A sermon by Graham Low, preached on 13 September.
Today we have been reminded again of how scripture repeatedly tells us that we should forgive those who injure us. This is deeply ingrained in us from the Lord’s Prayer and today’s passage. We all know that we should forgive, that we should set aside niggling or deep hurts, and yet we find that we often cannot do so. Forgiveness is particularly challenging when a person is cheated upon in a personal or a professional relationship: senses of being injured, defective, and defeated abound. Guilt can be added to anger and shame.
The two parts of today’s gospel passage speak of such situations. In the first Peter and Jesus have a short exchange about the nature and extent of forgiveness. “Seventy seven times” is Jesus’ way of telling Peter that forgiveness is not quantifiable, but limitless. This is followed by the parable of the king forgiving a servant a debt of maybe billions of pounds in today’s terms. The servant then fails to forgive a fellow servant a reasonable debt. At first we may be astonished at the king’s heartless and ruthless behaviour – torture and imprisonment. But looking at the final part of this parable might lead us to conclude that if we do not forgive then God will withhold forgiveness. Now look again a bit further. Human forgiveness is rooted in divine forgiveness, which we have seen is limitless.
So what has happened to the first servant? There is a gap here. Once he has been released, he shows no sign of rejoicing, or thankfulness, or celebrating with his family, who are spared imprisonment. Freedom is not mentioned. We simply hear that he does not forgive his colleague. He has no sense of what forgiveness is. In his initial plea to the king to be spared an impossible debt, he speaks to the king in terms of justice: “I will repay you everything”.
But what he is given is the king’s mercy, and not justice. He still thinks of indebtedness and forgiveness as some kind of power game. He has not come to understand that he has been given mercy rather than justice. He can’t see himself in the position of the second servant, and cannot show mercy. He does not yet see that forgiveness is a matter of the heart. It is a matter of transformation of the heart of the person who has been forgiven. It is about metanoia, about change and renewal.
This passage invites us to see ourselves as forgiven debtors, or forgiven sinners, living among fellow debtors, fellow sinners. There may well be little difference between us. We are to abandon games of being innocent versus those who are guilty. Instead we are to join a united and huge fellowship of forgiven sinners.
As a postscript in this creation season we might interpret these parables in terms of our sins against creation. There is overwhelming evidence that the human race is abusing creation, that we are sinning against the world that God has created. The created world is in a sense astonishingly forgiving, astonishingly accommodating, to human activity. Yet we continue to abuse God’s created world, of which we are a part. The created world is constantly reminding us of the consequences of this, but many people refuse to see that we are being called to respond to the environmental crisis with metanoia. We are being called to accept our part in the crisis, to change, to forgive past human wrongdoing, and to learn from it. It is for us to live and to work for our unity and wellbeing together with the whole of creation, within the love and forgiveness of God. Amen.