Forgiven and Forgiving - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

Forgiven and Forgiving

Matthew 18: 21-35 (NRSV)

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21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Our Gospel reading this morning comprises a very neat and beautiful crafted parable. The story will, I'm sure, be familiar to many of you. We have a king settling his accounts; we have a servant who is massively in debt to him who, as a result, faces the loss of everything he has, even his own freedom. He begs to be given time to repay the amount that he owes - despite the immense scale of the debt. And, remarkably, the king, feeling compassion for him, not only shows him mercy - he does something far more extraordinary than that: he cancels the entire debt, totally and unconditionally.

But then the story is turned on its head. That same, newly-liberated servant goes out, bumps into a fellow servant, who owes him a far smaller amount of money. He demands payment from him; he refuses to show him any mercy, and he has his unfortunate debtor thrown into jail. But then, of course, the unmerciful servant at the centre of this story finally gets his come-uppance when the king gets to hear of his behaviour - and we can all give a resounding cheer as the ungrateful so-and-so is then hauled off to meet a fate that is even worse that the one that he originally escaped.

It is a very satisfying parable to hear, this one: it leaves us all with a real sense of poetic justice, because we see a man who was forgiven so graciously himself, and yet flatly refused to show mercy to the person who owed him just a little, get precisely what was coming to him. Serves him right. And, more than that, we can all sit back and think comforting thoughts about a God who, like the king in the parable, is ready to forgive us absolutely everything, unconditionally. All incredibly comforting to hear.

So why is it, then, that I find this story one of the most disturbing parables in the whole of the New Testament? It leaves me feeling profoundly uncomfortable - which, in my experience, is usually a very good indication that the original point of the story has, at some level, hit home: after all, Jesus told such stories precisely in order to provoke a reaction in his hearers - to stir them out of their complacency; to jolt them out of their comfort zones.

And hearing this parable, the most important question that I am left with is this: did the unmerciful servant at the centre of this story actually recognise that there was a connection between the two incidents: between his encounter with the king, and his encounter with the servant who owed him money? Because if he didn't, then this parable suddenly becomes a much more frightening story than simply the tale of an ungrateful man who is punished for his ingratitude. It becomes instead a story about the failure of a man to recognise the truth about himself; a man who is either completely unaware of, or completely indifferent to, the hypocrisy of his own actions - a hypocrisy that is so glaringly apparent to us, the onlookers - and, indeed, all too obvious to his fellow servants in the story, who inform the king of what the ungrateful servant has done.

If you think about it, the way in which the parable is told endorses this, too: the fact that the two incidents are immediately juxtaposed does more than simply underline the similarity and the contrast between them: remember that the unmerciful servant is actually walking out from his encounter with the king, doubtless still elated by his own narrow escape, when he bumps into the man who is his debtor: so his reaction to him is spontaneous, and in all probability, unthinking. He fails to make the connection between what has just happened to him and what he is now doing; he is unable to relate his experience of being forgiven to his need to be able to forgive.

This is a parable that is about hypocrisy, and about judgment, and about grace. It is a parable that warns us of the perils of being blind to the truth about who we are and what we are. Because such things are not of indifference, either to the people around us, or (more importantly) to God.

I suspect that most hypocrisy is in fact unconscious, because all too often we fail to recognise the gulf that can exist between the ideals that we uphold - the kinds of people we like to think of ourselves as being - and the lives that we actually live. There can be a startling contrast between the treatment that we ask for, and expect, from others, and the way in which, in certain contexts, we allow ourselves to behave. Similarly, there can be an immense gulf between the extraordinary grace and forgiveness that we receive from God, and our own ungracious and unforgiving actions towards others.

Lord Macauley once famously said about people like me, 'The profession of clergyman imposes on those who are not saints, the necessity of being hypocrites.' In a sense, how could it be otherwise? - because those of us who wear collars like mine remain frail human beings. We are called to proclaim the Good News of Christ's Kingdom to the world, and to strive to live the kind of life that Christ would have us live - and yet, just like everyone else, we, too, will always fall short of the ideal.

Which, at one level, is probably no bad thing. There is nothing more guaranteed to create a dysfunctional family unit or organisation, than to have one member within it whom everyone else regards as 'perfect'. Because either he or she will be inappropriately adored, or inappropriately resented, by everyone else. One of my favourite definitions of martyrdom is 'a martyr is a person who has to live with a saint.' Indeed, as someone said to me recently on the subject of saintly vicars: 'Do you know, I have never actually met the perfect clergyperson: I have heard them referred to, but you always find that the vicar in question has either just died, or just left the parish.'

But my basic point about our frailty applies to all Christians, for we are all called to bear witness to a truth that ultimately surpasses our understanding, and to uphold ideals that we ourselves will inevitably fail to attain absolutely, however hard we strive. You may remember that St Paul, of all people, was profoundly aware of this dichotomy in his own life, and was himself disturbed by it - hence his heartfelt plea in Romans 7:9: 'For the good that I would I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do.'

Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, put the same basic idea in even more provocative terms when he wrote this:

The call of Jesus brings a sword, not peace of mind, because it sets up within us the disturbance of an unrealisable aspiration.

The disturbance of an unrealisable aspiration. That might, at first glance, sound deeply depressing: why don't we all give up and go home, then? But what I think it actually means is this: we can, of course, rest secure in the knowledge that we are absolutely and unconditionally loved and accepted by God, regardless of our failures and inadequacies. That is the message that lies at the very heart of the Gospel. But, if we are taking our Christian discipleship with full seriousness and endeavouring to live it out, then the presence of Christ in our lives will make us ever more alert to the ways in which we fall short, which can in turn generate a restlessness that moves us to do something about it. And that is how we grow in discipleship and in faith. And the closer we are to God, the more aware we are of that. Because the brighter the light, the deeper the shadows.

Today's parable reminds us that the real problem is not that we make mistakes, or that we behave badly - because if we acknowledge what we have done and ask for forgiveness, then God's mercy is boundless, unconditional, and free. No, the true danger comes when we have lost sight of the fact that we are in need of that mercy, or begin to take it for granted, and so fail to recognise that, if God is willing to be that merciful to us, then that has obvious implications for how we ourselves should behave.

Sometimes it is only when we recognise the truth about ourselves that we can truly appreciate the extent of our need for the grace and the forgiveness of God. And those of us who have been blessed in receiving God's mercy must, in turn, recognise that to be merciful to others is not simply an option: it must become a way of life.

Amen.

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