption – it challenges us to eat less in that day – it even challenges us to making amends painfully by giving the remains of the bar away.
And my point is that when we think of our bad moments as debts we can see also who the debtor is and we can even see how to pay it off.
Now, as I said last week, the speed of modern Britain, is both incessant and increasing. As a result, we more and more feel the push and shove of people around us. We can feel that we need to be assertive to get anywhere and others do too. Not surprisingly then we consider ourselves in a rat race. However, the comedienne Lily Tomlin once said, “The trouble with the rat-race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”
So how then do we neither win or lose the rat race and end up a rat? How do we not win or lose the race for seats at the top of the table? How do we not win or lose the crooked race alluded to by the Book of Proverbs?
Well, the answer is not to run that type of race in the first place!
Talking of races, I was reading of one this week. It is chronicled in the book the Double Helix by the renowned scientist, Jim Watson. For, in the early 50s, he and his lab partner Francis Crick were trying to discovery the structure of the DNA molecule. This is the chemical chain within all biological cells including our own that encodes each creature’s entire characteristics. Now this search was a race as one of that era’s towering figures, Linus Pauling, was snapping at their heels. Since DNA’s structure would be one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th Century.
Yet the villain of the early part of the book wasn’t Pauling but a brilliant if somewhat difficult woman scientist called Roslyn Franklin. She seemed determined not to enter into the boys’ game of races preferring instead painstaking yet sure progress.
In the epilogue to the book, Watson expresses his regret that he often got Franklin wrong. He goes on to state that her work was superb and in time he came to appreciate her personal honesty, courage and generosity. He admits that, too late, he grasped the pain of the struggles of an intelligent woman in the face of a prejudiced community that denied her ability for world class thinking.
Sadly, Roslyn Franklin was not to share the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick in 1962, as she was entitled to have done, for she was to die of ovarian cancer in 1958.
Here then is the game of debts and debtors played out to a more golden victory than a top dog winner. Here is true humility shown as its own reward. Here is our path to true greatness. Here is indeed is debts paid off with mutual respect.
For the parable of the diners, reminds us of the debts we each owe one other. It reminds us of the intrinsic merit of the debtor as a unique creation of God. It reminds us of our need for contrite payment through mutual respect; respect for the petrol attendant as well as the chief executive, respect for the person just struggling in life’s rat race and respect for the visible and invisible poor, crippled, lame and blind. After all we all share the same DNA, we all share the burden of owing and been owed debts, we all share the proverbial mercy of God which promises that that we need never a borrower or lender be.
Because, through his Son, we not be in a race but we are in a family.