Sermon preached by Dr Alistair Collen
Older members of the congregation, like me, listening to the Gospel reading, may have experienced a ‘second-take’, when they heard that we should forgive “not seven times … but seventy-seven times”. Didn’t that used to be “seventy times seven” – i.e. 490 times? Are standards slipping – surely not?
Helpfully, my commentary tells me that the original Greek is a bit idiomatic here. Everyone used to think it meant ‘seventy times seven’ but now most scholars hold with ‘seventy-seven’. I can’t read Greek, so who am I go give an opinion. Nevertheless, to my mind, the more extreme figure of 490 actually fits better with the almost comical extravagance of the parable which Jesus proceeds to tell us.
First, though, it’s as well to bring some clarity to the issues at hand when we talk of ‘forgiveness’.
Given Peter’s original question: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me” – it could be argued, meanly, that we’re only dealing with a special case here. So, we’re not obliged repeatedly to forgive Mormons or, indeed, the great majority of other people in the world?
I don’t think so. The Kingdom of God we’re called to show forth isn’t a Little England, let alone a little St Bene’t’s.
Conversely, though: is there anyone to whom this extravagant reach of our forgiveness does not apply? Well, yes … perhaps. Think carefully about the Lord’s Prayer, with its very uncomfortable injunction; as given in Matthew 6. [12-16]:
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors …. If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
It has been argued that, in using the metaphor of forgiveness of “our debtors” the concept of forgiveness has been restricted to personal offences directly perpetrated against me. So, while terrorists and serial murders and those who abuse children may deserve our prayerful concern and understanding, it is, properly speaking, not for me to forgive them, that’s God’s prerogative.
Nevertheless, restricting repeated forgiveness to direct personal insults or offenses against me, still leaves at least two tricky questions.
Firstly, if you endlessly keep on forgiving someone, doesn’t that just give them carte blanche to keep repeating the offences? There must be some boundaries! Three strikes and you’re out, OK; seven strikes and you’re out, well, OK; but 490 strikes and you’re out is absurd.
Perhaps the mistake here is to juxtapose the setting of boundaries – often a good and necessary thing for the welfare of the offender – with forgiveness. You can have both together. Crucially, though, any boundaries should spring from a well of real forgiveness. And there’s the rub: the second, impossibly tricky question: “Can I always forgive truly, from the heart, as Jesus seems to demand at the end of our reading”?
But first, Jesus tells a parable. On the face it, the parable of the King who wishes to settle his accounts with his slaves seems straightforward enough. The slave whom he releases from a large debt is condemned for not extending this generosity to another slave who owes him money.
The parable gets more intriguing, however, when we learn about pay differentials in 1st Century Palestine. Then we hear the parable with 1st Century ears.
The king releases his slave of a debt of ten thousand talents. Now, one talent is usually reckoned to be the equivalent of about 30 kilograms of silver. And ten thousand talents has been calculated to be more than the entire tax return from a large Rome province over a fifteen-year period. One talent was equivalent to 6,000 denarii. And a denarius was the wage of a labourer for a day; so the 100 denarii that his fellow slave owed him was roughly three month’s wages, or one six-hundred-thousandth of the debt from which the first slave had been released!
So the effect of the parable on that 1st century audience might well have been indignation, fury with the unbelievably callous arrogance of the first slave. Or, they may have heard this as a comic ‘tall’ story. Either way, they won’t have expected the twist at the end, that jolt of recognition, when Jesus says, that that despicable first slave, destined for torture until he should pay his entire debt, is you, if you do not forgive your brother and sister from your heart.
“Do please forgive my delay in replying to your e-mail.” “I can’t forgive her for changing her mind at the last minute.” “I can’t forgive those Brexiteers”.
I wonder if the word “forgive” has become so commonplace in our speech, that it’s too easy to miss the real substance of what Jesus might be alluding to here.
It helps, I think, to introduce the word ‘betrayal’. For the remembrance of betrayals better cues us into the more serious and visceral, and damaging, realm where, for as often that we’re told we should forgive, we just can’t.
Betrayal within a relationship, in all its various forms: sexual infidelity, broken promises, indifference, a friendship wrecked by lies or cheating, an esteemed superior rubbishing our efforts and humiliating us. All examples of a broken trust that so assaults and undermines my sense of security in the world, or self-esteem, or my whole social identity, that my very being feels ruptured; and my betrayer becomes the focus of such overwhelming anger or contempt or fear, that I simply won’t, can’t forgive, ever!
One familiar reading of the bible traces the covenants God makes with his people, and the fulfilment of Gods promises of salvation. But this only makes sense against the backdrop of an unfolding catalogue of stories of betrayal: from the Garden of Eden, through Jacob cheating his brother Esau, and Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery and lying to their father, through the Israelites casting their Golden Calf, and generation upon generation whoring after false Gods, and mistreating the poor and vulnerable. No wonder betrayal and the need for forgiveness, for salvation, is a big theme for Jesus. And not least, because despite all their promises, in the end his disciples, too, will abandon and betray him, repeatedly, in his passion and crucifixion.
There’s something really key here in our parable this morning. For the immense amount of debt we ourselves have been forgiven we too must forgive those who betray us, and from the heart.
Yet, so often we can’t do it.
Rather, we employ other, damaging, strategies to deal with betrayal:
By revenge, hot and cold, which most often engenders counter-revenge; but always separates us further, making that precious trust irreparable.
Or we deal with betrayal by a cruel denial of that person’s essential humanity: a passive-aggressive, emotional blanking the offender – that person is no person for me; the space between us now poisoned by a twisted black-and-white account: I’m all good and righteous, and they’re all bad.
Or by cynicism: which denies hope in any further relationships: “all men are bad news”, “all politics and religion are corrupt or meaningless fantasy”
Or we resort to a type of self-betrayal: what I had invested in that relationship, the pride or hope in what I thought was precious, was merely rubbish all along: I betray myself, in turn.
Undoubtedly, for some sorts of betrayal, these strategies healthily wing into place to protect our psychological life from complete collapse, perhaps for many, many years.
But when we might want to forgive, but can’t, the danger becomes that such strategies merely separate and poison us more and more, damaging us, what our relationships are meant to be in the Kingdom of God, and threatening our very relationship with God.
So what are we to do, when it seems inconceivable that we could ever forgive from the heart?
Paradoxically, perhaps, we should not try and forget, not seek to bury unforgiven betrayal. For buried, the poison may only fester, and breed beneath consciousness. Rather we must keep a sort of fidelity to the bitterness of past betrayal, and allow remembrance. Because only then, however, mechanically at first, we can, and we should, begin to pray for that other person, our offender.
And pray for the grace to forgive. For in the end, forgiving from the heart may only be a grace given by God.
And pray repeatedly for that Grace. Even 490 times, if need be.