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Matthew 18:21-35 – Sunday 13 September 2020

To let go of anger, hurt or resentment.  The dictionary definition of the word ‘forgive’.  To let go of anger, hurt or resentment. 

It sounds easy, doesn’t it?  As I read the definition, the image that came to mind was of someone holding the string of a balloon, letting go, and watching the balloon float up into the sky.   If only forgiveness was as easy or as painless as that.  But it isn’t, and we know that.  Forgiveness can be complicated and costly, and yet we know that it has the potential to change individuals, communities and even whole countries.

Peter knew that.  Hence his question to Jesus.  Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?  For Peter, if Jesus could just issue clear guidance on the number of times he needed to forgive someone, that would help make the whole tricky business of forgiveness more manageable.  And with seven being such a significant perfect, number in the story of God and God’s people, what could be better than forgiving someone seven times? 

Jesus’ answer is revealing.  Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy seven times.  In other words: don’t even think about quantifying forgiveness Peter.  Don’t try and measure it.  Forgiveness is beyond perfect.

Jesus continues his teaching by way of an acutely uncomfortable parable designed to startle Peter and drive home the message that forgiveness cannot be quantified.  He tells the story of a king faced with a slave who owed him ten thousand talents.  The king agrees to free him from his debt.  It’s worth getting a handle on the numbers here.  As John Pritchard comments, had the ancient near East had premier league footballers, even they wouldn’t have earned ten thousand talents in a lifetime.  A single talent would have taken a labourer 15 years to earn.  Effectively the slave owed the king around 150, 000 years of labour. 

Now do you get it Peter, says Jesus.  Stop thinking about forgiveness as a thing to be measured.  This is not about numbers.  This is not about a limit beyond which forgiveness cannot stretch.   This is about a God who willingly and lovingly forgives you in ways beyond imagining and beyond anything you might feel you deserve.  This is about a God whose son, with arms stretched out in love on a cross, cries, ‘Father forgive them.’

Did Peter get the message?  Do we get the message?  I suspect it’s at this point we begin to tie ourselves in knots. We read on in the parable and discover that the very same servant who received such extraordinary forgiveness from the king is unable to forgive another in his turn.  And gradually we come to believe that forgiveness is conditional:  I will forgive you, says God, only if you go and forgive someone else.  And so, we find ourselves back where we started.  Forgiveness as something to be transacted or measured.  We call to mind situations that trouble us deeply and keep us awake at night.  People whom we’ve never had the strength to forgive.  Hurts that we’ve never recovered from.  We listen to yet another sermon on forgiveness and leave yet again with that niggling sense of guilt. 

So, let’s return to the overwhelming generosity of the king and put ourselves in the place of the slave.  That place, says Jesus, tells you all you need to know about the abundance, the love, the mercy of God.  If we take that place as our starting place, then the whole business of forgiveness starts to look different.  If we can truly know that, not only are we deeply loved by God, but deeply forgiven by God, then we can begin to live out of that love and live out of that forgiveness.

Just think again for a moment about those outstretched arms on the cross.  That two metres as Dean Stephen so eloquently put it last week.  It’s out of the love supremely demonstrated on the cross that forgiveness springs.  And here lies the true relationship between God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others.  It’s not conditional: I will forgive you, if you go and forgive someone else.  It’s cyclical and relational.  Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  As, not if.  As I forgive others, so I am more deeply conscious of God’s forgiveness of me.  And as I become more deeply conscious of God’s forgiveness of me, so I’m more able to go and forgive others. 

And when we find our place in that circle of love and forgiveness perhaps we can become a little more honest with ourselves.  To have the courage to forgive someone we’ve been struggling to forgive.  To forgive ourselves for something.  To receive the forgiveness of another.  Or simply to recognise when forgiveness is just too hard.  To remember that justice and accountability matter too.

The writer Wendell Berry wrote a poem about his mother and the quality of her forgiveness.  He describes it as complete.  He wonders if her forgiveness actually preceded his wrong, so that he ‘erred, safe in her love.’  The poem ends like this:


And this, then,

is the vision of that Heaven of which

we have heard, where those who love

each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,

the light a music in the air,

and all is unentangled,

and all is undismayed.

Archdeacon Hilary Dawson

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