Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 14 Sunday 17 September 2017
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Genesis 50.15-21; Psalm 103.8-13; Romans 14.1-12; Matthew 18.21-35
‘Then Peter came up and said to Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
In that great theological study of the corruptive power of evil, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy, there is a scene in which Michael Corleone has his brother Fredo, a pathetic figure not cut out for the family’s organized crime business – bumped off for betraying it. Unlike Joseph with the brothers who had sold him into slavery, the implacable Michael, neither forgets not forgives. He has only waited until their mother is dead to carry out the sentence of death on his brother.
In Peter’s question in the Gospel, “How many times?” and Jesus’ response to it, there is an echo from the book of Genesis of a much less well-known figure than Joseph. This is Lamech, the son of Cain who had murdered his brother, who makes a brief appearance; proudly boasting to his wives that he will avenge himself seventy-sevenfold on anyone who dares to attack him. In the mythology of ancient Greece, too, the characteristic of Homer’s hero Achilles is the thirst for revenge.
Jesus teaches that it is more heroic to conquer revenge than to pursue it; that forgiveness is the opposite, the antidote, to vengeance. His followers must renounce the human tendency to get even with someone who repeatedly injures us. We are called to be the very opposite of Lamech and Achilles and Michael Corleone.
Yesterday evening, we were having supper with another priest who is also preaching this morning. He recalled an occasion years ago when he had been asked to celebrate mass in a neighbouring parish. The gospel was the same as we heard today. The translation he had to read said “seventy seven times” not the “seventy times seven” of the King James version and ours. A worshipper objected to this change because it seemed to reduce his responsibility to forgive. In fact, the Greek can be read either way, but the point of both numbers is not to set us a target, a number of times we have to forgive before we can stop, but that the number is infinite.
The parable tells of an oriental ruler who conducts an audit of his ministers (“servant” or “slave” was used of all administrators, whether “free” of not). One has embezzled a huge sum; on a scale we would associate with Latin American drug lords or Russian oligarchs. 10,000 talents was equivalent of a day’s pay for a million day labourers. The exaggeration is to make a point: there is now way the servant can make restitution.
Rather than simply executing the crook, his master decides to inflict a more degrading and protracted punishment; the man and his family are to be sold into slavery.
The offender pleads for time to make restitution – even though there is no way he could have repaid the debt. In response, the king goes even further: out of pity he reverses his decision and lets the villain off. The servant gets immeasurably more than he had asked: amnesty and complete remission. He received a forgiveness that he had not dared to request.
But then, in an instant, he changes from debtor to creditor. A “fellow slave” owes him a small amount – a hundred denarii, the equivalent for 100 days’ wages for one worker. He too begs for time to pay, using exactly the same words. This time the promise to pay is credible. But the pardoned embezzler will have none of it. He stands on his rights and has his fellow-servant thrown into the debtor’s prison.
Other servants report his appalling behavior to the king. He summons the pardoned criminal before him again and says to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave as I had mercy on you?” Matthew uses the Greek word translated “wicked” in other places (6.23 and 20.15) to mean an envious, grudging and miserly spirit. So here it means “mean-spirited.”
In his anger at the man’s conduct, the king once again reverses his sentence and hands him over to the torturers with instructions that they continue to inflict pain until full restitution has been made, that is, for the rest of his life.
The story focusses on the heartless behaviour of the pardoned criminal, but the theological centre is the astounding generosity of the king. Understanding God’s forgiveness is the basis for the practice of forgiveness required of Peter and of all disciples of Jesus. Jesus can require infinite forgiveness of us because God has given infinite forgiveness to us.
“The kingdom of heaven,” is often in Matthew about God’s preceding work on the one hand, and the disciple’s consequent responsibility on the other. So it is with the “kingdom of heaven.” Those who would be part of that kingdom must imitate the patience and generosity of its sovereign.
The parable teaches both divine mercy and judgement.
The king’s forgiveness of the slave’s un-payable debt, God’s forgiveness of the un-payable debt of human sin, is the beginning of the drama but not its end. The slave has been discharged him from his debt but he has not been discharged from his duty as a servant. The parable teaches the responsibility of the forgiven: that forgiveness received be forgiveness given. That cause-and-effect of divine-forgiveness-creating-human-forgiveness is at the heart of this parable and of the Christian life.
The king’s forgiveness is unconditional, without any prior fulfillment of meritorious conditions. But while it is without required conditions, it was not without expected consequences: while he required no past, he does expect a future. Fraternal love is not the condition of salvation, but it is the required consequence of it. We cannot win God’s forgiveness, but we can lose it by refusing to extend it to another.
When this consequence of mercy does not happen, there is judgement. We cannot separate the acceptance of this mercy from our own behaviour; otherwise we forfeit it.
The less we appreciate God’s forgiveness, the less we will forgive. “He who is forgiven little loves little,” Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel.(Lk.7.47)., The parable it trying to teach us to be amazed by grace, to sing with the Psalmist of the God who has set our sins as far from us as the east is from the west, (Ps. 103), and so to be different people.
And so, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us to pray:
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” –
“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” –
“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”
“if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others; neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6.12, 14-15).
And later in that sermon, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”
“Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy” – says Jesus in the Beatitudes – but the implication is that the unmerciful are unblessed.
Matthew expects God’s forgiveness to transform our behaviour and relationships. And Paul, too, teaches both a present justification by faith and a future judgement by works. He sees no contradiction between the two because he expects those who have experienced justification to be so changed that they can stand with good conscience before the judgement seat of God.
There is a problem with this passage which it would be wrong of me to ignore.
When I was at preparing for ordination, we had to sit an examination called “Use of the Bible,” known, only half-jokingly, as “Abuse of the Bible.” One of the first tasks I remember having to do when I was a new curate was to take a woman and her young daughter to a refuge where they would be safe from an abusive husband. This passage about mercy has been abused too often has been to tell wives to forgive abusive husbands and violent husbands, and to go on forgiving them even though that forgiveness results in no change in the abuser’s conduct and in further physical and mental harm; and even death.
Here we need to read Mathew’s version alongside Luke’s equivalent in which Jesus expects repentance, that is transformation of life, change of behaviour, of the penitent. This is not what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” a sentimental toleration of hurtful behaviour. Forgiveness is not an easy way out that neither helps the offender to change nor heals damaged relationships. Absolution is not a get out of jail free card. The slate is wiped clean, yes, but Jesus says to us all, as he said to the woman taken in adultery, both, “Neither do I condemn you” and “Go and sin no more.” We confess our sins to receive the absolution which the old evangelical hymn-writer calls “the double cure,” which both cleanses us both from the guilt of sin and imparts the grace to overcome its continuing power. We need both.