A sermon preached by David Barton on Sunday 17th September at St Mary’s Church Iffley
Romans 12:1-14. Matthew 18:21-35
The theme of our readings today is forgiveness. The bible is frequently telling us that we ought to forgive one another. We preach on forgiveness quite often. It’s ingrained in our minds from the Lords Prayer, and churches are full of people who know that we should forgive. And intellectually we can all recognise that there is a positive value in putting the past aside and letting go cherished hurts. But I guess most of us find it hard, and there are occasions when it is well nigh impossible to do so. What about someone has been badly hurt, seriously damaged? Talking about forgiveness, being told we ought to forgive and let go of the pain could easily aggravate the situation. Someone abused or shamed could well end up feeling more guilty than they do already.
That’s the difficult bit when we think about forgiveness. And it’s against that that we should try and understand what Jesus is saying in this passage. It comes at the end of a whole chapter Matthew dedicates to forgiveness. This section is essentially in two parts. The first is an exchange between Peter and Jesus about the extent of forgiveness. The kind of questions we all ask. How often? How far do we go? Is there a point at which we throw up our hands and say: That’s it. Enough is enough. Forgiveness has been exhausted. But notice Jesus’ answer. It takes forgiveness out of that line of thinking completely. The point about 77x (or 70×7) is that Jesus is telling Peter that God’s forgiveness is not a commodity to be reckoned on a calculator. He uses numbers to blow away numbers. That kind if thinking is inappropriate here.
And by way of illustration Jesus adds this little parable, which, at first reading seems rather strange.
A servant has a debt to his king. On any reckoning this debt is enormous. I mean really enormous. 10,000 talents represents more than the wages of a day labourer for 150,000 years! It’s an absurd sum. The servant, bewilderingly, offers to pay it all back. What was going on in his mind? But, amazingly, the whole great sum is forgiven. Now you might have thought that the servant would be totally startled and would rush home and celebrate his amazing change of fortune with his wife and children. It’s a miracle. They are saved from prison, free! But no. On his way out from the king he refuses the pleas of a colleague to whom he has lent money, in a situation that mirrors the one he himself was in only a few minutes before. Indeed he does not just refuse: he is ruthless about it, throwing his fellow servant into prison. So surely, the king is fully justified in his harsh retaliation.
All very odd. But ponder it for a bit longer, and think back to the difficulty we all have with genuine forgiveness, and this parable and the saying in front of it, reveals something rather important.
When Jesus says to Peter, until 77 times, he is really totally changing the nature of the argument. Peter asks in terms of fairness, appropriateness, even justice. Essentially measurable terms.
Jesus response brushes all that aside. He roots human forgiveness in the love and mercy of God. That’s what the servant gets: not so much forgiveness as mercy – unstinting mercy. There is simply no way to measure the extent of God’s generosity to us when it comes to forgiving. And when God’s mercy flows out to us like that it changes everything. It shifts the way we think and act.
The first servant thinks, and can’t abandon thinking, in terms of measured fairness, his rights. Indebtedness and forgiveness for him are essentially part of a power game in which one person is a supplicant to another. What he could not see was that he had become a truly gifted person, the recipient of an action for which there was no justification at all. It was an act of love.. Julian of Norwich says, “In God there is neither wrath, nor forgiveness.” You think it should be one or the other. But God’s love of us is utterly beyond those categories. Deeper, wider, loving each one of us as if we were God’s only child. Such a love never leaves us and is beside us in our darkest moments.
And that takes us back to where we started with the problem of forgiveness, and those who struggle with hurt and shame. Jesus confronts us with the incredible kindness of God. In God’s eyes we are all of us forgiven debtors – no more no less – living among other debtors. There is no power game here of innocent and guilty. And that is the foundation of all Christian fellowship and all Christian action. To be Christian is to carry about in ourselves a sense of indebtedness and gratitude, and a longing to wake others to the truth and life we have been given.
When we read passages like this we should never forget that Jesus lived in deeply troubled times. Roman occupation and oppression in Palestine produced terrible poverty, and the kind of mental distress we read about in the pages of the Gospels. (That’s what demon possession is – mental distress). Jesus never ducked all that. But he only ever confronts it with the power of a life grounded in the love and kindness of God. And that is what he calls us to do.
When Jesus burst out of the desert and began that extraordinary mission in Galilee, with the daily healing, and that startling teaching about loving our enemies, going the second mile, turning the other cheek, sharing our coat with those who have none, he was trying to wake us all up to our basic DNA. We are made in the image of the generous, loving God he proclaimed. By calling us all to live out of that God-given generosity Jesus hoped that the world might begin to operate as it should. It is as if he was trying to create a tidal wave of love and forgiveness and generosity that would eventually reverse the grinding poverty and appalling injustices of his times, and create a society that lived out of the flow of God’s compassion. A revolution of the heart, if you like – which is of course where this passage ends: forgive others from the heart – our God given heart. And his vision was not just for Palestine, but for the world.
Paul in Romans picks all of that up. The church in Rome was an uneasy mix of Jews and Gentiles, each with their different customs. That led to difficult disputes about food and about the observance of festivals. But notice the way Paul never refers to Jews or Gentiles. He sweeps those great cultural divides aside, as if he is saying forget all that. You are part of a new family in Christ. Wake up to your calling as those who follow the one who is Lord of the living and the dead. This whole epistle is a great call to become part of the great tidal wave of God’s love. They and we are a small but crucial part of its great flow.
Impossible you think? But ponder this. This last week saw the anniversary of the destruction of the twin towers in New York. That was the outcome of distorted religious ideas, fostered among small, seemingly insignificant groups over the decades before. And in consequence of 9/11 many graves have been dug in Asia and Africa and the Middle East – and the West too. The Liberal West seems to have no answer to the barbarism we have discovered lying below the surface of seemingly ordered societies.
Was Jesus so wrong 2,000 years ago, to believe that a tidal wave of love, powered by the compassion of God, could eventually transform our world into the place of glory God destined it to be?