A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Judith Brown on 17th September 2023
Our readings today have a very clear common theme: they are about how we treat other people, and they have serious warnings about not judging others, and if they wrong us forgiving others. First we have the lovely little part of Joseph’s story. He has made very good in Egypt after his jealous brothers sold him into slavery. When they re-appear in a time of famine searching for food and pasture he recognises them and treats them generously. But when their father dies they fear he may turn on them. Not so: he continues to care for them, declining to play the role of a little god and take revenge on them. Paul, writing to the Roman Christians, takes up the theme of treating members of the Christian family with courtesy and understanding, even where there are differences of opinion – rather than passing judgement on them. Here is an echo of Joseph, as well as a quotation from Isaiah, when he writes that only God can judge: “For we all stand before the judgement seat of God.” The gospel story from Matthew is the hardest reading. Peter asks the Lord how often he should forgive a fellow Christian – 7 times? Jesus replies 70 times 7 – not of course a real number but a figure of speech to show that forgiveness must be without measure. He then follows it up with the story of the king who forgave one of his slaves a huge debt. The same slave went out freed totally from the debt, only to seize on a fellow slave who owed him almost nothing by comparison. When the King heard about it from the other slaves he summoned the wicked slave and condemned him – “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?”
That sentence is key theologically. God’s very nature is love, and he pours out his mercy and forgiveness on us. As the psalmist said in our psalm (Ps. 103) for today, ‘The Lord is full of compassion and mercy’:
As far as the east is from the west, so far has he set our sins from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so is the Lord merciful towards those who fear him.
If that is what God is like, then we who bear the name of Christ must be like him. But of course we don’t just carry the name of Christ. We are children of God, part of God’s family, and called to be like him – people of compassion and mercy. But as we know only too well if we look at ourselves, we are so often not like that. Becoming Christ-like is not the sort of instant transformation so beloved of contemporary television – whether it is instant makeover of our gardens or our physical appearance. It is a life-long process of being transformed, re-made. I hope some of you may remember the sermon preached on this very theme by Graham on 27 August. We believe and trust that bit by bit, often painfully and slowly, God restores his image in us, re-making us as we were meant to be.
But how do we forgive other people? We often hear after some particularly awful crime, the victims or more likely their families say something like, “I can never forgive him/her.” “We have a life sentence: a life sentence is too good for him/her.” But we know that this is profoundly un-Christian. It is the opposite of Our Lord’s words when he was crucified: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Not only is the failure to forgive un-Christian. It is self-destructive – as holding on to hurt and grievance, wanting to “pay back” the offender in some sense, nursing anger – these hurt the one who does not forgive perhaps more than the original offender.
Perhaps it is right to underline that forgiveness is not saying, “Oh it doesn’t matter.” Sin does matter. Wrong done to others does matter. It alienates us from other people, and ultimately from God and from ourselves. Forgiveness is about absorbing the hurt, however hard that is, and so in some way drawing its poison and stopping it spreading. The Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son is an example – he doesn’t say to either son, “It doesn’t matter what you have done or what you feel.” He says, “I love you: come home.” The supreme example is of course the crucifixion. Christ on the cross in some deeply mysterious way absorbed the sin of the world and stopped its tracks which would inevitably lead to destruction. So Paul could write to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians, 5:19), “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
So what might be the practicalities of forgiveness? I think the first step is to understand deep within ourselves the message of today’s parable – that we are ourselves forgiven sinners. I would emphasise both words – forgiven and sinners. If we are honest we know we are sinners. We all fall short of the glory of God, the splendour of our Christian calling. We may well lead fairly sober and kindly lives: we may be good church goers. Christ’s story of the self-satisfied pharisee who went to pray in the temple warns us. (Luke18: 9-14) He recited his good deeds and his religious conformity to God. The tax-collector who also went to pray couldn’t even lift up his head and could only say, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” It was he who recognised his need of forgiveness and went home forgiven. It is the same with us. The process of inner transformation is slow and we so often fail to display the fruits of the Spirit in our lives. But we can be assured of God’s forgiving and welcoming embrace. “I love you; come home.”
If we really believe this it begins to change our attitudes to other people, and particularly those who hurt us. We are in fact like them. We know we cannot say as the Pharisee said in Jesus’ story, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” Another step on the path of forgiving is to try to understand why those who hurt us behave as they do. Often they have themselves been deeply hurt and wronged. Those who become bullies, for example, are often those who have been bullied in childhood. Those who are violent have often had violence done to them, an have never learnt other ways of managing their feelings or handling conflicts. But another step, and for me the most powerful, is to pray for those who have wronged us. Persistent prayer, even if it is only of the simplest kind, just holding them in the presence of a loving God, can over years begin to change our attitudes. Prayer can heal our anger, make us more understanding, and give us a more Christ-like mind. We trust that over time we may come to see them as if through Christ’s eyes. Only as this happens can we pray with anything like truthfulness the words which Christ himself has taught us – “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”