Today’s Gospel reading, suggests very strongly that if being a Christian means anything it means being a person who is characterised by forgiveness. We can all be impressed to our bones when we hear about someone who really lives that out; Gordon Wilson, whose daughter was killed at Enniskillen was one I remember. Or the Pope visiting in prison the man who shot at him. Desmond Tutu, in the aftermath of something as dreadful as Apartheid, once said, ‘There is no future without forgiveness.’ But we all know of people closer to us too who embody wonderfully what it means to be a forgiving person – and we can see what they do to change the world around them.
At the heart of our daily prayer is the Lord’s Prayer – and each day we ask to be forgiven ourselves ‘as we forgive those who sin against us’. Many of us find it hard, first of all, to accept that we could be forgiven – and maybe we find it just as hard to be forgiving ourselves. But the experience of being forgiven is at the heart of our faith, and something that is as strong a marker as any of what it means to be a Christian.
Matthew’s Gospel specialises in those impossible demands that make most of us despair. It’s Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus says ‘Be ye perfect!’. It’s no use asking me or any of us to be perfect you might say. And it is Matthew’s gospel that tells us that Jesus told Peter to be ready to forgive seventy times seven – which was a first century way of saying more times than you can imagine or count. Peter thought he was being generous in offering seven – the perfect number too! But Jesus says there’s no limit. Forgiveness is the only game in town.
Then he tells this extraordinary story of the unforgiving servant. It’s a story that only appears in this Gospel, but it’s a one off in all sorts of ways. It can leave us confronting things in ourselves, but also, and this is more important, simply being blown away by the awesome mercy of God.
This is how the story goes. The kingdom of heaven is like this. ….
There was a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. He started doing the adding up and looking through the invoices and the unpaid bills and he found one person who owed such a large sum that the ledger didn’t have room for all the zeros. It might as well have been a billion pounds. Even winning the lottery and ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ all at once wasn’t going to do it for this one. So there was nothing more to do but to sell this man into slavery, along with his wife and children and call it quits. That’s what people did then. But the servant begged and pleaded and said if only he had more time and the king could be a little more patient, he would pay it. The king knew there was not a snowball’s chance that he could pay even a fraction of it, not even the interest on the interest.. but the king took pity on him anyway, and released him from the debt.
But then, that same servant, instead of having the biggest party he could manage on social security, decided to do some debt calling of his own. He found someone who owed him a tenner, took him by the throat and demanded to be paid, with all the feeble first-rung menace of one of the kids on Eastenders trying to impress Phil Mitchell. When the man who owed just a little pleaded for mercy, our man refused it and got him banged up in a local cell. But this kind of thuggery was great gossip and so soon the king got to hear of it. He called him in and told him what he thought of him! Shouldn’t you have had mercy, since you had such mercy shown to you! And the king was so furious that he changed his mind about his own mercy, threw the servant into prison and decided to torture him until he paid.
Well what are we to make of this story? At first it seems quite a simple story. And the message seems to be that we should forgive others otherwise we won’t get forgiven ourselves. Or put more positively – since we have been forgiven much, we should show forgiveness too.
But there’s something bothering me about the way this story ends in Matthew’s Gospel. It feels like some kind of an addition – when in verse 35 we read, ‘So my heavenly father will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive you brother or sister from your heart.’
I find myself puzzling over the inconsistency of a story that’s about someone who wasn’t forgiven for being unforgiving. It’s like hitting someone as a punishment for violence. It’s a contradiction in terms. Remember that we’ve come to this story via that saying – which seems really essential Jesus – that forgiveness is not to be once only, not even seven times, but as many times as you can think that there might be times – seventy times seven times. So how many times does the king forgive the servant? Only the once – and then he takes back even that once – and even starts torturing him in the hope that he’ll pay (which itself is odd – how many people can actually pay more simply because you start hitting them?!). The last verse of the parable seems to imply that we should do with this parable what we often do with parables and assume that the most powerful person stands for God – the king. But really? A God who goes back on forgiveness? Who can hardly hold to his first offer of forgiveness in the face of our frailty? A God who tortures sinners? Really – is that the God and the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed? That can’t be it surely..
This all came home to me when I saw a stained glass window of the parable. The second panel of the window showed the first servant being punished. So, not forgiven then – not really – not even once in the end. Let alone seventy times seven.
Parables are great at kind of catching us out. They usually have some piece of surprise, some element of ‘whoa!’ in them, a moment when the world changes before our eyes. This one, I think, catches us out good and proper. You see we all end up wanting to cheer when the first servant gets his comeuppance. He got forgiven so much and now he’s being unforgiving. So let’s not forgive him after all – in fact let’s punish him even more! let’s torture him, let’s make him pay! And we find ourselves not being forgiving at all…
I realise that this parable makes me feel as I feel when I watch Twelfth Night and join in the collective mockery of Malvolio – I feel less than myself. He deserved it of course, yellow stockinged and cross gartered, and we all laugh.. But somehow that’s not what the Kingdom of God is like. And the Kingdom of God is not I think like the way we find ourselves reacting at the end of this parable. Because the Kingdom of God is a place where even unforgiving servants get forgiven, and not only once but seven times and seventy seven times…
Of course I don’t think we should ignore the seriousness of sin. But if mercy is consistent, repeated and unbelievably generous – then that means it is so for everyone. In the Kingdom of God even the unforgiving get forgiven.
We are all of us so easily swept up into the cycle that says you get back what you give – an eye for an eye and all that – that we can even be fooled into being unforgiving of an unforgiving servant. When actually the real challenge is to be forgiving and go on being so – and to leave behind the old cycle that repays people what they deserve. What we get from God is NOT what we deserve, but what God chooses out of mercy and sheer grace to give us in measure beyond our deserving.
The parable that Jesus tells works by revealing in all of us the easy way in which we slip into revenge mode – into eye for an eye – into everyone gets what they deserve. But the Gospel is not about that. The Gospel offers us the hope that we might somehow be able to step off the treadmill of repaying like with like, and to find the grace and imagination to act and be in different ways. The world as we know it now does not have a way of forgiving seventy times seven – but the Kingdom of God – that world beyond this one that occasionally we glimpse but have not yet seen – does have a way. I am sure that Peter was shocked, as he often was, by Jesus saying that forgiveness has no reasonable limit – as I am and as I expect you are.
When Jesus was dying on the cross, the tradition tells us that he asked God’s forgiveness for his tormentors. If this part of the tradition is true it demonstrates that Jesus did find a way to live and embody the Gospel he preached. His body he offered for us, his blood he shed for us. He was tortured (like the servant in the parable) and he paid the debt we all owe, so that we, who are infants in the school of forgiveness, could be forgiven. The world we live in needs as much it ever did a new way to live and to be, a new way of responding to wrong and to suffering. It needs him – it needs the one who showed us that forgiveness can be as profound as he was able to live it. On any day of our lives, we need to hear this good news and this challenge, in Jesus’ name, Amen.