Sunday 13 September 2020
I’m sure that many of you can remember the coordinated bombings on the public transport system in London on 7 July 2005. They remain in my memory because my mother and sister were on holiday in London at the time and it was an anxious wait until we got word from them that they were safe.
One of the victims of those bombings was a teenage girl whose mother was an Anglican priest. As a result of the loss of her daughter in these tragic circumstances, this woman resigned from her parish because she said that she was unable to forgive those who had caused her daughter’s death and she considered her position as a minister of Christ untenable in those circumstances. Such a highly principled stand certainly makes me reflect on my own failures in the area of forgiveness.
During riots in Birmingham in 2011, three young Muslim men were run down and killed by looters. A very volatile situation which could have seen ongoing inter-racial fighting and violence following the deaths was calmed by the impassioned plea from the father of one of the men killed for peace. Had he forgiven the perpetrators? We don’t know; but his actions were those of someone who might forgive the almost unforgiveable.
Forgiveness is a quality that is often to the forefront in our world – either because of its dramatic cathartic effect or because of its chilling absence.
The parable that Jesus told us in today’s gospel reading bears close reflection in our world calling out for ample forgiveness.
It is a story where forgiveness is either generous or absent. It asks us to examine ourselves as to whether we find ourselves in a defensible position on the continuum between lavish forgiveness and none.
We need to note a few things in the parable that may not be self-evident to us in the 21st century. First of all, the debt owed by the slave who owed ten thousand talents was immense. It was really impossible for him to repay such a debt – no matter how much time he was given. One commentator says it was equivalent to the wages of a day labourer for 150,000 years. Another commentator expresses it as equivalent to a day’s wages for 100,000,000 labourers.
Either way, we are talking about a debt that could never possibly be repaid by the slave. The enormity of the debt and the impossibility of him repaying it witness to the lavishness of the forgiveness that is extended to him.
On the other hand, the debt that he was owed by his fellow slave was much smaller – and recoverable. The hundred denarii was equivalent to a labourer’s wages for a hundred days. So why did this slave act so unreasonably towards his colleague? What he owed him was relatively small in comparison with the enormous debt that the master had wiped off for him.
Perhaps the answer to that question can be found in his reaction to being forgiven the enormous debt he owed by his master. Or, more accurately, in his lack of reaction.
We read: “And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’”
No joy expressed. No relief displayed. No sharing the good news with his family who were facing a life of bonded slavery. Certainly, no gratitude displayed towards the master.
Is the reason that this slave did not have mercy on his fellow slave, even though his master had great mercy on him, because he did not celebrate and experience deeply the forgiveness from debt that he had received. Because he did not take the time to internalise and externalise his own experience of enormous forgiveness, was he unable to transfer that forgiveness into his dealings with others?
It seems to me that this is one of the messages contained in this parable of Jesus. In order to become forgiving ourselves, we have to grasp the enormity of the forgiveness that we have already received from God.
And it seems to me that one of the reasons that we gather as a faithful community is so that we will continually recall and celebrate the great forgiveness we have received as baptised sons and daughters of God.
As I look around this gathering each week, it is not a group of saints that have no need of God’s forgiveness that I see. I’m sorry, but it’s true. What I see is a gathering of genuine people, striving together, through the ongoing forgiveness and mercy of God, to answer God’s call to be a loving and forgiving community.
We gather to support each other in this challenging task.
We gather to recall our need for ongoing forgiveness by God. At the beginning of the Service, we confess our sinfulness and ask for God’s forgiveness and strength to change our lives constantly for the better. We accept the forgiveness offered by God through the absolution prayed by the priest. We thank God for the great gift of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of his Son Jesus Christ who has made it possible for us to be at one again with God.
The very reason that we gather here to worship God each week is so that we are not like the slave in the parable who did not take the time and effort to reflect upon and internalise the great forgiveness from debt that he had received and, consequently, was unable to share that forgiveness with others.
Having said that, it does not mean that we have become perfect in our forgiveness of others. If we were perfect, we would not need to gather each week. A one-off recognition of the forgiveness that we have received would be enough. It is precisely because we are not perfect, because we are frail and human, that we need to constantly celebrate the great love that God has showered upon us through his bountiful gift of forgiveness in order to assist us to become more forgiving of others each day of our lives.
May we grow continually in our experience of God’s forgiveness so that we can pray in the words of Psalm 32:
Blessed are those whose sin is forgiven:
Whose iniquity is put away.
Blessed are those to whom the Lord imputes no blame:
And in whose spirit there is no guile.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen