reckoning and forgiveness

Sermon given by the Revd. Jim Mynors for Sunday 13th September on Genesis 50:15-21. Psalm 103 Matthew 18:21-35

As we continue this year’s consecutive readings in Matthew we come to a parable that may seem as puzzling as it is powerful. It starts with a forgiving ruler and ends with his condemnation. There’s a good Anglican principle that can specially help us with such passages: The church (says Article 20) ‘may not so expound one place of Scripture that it be repugnant to another’. But it’s also helpful to think of parables like cartoons or pantomime. They often make their point by exaggerating the reality we normally experience.

So let’s first think about the big picture. Genesis sets the scene for all that follows and the Joseph story fills its last quarter and the climax to 50 chapters of man’s inhumanity to man. Joseph’s brothers had tried to murder him and then sold him into slavery in Egypt – which resulted by extraordinary twists in Joseph becoming Prime Minister and saving the world from starvation – including his brothers – who turn up in Egypt aghast to discover what had happened to Joseph. Their request for forgiveness is more than met and we’re told Joseph ‘comforted his brothers and spoke kindly to them’. Does that not prepare us for what we find in the New Testament – as does Psalm 103 which speaks directly of ‘The Lord full of compassion and mercy slow to anger and of great kindness’

So then we come to Jesus and his parables. And here too we find essentially the same picture of a forgiving God. Yet today’s reading – like other parables- also has its challenge- the same implied in the Lord’s prayer ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’.  Bear in mind the explanation why Jesus tells this story: the Rabbis reckoned forgiving someone three times was pretty good: Peter suggests 7 times – Jesus goes off the scale: 77 or 490: translators differ. But there’s more to come. Just imagine a ruler who is owed 10,000 talents – that’s billions in our money, which is why I asked for a picture of it in the vaults of the Bank of England. As far as I know only one man has ever manged to get this much into debt – a recent  rogue trader with a French bank. Now the ruler’s response reminds me of Joseph. The translation ‘pity’ hardly does justice to the original (splanknistheis=compassion) a word describing Jesus’ response to leprosy – that’s how the ruler viewed the debtor.

But unfortunately the story doesn’t end here. The debtor is amazingly forgiven but then goes out to accost a fellow-servant who owes him a tiny amount by comparison with what he’s been let off  – measured in denarii (a single denarius being a day’s wages).  And that results in the fellow servants becoming as concerned about the treatment of that second ‘fellow-servant’ as about what happened to the first.

Which leads to a final scene where there is a day of reckoning such as we’ve encountered with some other parables. Cut out this ending and we’re in danger of saying God doesn’t mind whether we forgive others – whereas the Lord’s prayer makes it very clear God does mind whether we forgive others as well as asking for forgiveness. Feel the force of Jesus parable as it stands and it underlines that point– and brings home just how much we’ve been forgiven. When I think about all that gold I’m quite comfortable to speak of God’s forgiving love as limitless – but prefer ‘inclusive’ to  ‘unconditional’ to describe the response of the ruler in the final scene of this particular parable. According to Jesus his heavenly father forgives far more generously than we can imagine – but for that very reason will not tolerate an unforgiving attitude to others.

Village life tests relationships in a particular way. People talk enthusiastically about ‘community’ and so they should. But where we lose patience with those we see all too often and frequently have to forgive –then we need to remember this parable of Jesus. Sociologists have made the obvious observation that in small communities like villages conflicts can be especially sharp  but have more opportunity to be resolved . So if we can put into practice the guidance of today’s readings we can indeed find  harmony in places like ours.

Revd. Jim