Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 18:21-35
15th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 17.09.2023
Rev Tulo Raistrick
I wonder, have you ever been in a situation where you have lent someone some money and they have failed to repay it? Maybe it was for something as small as a pint of milk, or for something as large as a deposit on a house? Or maybe you have been in a situation, or are today, where you owe somebody else money, where you are struggling to repay what you borrowed. Such thoughts can cause us anxiety, anger, frustration, resentment, shame, can’t they?
Well imagine lending someone a third of your whole annual salary or pension, or a third of all your savings, and they turn round and tell you they can’t pay it back. That would be pretty gutting. Such an unpaid debt would be enough to make a hole in anyone’s finances. Not easy to just wipe the debt clean. You would want some form of recompense.
That’s the dilemma posed by Jesus in the parable we’ve just heard. Do you forgive someone’s large debt when they plead for mercy? It was the dilemma also faced by Joseph in our Old Testament reading. Did Joseph forgive his brothers for the bad things they had done to him, albeit many years earlier, when they had plotted to kill him and then sold him into slavery, an appalling act, prompted by jealousy and hatred? Could he possibly forgive them, or now that the tables were turned and their lives were dependent on his, did he take retribution?
Its the dilemma that perhaps many of us may feel we face too, if we have been wronged by others. For some of us it may be the taunts and insults and bullying we received in the school playground, even if decades ago, that still rankle and hurt today. For others of us it may be in hurts caused by relationships, where we have been taken advantage of, abused, or dropped from someone’s life without cause or apology. And for others of us it may be being overlooked for a promotion or side-lined at work because our face didn’t fit.
Forgiving others in such circumstances is not easy and yet Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question as to how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him is 77 times. The Jewish rabbis of the time taught you should forgive three times; Peter trying to be generous suggested seven; but Jesus, in saying 77, was effectively extending the number of times into infinity. There is not a limit to forgiveness.
Jesus seemed to know that that was a tough message both to accept and to do. And so he tells this parable – a parable of two people who are owed money – to help us grasp how living a life of such forgiveness could be possible.
We began this sermon by thinking what it would be like to lose a third of our savings or income to an unpaid debt. Well, in Jesus’ story, that was not the king’s situation, but the servant’s. He was owed a hundred denarii, a third of an average annual salary, by another of the king’s servants. It was a significant sum, one that Jesus’ listeners would have regarded as considerable. In normal circumstances, it was certainly not a sum to be sniffed at or lightly dismissed.
But the point of Jesus’ parable is that these were not normal circumstances. The servant himself had just had his own debt cancelled, and with a wonderful story-telling flourish, Jesus makes the amount forgiven an eye-wateringly huge amount, six hundred thousand times the amount the servant himself is owed. To put it in today’s money, he owes the king £5 billion, that is twice the size of our entire UK national debt. It is estimated that it would have taken the servant 150,000 years to pay it back. In other words, seen from the perspective of what the servant owes the king, what the servant himself is owed is infinitesimally small. Certainly that was the view of the king and the other servants in the story.
Forgiving others is hard, especially when we have been wronged in a significant way, but it becomes easier to do once we recognise how much we ourselves have been forgiven, once we have gained an eternal perspective. God has forgiven us for infinitely more than anything we are required to forgive others for. We fall short of his standards of love and grace every day; we fail to treat others with the love and dignity he calls us to; we live our lives often ignoring or forgetting his presence; we are short-tempered, impatient, ungrateful, selfish, putting our own needs above others, failing to empathise and be compassionate towards others. I managed to tick all those off the list just in one day yesterday. In the words of the confession we said this morning: “We have sinned against you and against our neighbour in thought and word and deed, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault.” And all that, even on a good day!
If we need any further proof of the extent to which we need God’s forgiveness, we only need look at the cross, the fact that God’s own Son needed to suffer and die for us that we might receive forgiveness. This is no cheap grace, no 10 pence debt cast aside. This is a trillion pound debt beyond any capacity to pay paid for us by God himself.
In the light of such abundant generosity and grace, from the overflow of God’s love and mercy, Jesus’ point is: forgiveness no matter how hard is possible because we have been forgiven so much. When struggling with others and the wrongs we may have suffered, we are encouraged to start there, with an acknowledgement of our own wrongs and gratitude for the extraordinary forgiveness we have received.
The second take home from this parable for me is that justice is important, but it should always be tempered by mercy. Justice is important. The king is keen to act justly throughout – wrongs need to be acknowledged, not just brushed under the carpet. The other servants are right to advocate on behalf of the poorer servant, to be distressed by the injustice of his actions and to risk the king’s wrath by alerting him to what has happened. Forgiveness isn’t about pretending nothing bad has happened or that “it didn’t matter” when clearly it did. Wrongs that go unacknowledged give licence to the wrong-doer to continue acting in that way and they cause the wronged to internalise the hurt they are suffering and not find any healing. Justice is important.
I remember my black friends in apartheid South Africa telling me that whilst many in the white community wanted reconciliation, it was crucial for them as the black community that had been wronged so badly that there was justice too.
But our desire for justice should always have as its goal mercy, not retribution. Hard though it is, we should long for those who have wronged us to receive the same mercy as we have received from God, the same forgiveness, the same awareness of his love.
For Jesus, this was so important he linked the receiving and giving of forgiveness together in the one prayer he taught his disciples to pray: “Forgive us our sins, or as Matthew puts it, linking us back to this very parable, forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who sin, are debtors, against us”.
There are certain figures in public life, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin among them, whom I long to see receive justice, who I want to see brought to book and held to account for the wrongs they have committed. It is right I think that we long for that and we pray for that. But what we need to beware of is longing for retribution, for seeing them meet their comeuppance, for vengeance. As we were reminded in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans just a couple of weeks ago, vengeance belongs to God alone. Our hope and desire has to be justice that is bent towards mercy, a justice that responds with forgiveness where there is contrition and repentance, because pure justice alone will leave none of us standing.
The beauty of Jesus’ parables, and we will be looking at a number of them over the coming weeks, is that they can speak to each of us in different ways. I wonder how this parable of the unmerciful servant speaks to you today.
- Does it speak to you of God’s remarkable mercy and forgiveness towards you?
- Does it speak of your need to forgive someone else?
- Does it call you to temper your desire for justice with mercy?
- Or is God saying something else to you through the power of the story?
However God is speaking to us, may he gives us the grace to respond.