Forgiveness - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons


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.

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Jesus taught that forgiveness is central to our relationships both in terms of our relationship with God and our relationships with one another.   We all recognise I'm sure our very human tendencies to harbour grudges against others.  The call to forgive can seem very challenging and perhaps naïve or even wrong headed.

In today's Gospel we head Peter probe the limits of forgiveness. How many times must we make the effort to be reconciled with others? Peter begins by proposing what he considers excessive patience. Should we forgive someone as many as seven times he asks?  In his response Jesus turns Peter's assumptions on their head focusing not on how frequently we might be sinned against but rather on how frequently we are forgiven.  Not seven but 70 times 7 he says.  Our forgiveness of one another should reflect God's forgiveness of us.  What we have received we are called to share.

As is often the case, Jesus illustrates his teaching with a parable.  He tells of a servant who carries a massive financial obligation to his king, a debt too great ever to be repaid. The king decrees that the debtor and his family ought to be sold in order to pay the debt but relents when the debtor begs for more time and patience.  The king is generous and grants a wholesale remission of his debts.  But despite his good fortune we see that the servant takes a very different approach when he is creditor rather than the debtor.  He is either blind or indifferent to plight of the servant who owes him money.  The leniency that he just received he denies to another demanding instead that the debt owed him be paid immediately. When it is clear that that's impossible he insists that his debtor be thrown in jail. The king hearing of this callous reaction, changes his mind about his former generosity demanding that the servant be tortured until the debt be paid.  Jesus concludes the parable noting the seriousness of our forgiveness of others warning against taking the father's mercy for granted.  So likewise shall my heavenly father do unto you he says, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brothers their trespasses.  Our Lord's prayer reflects this teaching directly as we pray - "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us".

It's significant that this Gospel is part of a longer passage of teaching about relationships.  It follows on from last week's Gospel reading about how we deal with disputes.  That's significant because forgiveness isn't some kind of tacit justification or acceptance of another's behaviour.  It doesn't diminish the trespass.  Indeed, if forgiveness is to lead to genuine reconciliation and healing, a truthful recognition of the hurt caused is essential. 

Rowan Williams, our former Archbishop, has reflected on the importance of forgiveness arguing that in forgiving others and being forgiven ourselves we are humanised as we recognise our common needs and failings.  We are all in need for forgiveness and recognising that God's gracious mercy is available to us all, our relationships may be shaped by the same mercy.  He notes that when offence is given or hurt is caused, the customary human response is withdrawal, to reinforce the walls of the private self, asserting one's own humanity as a possession rather than receiving it as gift. The unforgiven and the unforgiving cannot see the other as part of God's work of bestowing humanity on them.

The willingness to forgive is the mark of a humanity touched by God--free from anxiety about identity and safety, free to reach out to others, as God reaches out to us in Jesus Christ. But it may be that a willingness to be forgiven is no less the mark of a humanity touched by God. It is a matter of being prepared to acknowledge that I cannot grow or flourish without restored relationship. When I am forgiven by the one I have injured, I accept both that I have damaged a relationship, and that change is possible.

Next month, on 31st October, we will mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe, which tradition has it, was the day Martin Luther's nailed his 95 theses - protests against church practice of the day - to the door of a church in Wittenberg.  Those events are interesting to reflect on with today's readings from scripture in mind because interestingly it was the sale of indulgences, of forgiveness for sins, which initially led Luther to raise his concerns.  He challenged the practice that had developed whereby the church offered remission of sins for cash.  Luther insisted that salvation is a matter between each individual and God and that it rests on faith alone. 

Whilst that was Luther's initial emphasis, there was a rapid escalation.  If we look to those events I think we see a stark failure to follow the Gospels advice about dealing graciously with one another to resolve conflicts. Luther's complaints gained momentum partly because the Catholic Church refused to deal with his concerns choosing instead to belittle him.  The scope of Luther's complaints quickly expanded and his approach became more confrontational.  He eventually described the pope as the antichrist.  Both sides sought the others capitulation rather than any reconciliation.  We know that Luther struggled with the implications of the conflicts that his dispute helped to feed as it became bound up with wider social ferment. 

The tone of this year's commemorations of the reformation is enormously encouraging though.  Our current Archbishops - Justin Welby and John Sentamu have issued a joint statement recognising the lasting damage to the unity of the Church and the legacy of mistrust that resulted, but also the blessings that is brought, not least the availability of the Bible to all in their own language and the recognition of the calling of lay people to serve God in the world and in the church.  They note that there is a collective sense across denominations that this year is a time to repent of our part in perpetuating divisions and to reach out to others to strengthening relationships; to forgive one another and to recognise our need to be forgiven.  Perhaps in doing so we may be brought back to what the Reformers sought to put at the centre of every person's life, a simple trust in Jesus Christ our Lord.

To him be all glory, now and to the ages of ages.


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