Genesis 50: 15-21(page 44 in our pew Bibles) Everyone likes a happy ending. Jacob dies and instead of then turning on his brothers now that the old man is out of the picture Joseph is reconciled to his brothers and interprets the evil they did to him in a wider context that led to good.
Romans 14: 1-12 (page 948 in our pew Bibles) Paul tells us that these second order differences between fellow Christians such as when and what we eat or whether one observes a Sunday or saints day as more Holy than others, are peripheral and should not cause divisions amongst us as long as we are convinced that we are serving God by doing so and recognise the Lordship of Christ.
Matthew 18: 21-35 (page 823 in our pew Bibles) We all know we ought to forgive others but sometimes that seems all but impossible and knowing we ought to just heaps guilt on top of us. This parable is complex but roots all of our own potential forgiving in God's prior forgiveness of ourselves.
The Bible repeatedly tells us to forgive those who have injured us. We know that. The greatest prayer in Christendom – The Lord’s prayer tells us “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us”
This church will be full of people who know that intellectually there is much to commend forgiveness, in that the letting go of hurts and grudges has enormous mental health benefits, and that we should forgive others. Forgiveness draws a line so we can move on with our lives
And yet we do find it well nigh impossible to do so. Forgiveness is so very hard.
If you have been cheated on by a spouse, or double crossed by a friend or business partner, that leaves you feeling angry, cheated, shamed, defeated, or is terrible,
To then be told that you ought to forgive them, and you just can’t then just adds guilt to the whole situation which makes everything worse. Burning coals are heaped on your head.
It is in this context that we should view today’s gospel reading about forgiveness.
In that opening exchange between Jesus and Peter, Jesus says that you should forgive your brother not seven times but seventy seven times. What Jesus is trying to say is that forgiveness is not a commodity that can be calculated on a calculator, and so the language of numbers in inappropriate.
That numbers are inappropriate is illustrated in the parable that Jesus tells;
The king forgives a man who owed him 10,000 talents. We lose the force of this in our modern English translations. That amount is the equivalent to the wages of a day labourer in Palestine for 150,000 years – an absurdly enormous amount. The king represents God and that first servant represents every one of us.
God forgiveness of us is based not in numbers or any kind of justice, but based in mercy - unlimited mercy.
And that servant, us, after being forgiven so much then goes out and can’t even find it within him to forgive a piffling amount.
So what is happening here? Well for one thing the servant is quite deluded because he says to the king, “Oh have patience with me, I’ll repay everything in full” which of course he could never do because, as we have seen it was such a huge sum – his wages for 150,000 years! He imagines he is dealing with the king on the basis of Justice, but he is dealing with mercy.
But also there is a huge gap in this story that we must consider. He was forgiven an extraordinary amount and yet there was no rejoicing, no gratitude and no celebrating with his wife and family, and no reflection on being set free from such a crippling debt.
He hadn’t changed. He hadn’t discovered or appropriated God’s mercy really. He had been given mercy but he hadn’t “received” it. He still thought he was dealing with Justice, numbers, a commodity, so when he came across the other servant who owed him a few Denarii he dealt with him in exactly the same way as he would have before he had been forgiven.
He hadn’t come to see himself as a truly gifted person, a recipient of God’s mercy.
And don’t forget that Jesus is pointing the finger at all of us in this parable.
For one thing, most people see themselves as quite OK really with not much to forgive. We are good people. And just like the servant, we delude ourselves that what we owe is payable and not much is owed anyway. But near the core of the Christian faith is the belief that if we say we have no sin we delude ourselves.
So how does any of this help anyone struggling to forgive others?
As with another seemingly intractable problem like suffering, Christians are not given a pat answer.
We are given instead a dramatic story that portrays the incredible kindness of God to all of us. We are given a story that shows God dealing with people not by using the scales of justice, even though that is what we want, but deals with people by showing mercy.
Unlike the servant who didn’t appropriate God’s mercy, we are invited to receive and show gratitude for God’s great kindness towards us and let that fact start to soften and change us.
Our forgiveness of others is based in God’s forgiveness of us, which when appropriated produces a sense of gratitude and rejoicing and greater magnanimity .
The differences between us all is slight, just as the difference between the two servants was slight. We do not want to get into the game of playing innocent versus guilty in our personal relationships because that is really not what it is about, but knowing that when we join a Christian community, our base line is that we join a community of forgiven sinners, whose defining characteristic is gratitude, rejoicing and joy.