Monday, 12 September 2011

Father, forgive them........

A sermon based on Matthew 18: 21_35

Let me start by saying this. Forgiveness is very hard.  As Christians it has been drummed into us that we should always forgive people. Forgiveness is one of the few things still rightly associated with Christians in our secularised society. Everything, from passages like this one and including the Lord’s Prayer, urges us to forgive people who wrong us.
I know and you know that we should forgive. Intellectually I also know – I expect we all know -  that forgiving people will also usually offer us some psychological release. I know that being unable to forgive will leave me feeling bitter and twisted and I would be much better off just forgiving and letting things go. Being unable to forgive I actually end up just punishing myself.
But I still find it hard, don’t you?
We all of us, I am absolutely sure, have suffered terrible wrongs and hurt at the hands of other people. We may have been cheated on by a spouse, swindled by a friend or family member, ripped off by a faceless corporation. Someone we love or ourselves may have been seriously injured by a drunk driver or attacked by a kid high on drugs who shows no signs of remorse at all. In extreme cases a loved one may have been killed. In a thousand different ways we will have been belittled and stripped of our dignity, hurt, and left feeling wronged and vulnerable.
All of us here who have been wronged and harbour unforgiveness in our hearts – well...being told by some pious prig in a pulpit that you really ought to forgive you know – just adds insult to injury.  We know we ought to, but just knowing that we ought to, doesn’t make us forgive.
Does this passage today help at all? Well let’s take a closer look. The first part is an exchange between Jesus and Peter about the extent of forgiveness. When Jesus says “seventy seven” or seventy times seven” in some translations He is making the point that forgiveness is not a commodity that can be quantified. By giving such a huge number He is saying that forgiveness is limitless when it comes from the heart – and it is not a numbers game.
Yet the parable that follows could cause us great consternation. If you read the end literally it says that if you don’t forgive someone, God will not forgive you and will torture you! Is that what it really means then or can it mean something else? Does that mean then that God’s forgiveness is conditional?
If we look at this parable with a little more insight and with truly acknowledging the difficulty of genuine forgiveness I believe we can glean a more positive aspect that is much more helpful.
The first thing to say is that Christian forgiveness is grounded in divine forgiveness which is absolutely limitless. In our English translation we lose the full force of what Jesus says. The servant owed the king Ten thousand talents. That means little to us, except that we probably know it is quite a lot. In Jesus’ day that sum represented the wages of a labourer for 150,000 years! With full force Jesus wants to convey the supreme generosity and mercy of God. It is limitless.
The message of the parable lies in the reaction of that first servant. The fact is, there is no response, no gratitude, no rejoicing, no celebrating that he and his wife and children are not going to be imprisoned after all. In fact the first thing he does is refuse the pleas of an indebted colleague and refuses to forgive him a trifling amount.
You see, he had been dealing with the king on the basis of Justice – quid pro quo. Even though he could never in reality have repaid the debt he still says to the king “I will repay you everything”.
But in forgiving the debt the King was not dealing in Justice, He was dealing in Mercy. This is the cornerstone of this parable. Mercy, not Justice. Very different things.
Forgiveness is very different from Justice.  The first servant still thinks of Forgiveness as some kind of power game and to do with “just desserts”. Because he cannot see himself as a beneficiary of the gift of mercy he is unable to show mercy to his fellow servant.
The final verse of this parable wants it made clear that forgiveness is a matter of the heart, a transformation of the inner disposition that the first servant has not yet discovered. A transformation I only discover intermittently and then forget again soon afterwards as well . How about you?
How does this parable help us who are struggling with forgiveness, battling with shame and rage and wanting revenge?
It demonstrates the incredible kindness of God, who surprises us constantly, not by dealing with us on the measure of justice, but by showing mercy.
It invites us to see ourselves as forgiven debtors, being given not what we deserve but what God wants to give us. We are forgiven debtors and it invites us to see everyone else, including the people who have wronged us as no more than  forgiven debtors as well.  And that the difference between ourselves and the other debtors, even the ones who have wronged us terribly is only slight. It is about giving up the power game of “innocent and guilty” and to come together as a community of forgiven debtors.
In the final analysis it means that God’s grace forgives you everything – which is not justice, but it is mercy.
And the person you can’t forgive. They are also forgiven by God.  Again, it is not justice. It is mercy.
“Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy”.

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