St Bride's: Sermons

The extent of forgiveness

Matthew 18: 21–35

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21 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?

22 Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

23 Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.

24 And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents.

25 But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.

26 The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.

27 Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.

28 But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.

29 And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.

30 And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.

31 So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.

32 Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me:

33 Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?

34 And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.

35 So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

We often talk glibly about forgiveness, as if it is easy and commonplace. But it is not, and it does not come easily to people, even when they are aware that a miscreant has been punished and released. For some, punishment must go on into infinity as even a change of identity does not protect them from those who seek revenge.

Peter was concerned. He knew that forgiveness and reconciliation were prominent in the Lord's teaching but he wanted to set limits.The persistent offender might perhaps be forgiven seven times? Seventy seven, says Jesus.

This must have seemed scandalous to Peter and the others. Even in the early history of the Church the whole business of forgiveness was problematic. For a time it was stated that one lapse from grace as a member of the Church was enough to guarantee permanent expulsion. Then concessions were made, and it was possible to be readmitted after one lapse. Then the boundaries were extended so that more than one incidence of major sin could be dealt with.

This gave rise to quite a complex penitential system, which resulted in the present, though much neglected scheme of individual confession to a representative of the Church. Maybe the Church began to heed the Gospel, for in today's reading, Jesus follows his answer to Peter with a parable which paints an extreme picture.

Economies of scale at first prevent us from seeing the reality of the situation. The slave is forgiven a debt of ten thousand talents, at the time a talent was the equivalent of about £750. The Jewish historian Josephus says that in the year 4BC the whole of Galilee and Perea paid about two hundred talents in taxes. To put it in another way, ten thousand talents parallels the national debt of a small country.

The man, a slave at that, had no chance of ever paying back the amount. It is such an enormous sum that we know the parable is speaking about God, to whom we owe what we are absolutely unable to pay back. The parable could stop when the king forgives the debt. But it does not intend to leave us to work out the practical consequences of God's infinite mercy towards the insolvent servants that we are.

It goes on to say how the slave failed to learn the lesson of forgiveness in the way the king dealt with him. The man's fellow slave owed him a ridiculously low amount. One hundred denarii was equivalent to an agricultural worker's wage for a hundred days - an achievable amount. The sequence of events that follows shows the indignation of the other slaves and their determination to let the king know the actions of the man he so generously pardoned.

The consequence for the slave is torture until he pays the entire debt - another way of saying that he is consigned to everlasting punishment. This is stern stuff. And it points not only to the absolute necessity of forgiveness at the heart of our common life, but also to the reason why we are Christians at all.

Each of us has received, and continues to receive, the mercy of the Father in heaven, who has remitted the unrepayable debt of our sin. Our conduct towards our brothers and sisters who have offended us follows from the conduct of God towards us.

When we meet for the Eucharistic celebration we always acknowledge and confess our sin. This not so much acknowledges the gravity of our sin, we perhaps don't need to be reminded of that. It emphasises the greatness of God's mercy and forgiveness, which answers the cry of our hearts: Kyrie eleison.

Every baptism, every absolution, every Eucharistic celebration reiterates the immense generosity of God. Generosity not in response to our efforts to live a good life, but generosity born out of divine love.Love embodied in Jesus of Nazareth and poured out with his lifeblood on the cross. A love which in no way depends on our worthiness and which is still generously given when we are still sinners, which we all are. A love which literally feeds us each time we receive Holy Communion, the never-failing gift of Christ to his Church.

Those who have received and perceived this gift have no excuse. This is the heart of the parable. Not one of us can simply sit in judgement over those we consider to be beyond redemption, beyond forgiveness, for we are all under the judgement of God.
Whether we live or whether we die, says St Paul, we are the Lord's.

But God does not simply love those who have gravitated to the Church. God loves us all simply because we are human.
So the gestures, the reality of reconciliation, which energise the Church, shouldn't stop at the boundaries of this community.
The life of the Church and its growing edge are crucially important in sustaining both those who already belong and the people we meet in our daily lives. Those who step through the doors of this place also need to sense the strong conviction that the Christian faith is sustained by the over-arching forgiveness of the God of love.

I dare to hope that we do this well, and the fact that we do springs from the foundation of our community on the Christ who died and lived again, so that he might be Lord both of the dead and the living.

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