Reading Matthew 18.21-35
Preacher Revd Neil Summers
This morning’s Gospel picks up exactly where last week’s left off, and once again it is the apostle Peter who plays a central role by asking Jesus the key question. He wants to know what the limits are to the forgiveness he should offer his fellow Christians in his community. Should he forgive as many as seven times? But Jesus’s answer goes beyond what can be measured, because it will always be difficult to imagine the scope of divine forgiveness if we insist on using the quantifiable scale we apply to so many of our human dealings. The answer in this story is that God’s abundant forgiveness just has to be lived, not counted – lived from the heart. There are no limits – ‘how often’ or ‘when’ or ‘under what circumstances’ – for God’s generosity and mercy know no bounds, and this reality calls us to respond in loving and forgiving generosity ourselves. As this morning’s Psalm put it, ‘The Lord is full of compassion and mercy…he has not dealt with us according to our sins…nor rewarded us according to our wickedness’.
In the story we just heard, the forgiven servant, instead of passing on the abundant forgiveness and mercy he has received, reacts with a hard heart. He meets the outrage of his fellow slaves and the severest of responses from the king. ‘Living forgiveness’ means experiencing being forgiven ourselves and forgiving others in return, but the unforgiving servant has closed his heart to this possibility, thus excluding himself and others around him from entering into this generous way of living. As we are forgiven, we find that we respond with forgiveness. As we forgive, we find that we are forgiven.
‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ The words roll off the tongue almost too easily. But what about when what we are living with also seems to have no limits either? Here’s an example. After taking a funeral on Friday, I learned from one member of the deceased’s family that a falling out 25 years ago had never been resolved, despite efforts made, and now it is too late for reconciliation. One New Year’s Eve, in a restaurant in America, a man at the next table was dining alone. We learned his wife had been killed on 9/11, that life-changing terrorist attack which we recalled last Monday. How do you forgive that? And what about the terrorist attacks in London on 7/7, or throughout this year, most recently on Friday. And what about forgiveness after abuse?
Some of you will remember in 1987 a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded during the Remembrance Day parade in Enniskillen, injuring Gordon Wilson and fatally injuring his daughter Marie, a nurse. Wilson’s response to the bombing, ‘I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge’, was reported worldwide, becoming among the most-remembered quotations from the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Whereas IRA attacks often resulted in reprisals by loyalists, Wilson’s calls for forgiveness and reconciliation came to be called the Spirit of Enniskillen. As a peace campaigner, he held many meetings with members of Sinn Féin, and met once with representatives of the Provisional IRA, seeking to understand the reasons for the bombing. He also held talks with loyalist paramilitaries in an attempt to persuade them to abandon violence. On Remembrance Day 1997, Sinn Féin’s then leader, Gerry Adams, formally apologised for the bombing. Gordon Wilson was an inspirational example of forgiveness in action, if ever there was one.
But it is equally the case that invoking the language of forgiveness may add to the harm done by terrorism or abuse. For a person suffering trauma, the words, ‘I forgive you’ can be a destructive message and may even block the way to justice. Survivors may be told that forgiving their attackers or abusers will mean not taking any action that may ‘hurt’ them, such as telling others in positions of responsibility about what happened. At the same time, people who commit grave acts against others may be reassured that receiving divine pardon for their actions makes it unnecessary to face the human consequences of their crime. Some of this kind of thinking means the call to forgiveness can be used to justify collusion and cover-up in the aftermath of abuse, and we’ve seen far too much of where all that leads.
All this points towards the need for the utmost care when it comes to talking about forgiveness, for it needs to be seen in relation to justice, healing and repentance. It can never be a substitute for them, and it is simply wrong, theologically, to think that it could. To forgive sin is not tantamount to saying that sin doesn’t matter and that its consequences can be brushed aside. The more catastrophic the damage brought about by sin, the greater the likely need for some basic repairs to be made to the fabric of people’s lives before forgiveness can even begin to be imagined by those who have been hurt the most. Justice, healing and repentance are all part of that.
That said, a Church concerned with a Gospel that focuses on healing and on human flourishing cannot stop talking about forgiveness. It might not be the first word to pass our lips; it isn’t easy to talk about, its meaning isn’t obvious and to practise it is not straightforward. But it stands defiantly at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ.
‘Living forgiveness generously’ requires us to focus not on what divides us, but on what holds us together, in our local communities, in our society, on the global scale and across the different faiths. It calls us to recognise the dignity and preciousness of others and it invites us to live beyond ourselves with open, rather than closed, hearts. Paul holds out a way of generous living in his letter to the Christian community in Rome, as they worked out a way of living together, struggling with what was dividing them – in their case about whether to keep food laws, and about whether to celebrate certain days as holy. Make space for one another, Paul says, in essence. Respect one another’s journey to God. Live generously, do not limit your life together to what you each individually know and believe – don’t live to yourselves – live beyond the limits of your own understanding, beyond even your own hurts, resentments and fears. Live with the limitless love of God.
It can feel vexing, frankly, that God seems to have different standards of judgement from ours. But that is the reality behind our Scripture readings this morning, which indicate that the most obvious and natural reaction to a particular incident may turn out to be quite wrong when looked at in the bigger context of what God is doing with the world. There isn’t time to go into the story of Joseph, part of which we heard earlier, but the same principle applies there, too. Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers seems to them incredible. But Joseph himself sees the bigger picture and does forgive them.
And, finally, going back to the Gospel, the point of the story is that the king is not just thinking about one slave and his money worries, but about the whole society of people he rules, and how people ought to treat one another within it. Sadly, the forgiven slave fails to follow the king’s example and ends up being tortured. The king had seen and tried to pass on the bigger picture, but the slave had completely missed the point. The story ends disturbingly with the message that if we fail to show forgiveness, we can expect the same torture from God. It is easy to interpret this final, terrifying image as a bizarre picture of an arbitrary, vengeful and angry God. Actually, I think it is more a statement of what might happen if we, too, miss the bigger picture. Scripture tells us that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’ The hard reality is that, impossible though it might sometimes seem, as the followers of Jesus, we are the ones who are now called to see that bigger picture and who must do the work of reconciliation.