14th Sunday after Trinity, 2017

Trinity 14, 2017. A19

Peter said: ‘Lord … how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus replied: ‘not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’

The late president John F Kennedy said: ‘forgive your enemies … but never forget their names.’

Forgiveness – forgiving – to forgive – to receive forgiveness. Very easy to say, but often extraordinarily difficult to do. Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we say ‘forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’. But what does that mean in reality? Perhaps part of the reason why it’s so hard is because when all’s said and done, we’re not altogether sure what forgiveness actually is - giving it or receiving it – or how we’re supposed to go about it – or how it should make us feel, and so on. 

Our own sense of self, the identity we construct for ourselves – our shell if you like, with which we surround ourselves to protect who we think we are from the slings and arrows of daily life, is extraordinarily prone to slight or damage – a wrong move, a careless word, sometimes even a look can have us retreating into ourselves to lick our wounds. ‘How could he or she, do or say, or infer such a thing. I can’t possibly forgive him/her/them/it  - whatever it may have been’. When Peter came to Jesus to ask how many times he should forgive another member of the church, probably one of the other disciples, I suspect that the seventh time had already come and gone. There’s a hint of desperation: ‘how many times do I have to put up with this before I can just punch him in the face?’

The parable, the story, that Jesus then tells, is a very familiar one. Its message seems very simple but in being so seemingly clear and direct, it almost makes us feel worse, because it doesn’t seem to make things any easier at all – if anything quite the opposite. You must forgive, because if you don’t, your heavenly father is certainly not going to forgive you! Actually, I think there are deeper and much more subtle things going on, but let’s remind ourselves of the simple stuff first.

A king settles his accounts and one of his servants owes him a colossal sum. The numbers are unimportant in this passage by the way: the man owes more than he could ever hope to pay off, and Jesus isn’t telling Peter that he can let rip on the seventy-eighth occasion that he’s sinned against. Both figures mean more than you can possibly imagine. The servant begs for time and the king, who could have given him more time, knows that he will never be able to pay, and forgives him the debt – writes it off completely. Next the same servant meets a colleague who owes him a paltry amount – peanuts. However when this man begs for more time, he’s thrown into jail with no opportunity to pass Go or collect £200, and no get-out-of-jail-free card. Others who have witnessed this are outraged and go back to the king whose anger is aroused. The first chap is hauled back in and condemned to be tortured until his original debt, which you remember had actually been written off, is paid in full. This of course, would probably be never, so the consequences for him are fairly dire, and the message seems to be that if we don’t forgive one another when we can, then God’s forgiveness will be withdrawn from us.

Actually, I don’t think that’s the whole meaning of the story, but before we go on it’s worth noting that the simple message that forgiving one another is important and that it’s more than just a one-way thing, is really crucial. So hang on to that.

If we start to dig a bit more deeply into this parable of Jesus, I think it’s important to notice what the story is not saying. We probably assume that the parallels are clear – the king is God, the servants are us – what’s done to the characters in the story will happen to us if we don’t do something about it. But that’s not actually how it begins. Jesus doesn’t begin by saying ‘God is like this’. He begins as he so often begins, by saying ‘the kingdom of heaven is like this’, and I think that’s a very important nuance. This is another kingdom parable – another story told to open a window into the mystery and depth of God’s love and his grace. It’s not a tale of tit for tat and divine retribution. We remember that all through the gospels, the message that Jesus emphasises and illustrates time after time, is that the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven has come near - it is at hand - it is upon you - it is within you. The kingdom of heaven is not just somewhere you go when you die – it’s not a fairy tale, Disneyland, jam tomorrow, pie-in-the-sky  – it’s not just a future hope, it can be a present reality. The kingdom of God has come near – it is ours to embrace now if we could only let go of the illusion that our life is all about our own personal autonomy. If we could only let go of our overwhelming sense of our own separateness – in particular the delusion that we have to earn our salvation – and realise that the kingdom of God is about living in right relation with one another, recognising the image of God in which each of us is created, then the kingdom of heaven would be here, right now.

God is a relational God – we express that relationship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – a relationship of self-emptying love that overflows into creation. God’s kingdom is present wherever that self-giving love conquers personal difference and people see through our protective shell to uncover the presence of God that is at the heart of all our being. We tend as human beings to think in dualistic terms – you and me, usand them, subject and object. We analyse, criticise and discriminate in ways that put up barriers. I am me, my own person, separate from you, autonomous, in control. Anything that threatens that control harms me. You harm me and I can choose to forgive you (but I probably won’t). I can say ‘I forgive you’ (but I probably haven’t). I can say it doesn’t matter (but it certainly does). And so on. ‘Forgive your enemies’ said JFK, ‘but never forget their names’.

Back to the story. On the face of it, it’s pretty dualistic – God and servant, servant and fellow servant, debt and forgiveness, sin and punishment, God is watching you. But let’s recall that it’s about the kingdom of heaven, and the kingdom of heaven isn’t like that. So what else could Jesus be saying? If you’re like me, you probably go about with more of a sense of the ways in which I fall short not just of God’s standards, but of my own. Most of the time, I seem to fall short of my own expectations – and because I want to protect whatever threadbare reputation I may have left, I hide all that away and bottle it up inside my fragile ego. As we all have a tendency to project our own shortcomings onto other people as a way of protecting ourselves, when someone says or does something hurtful, my ego is wounded, and forgiveness becomes hard – something I give through gritted teeth. All too often, perhaps all the time, the reason we find it so hard to forgive other people, is because we are unable to forgive ourselves. Or to put it in the context of the kingdom of God, we find it hard to forgive others, because we don’t really believe that God has forgiven us.

And of course, we know that in reality – God’s reality – the only true reality that there is – it isn’t like that. God’s love is manifested in Jesus’s death on the cross - served up for us on a plate with a big sign saying ‘this is it’. Love to the point of death is what God’s love is all about. And God’s forgiveness – there for everyone at all times, without us having to do anything at all – shines forth in Jesus’s resurrection. When we pray the Lord’s prayer, we acknowledge that love as we say ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’. The two cannot be separated. We don’t say ‘forgive us our sins, if we forgive others’. God’s forgiveness, which in this story seems to be first given and then withdrawn, is absolute. It is never conditional. It does not depend on us and it is never withdrawn. The trouble is, we don’t really believe it. We refuse the gift, because we think we have to earn it. And we squirrel our guilt away, guarding it closely, not realising that God’s love has cancelled every debt.

The tragedy of the servant in the story is that although he was offered forgiveness, he couldn’t really receive it. It threatened his own autonomy. Instead he projected his own deep-seated sense of guilt onto someone else. So the torture to which he was condemned was not rejection by God, but his own rejection of God. All that was left to him was the loneliness and torture of his own isolation and alienation.

So a thought and a prayer for the coming week:

Loving, forgiving God

Help us to know that we are forgiven from all eternity through the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, poured out on the cross.

Help us to pour out that love and forgiveness in all our living and loving.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,

In Jesus’ name. Amen

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