Reading Matthew 18.21-35
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
He should have left more of a distance between himself and the car in font on such a wet night. When it braked suddenly, it was impossible to avoid bashing into the back. Both drivers got out for the ritual exchange of details, but the other driver, looking at the back of his car, saw no real damage and smiled. ‘Forget it,’ he said. What a result! How generous. Some time later, our careless drive was backing into a tight space. Too tight, in fact, because he crunched into the car behind. This time there was real damage. Heads turned at the noise, and saw him write on a scrap of paper and put it under the windscreen wipers. He drove off. Eventually, the owner of the car arrived, saw the damage, then spotted – with relief – the note. This is what it said: ‘I have just backed into your car. It was my fault. People saw me do this. They are watching me as I write this now. They think I am giving you my name and phone number. But I’m not.’
This is a made-up story, but made up out of two true stories. The first happened to me one rainy night on Clapham Common, the second to a friend of Denis Healy, the former Labour minister, and he told the story on the radio. What emerges from the double story is someone who wants to live in two worlds, in which different rules apply. When he is in someone else’s hands, if generosity is offered, he grabs it; when someone else is in his hands, generosity (or mere fairness) is not even to be thought about. He’s like the character in Matthew’s parable, a slave who owes a vast sum which his master writes off. He then meets a fellow slave – now he is the one in control – and roughs him up to get the money he is owed. He tries to live in two worlds, with different rules: in one, he asks for mercy from his master, and gets it; in the other, he demands his due from a fellow servant, and gets that too, until the other slaves tell their master and the two worlds suddenly collapse into one. Then he gets as he gives, and is tortured until he pays. I want to say three things about this story, things about life, money and God.
You can read this as a story about how life goes when you let others treat you by one set of rules, while you deal by another: you’ve got it coming to you, and sooner or later you’ll get it. Think of the events we mark today (we shall do so more fully at Evensong tonight). There was a ghastly consistency about the murderers who took over the planes on September 11th, determined to force upon others the end they had chosen for themselves. (On flight United 93, they were matched by passengers whose bravery saved others from the fate that they could not escape themselves.) And their action was calculated to provoke extreme and inconsistent reaction, to show that the West was a sham, a culture of double standards.
Much that followed proved them wrong. In her pastoral letter to mark the anniversary, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA, Katherine Jefferts Schori, writes of those who
gave sacrificially in the immediate aftermath of the plane crashes, trying to rescue those in theTwinTowersand the Pentagon, trying to subdue the aggressors on the plane overPennsylvania, and reaching out to neighbors and strangers alike on that apocalyptic day.
But in the bloody years that have followed, those behind the terrorists have no doubt been well-pleased whenever the governments and agents of nations that prize the rule of law have themselves behaved outside the law. ‘Good,’ they must have said, ‘just what we wanted.’
Mathew’s story is about forgiveness. You might expect such a story to be about a broken promise or a cruel word, but no – it’s about something that will be preoccupying us when for most of us the intensity of this anniversary day has quite faded: debt. In financial terms the slave behaves practically: he’s been allowed to escape from debt, so he is making sure that he never gets into it again. Debt gets you caught up with God’s principal rival, money, and money is a good servant but a merciless master. What it does to this slave is to blind him to the incredible generosity of his master. It stops him from seeing that generosity needs to breed generosity. It is one of a number of moments in the scriptures which remind us that what we do with money, and what we let money do to us, colours the whole of our existence.
But this story isn’t just about how life goes, or even about the dangers of debt. It’s about God and God’s forgiveness. And here I have to admit a real tension in the story. The writer begins with Jesus telling Peter to keep forgiving and not keep the score, and then we hear Jesus telling this parable to illustrate the point. But it doesn’t illustrate the point, does it? It tells of a king who forgives a servant once, but not twice; and that, Jesus says, is the way God will treat you if you don’t forgive from the heart. How can we make some sense of this tension?
Well, the writer did not follow Jesus around with a clip-board. He is putting together memories of Jesus long after the events, so perhaps he has put together two things that Jesus originally said on different occasions: to an angry disciple he said ‘never stop forgiving’, and to a mean disciple he told this story about double standards. But there is still the story itself: is this how we should picture see the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, as a despot who forgives once and then endlessly punishes people who do not shape up? Sometimes – perhaps as a first reaction to the unspeakable acts we commemorate today – you or I may have wanted a vengeful God. But do we really? Do we want a God like that, for ‘us’ as well as for ‘them’?
This story shows something we see in many of the reported sayings of Jesus. He often exaggerates: ‘if your right eye cause you to sin, tear it out’ (Matthew 5.29), ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother…cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14.26). Who takes these literally? How many parent-hating Christian fundamentalists with eye patches have you met? So, in our story, the slave is forgiven an outrageously large debt – what we think would be King Herod’s income for ten years, debt on a scale that eclipses the achievements even of Sir Fred Goodwin – and he is punished outrageously for being unforgiving himself. It’s like a cartoon. And cartoons, whether it’s the one in your Sunday paper or the Simpsons on Channel 4 tomorrow night, exaggerate and distort. And they are great ways of holding up the truth we might otherwise miss.
Jesus, it seems, exaggerates to shock his hearers into a new view of themselves and God. Here his shock tactics shout at us, ‘Decide! Choose! How do you want the world to be? Do you want a world of generosity or a world without mercy? But remember that there is one world only, one set of rules for you as well as the others; so choose carefully.’
This is hard. Many of us tend to be inconsistent – tolerant, say, in our politics but the opposite at home – but whenever there are signs, however small and patchy, that a person’s life is becoming a little more of a piece, then they may be true signs of growing up in Christ, the one in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1.17). And those of us who know forgiveness and then practice it on others are precious instruments of the love of God.