“Lord. how often should I forgive?”
Matt 18: 21-35
Many of you will remember that Malcolm and I took an extended trip to the southern hemisphere last year. We took a trip on a catamaran around the coast, the Abel Tasman National Park day tour. On the return part of the cruise we struck up a conversation with a really chatty Australian couple that wanted to know what had prompted our journey, down under. When we explained we were enjoying an early Golden Wedding they were impressed. Individually the wife speaking with me, and the husband, on the other side of the boat, speaking with Malcolm, both asked us what was the secret for such a long and happy marriage. It was later whilst we were sitting at dinner we discovered that we had both answered with one word, ‘Forgiveness’.
Last week we spoke about the blueprint Jesus gave us to deal with conflict within the church, this particular parable in Matthew, which compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who is intent on settling his debts, is neither clouded nor particularly difficult to understand. God as a banker, parent, or even loan shark, works to convey the same harsh irony of the story in which a king forgives much but the one of whom much is forgiven forgives nothing. This parable is in no way unclear, or difficult to understand (unlike the parable of the lost sheep which is counter-intuitive; the parable of the sower which needs explanation in the text of the gospel itself; or the treasure hidden in a field which is almost nonsensical).
This may be because it was directed to the inner circle of disciples and was not meant to confuse or challenge the crowd. Or it may have been because it was in direct response to Peter's question about the nature and need for forgiveness, which opens this passage. Whatever the rhetorical reasons were, this parable is relatively clear. We are commanded to forgive as we have been forgiven. The parable itself needs little if anything in the way of explanation, and our most challenging task may be to simply let the parable speak for itself without trying too hard to open, interpret, or explain it. Let the text be what it is.
With that in mind I want to suggest two different thoughts about forgiveness as it is in these parables, of the King and the unforgiving servant.
First. Forgiveness in the parable is both an extravagant and a precious thing. A comparison of the individual debts that are in play here can be helpful. The king in our parable is owed 10,000 talents, or about 150,000 years worth of income, which works out to more than 3,000 financial life sentences.
This is no small debt. The slave in our parable is owed 100 denarii. This is still no trifling debt, but neither is it earth shattering. As the parable is essentially comparative, comparing the relative values of debts owed might serve to bring the point of the parable more sharply into focus.
In the kingdom of heaven forgiveness is exponentially powerful. Even 10,000 talents worth of guilt and debt are counted as nothing compared to the new life of the forgiven sinner. To put the comparative equation simply, in the eyes of the sinner 100 coins are more precious than the life of another human being; in the eyes of God nothing can be considered next to the fate of the sinner. Forgiveness, as laid out in this parable, is extravagant in the extreme, and more precious by far than the wages of sin.
Second. Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew is not only relational it is reciprocal and reliant. When teaching his disciples to pray Jesus would have us say, "Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors". This fifth petition of the Lord's Prayer is echoed in the lesson of this parable about the kingdom, reflecting it back in reverse. Jesus says we ought to forgive as our King has forgiven us.
In answering the disciples' request for help in praying Jesus teaches them that forgiveness, both the giving and the receiving of it, is reciprocal, one cannot have it without doing it. "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses". In answering Peter's request for help in understanding how far forgiveness needs to go Jesus teaches that God's forgiveness goes beyond both our deserving and our understanding of it; we who have first been forgiven must, therefore forgive those who have wronged us so much more lightly.
The point of this parable is clear, and its demands both in the context of the Gospel of Matthew and its application in our lives today is urgent. Forgiveness lies at the heart of our faith in God and our love of one another. Forgiveness, which we receive from God our King in the person of Jesus, is what our King expects from his subjects in their dealings with each other.
My vicar from years ago wisely came to a solution to this difficult command that worked for me during a difficult time. He gave me a coin saying that the Head represented Forgiveness and the Tail Love. I was to turn this coin over and over in my pocket reflecting on those two words. This has helped me many times with stressful relationships.
When I preside at a wedding I always present the couple with a Peace Lily, with an encouragement to nurture it as they nurture their on going relationship, remembering to make peace and give each other the gift of forgiveness after the inevitable sparks fly. I remind them how good it is to make up afterwards.
I want to share with you the theme of a film that we watched on the television a few weeks ago called The Railway Man; the true story of Eric Lomax, a veteran from the war with Japan and a Burma Railway survivor. His marriage was suffering due to night terrors and what we now call PTSD. He summoned the courage to track down the officer, Takashi Nagase who had tortured him and then to make a trip to Japan and confront him. Not wanting to spoil the story for you, but I can say they made a remarkable act of contrition and forgiveness. Taken together, this was a composite picture of the kingdom of heaven, and the kingdom we practice, both of which are driven by forgiveness. Amen.
The Rt. Rev'd Maureen Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 13/09/2020