17 September 2017
Romans 14:1-12, Matt 18:21-35
May I speak this morning in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Whichever version you prefer these are familiar words taken, of course, from the prayer that Jesus himself taught us. The Lord’s Prayer is deliberately straightforward, because Jesus wanted us all to be able to speak to, and relate to, God our Father in a straightforward way, without being bamboozled by all the complex and eloquent prayers that may take place in the Temple.
But although the Lord’s Prayer is straightforward, and I don’t want anything I say this morning to detract from that, it also contains many important truths for us to unpack and today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 18 may help us to understand this line at a deeper level:
“Forgive us our sins [or trespasses] as we forgive those that sin [or trespass] against us.”
When preaching it is always very easy to project one’s own thoughts and experiences onto other people, by which I mean it is very easy to assume that other people think in the same way as you. I shall try to avoid that temptation for the moment and just tell what I think when saying those words, without assuming that you are the same.
When I pray those words I have to say that the majority of my attention is focused on the first half of the sentence. I can’t help thinking primarily of the relationship between me and God, I am conscious of my own need for forgiveness, of my own sins and trespasses, and I pray to God to forgive me. It is, in a sense, a mini prayer of confession.
How easy it is, in those circumstances, for one’s tongue and one’s mind to slip too easily over the second half of that sentence.
“…as we forgive those that sin against us.”
The first half of the prayer sounds as though the onus is on God to forgive us when we have done wrong but the second half makes it clear that the onus is actually on us to forgive those around us who have wronged us. And, this is perhaps the more challenging part, it strongly implies that God’s forgiveness towards us is dependent upon our forgiveness and mercy to one another.
Let’s look at the reading from Matthew 18 a little more closely.
The reading starts with verse 21 in which Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive another member of the church who sins against him. And Peter pitches the bar quite high, he thinks:
“As many as seven times”?
Again one needs to be careful not to let one’s eye and mind slide straight over to Jesus’ answer but to think about what Peter said for a moment. Imagine, if you are able, that a member of this church had sinned against you in some way. It’s hard to imagine I know but we need to try. It needn’t be a grand sin like stealing the money you put in the collection plate; perhaps someone is needlessly rude to you or ignores you.
You find this sad and unpleasant but like a good Christian person you forgive them. They do the same thing the following week. You’re starting to get a little irked now but, again, you forgive them. They do the same thing again the following week. This is three weeks of rudeness towards you now. But you grit your teeth and forgive them. Having been wonderfully forgiving for three weeks in a row in your own imagination you are now well on the way to Christian perfection and sainthood. Could you keep this up for another four weeks? Are we really required to forgive people as many as seven times? That is a lot of forgiveness and, surely, is the limit of Christian forbearance.
Jesus takes Peter’s seven and he does what he does with the loaves and fishes – he multiplies it.
“Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Some translations have that as seventy times seven times.
Does Jesus mean that the 78th time, or perhaps the 491st time if you accept the other translation, that someone sins against you it is OK not to forgive them? I suspect not. I suspect that Jesus is actually saying that we have to forgive people such a huge amount that, actually, the amount of forgiveness we exercise towards others starts to change us so that we no longer keep count.
But Jesus then moves on to illustrate that the forgiveness of others is not just a nice thing to do but is an essential part of our own relationship with God.
Verses 23 to 35 contain the ‘Parable of the Unforgiving Servant’. As a parable, of course, we should be clear that this was never intended to be a literally true account of anything but is intended as a story which illustrates a deeper truth.
This parable presents us with a stark contrast between the way in which a king acts towards his people and the way in which they act towards one another.
So the story opens with a king who wishes to settle his accounts with his slaves. A slave was brought before the king who owed him the sum of 10,000 talents.
In case you have forgotten a talent was largest unit of currency which existed at the time. But don’t mistake it for a large gold coin. It was actually a weight of gold which was in the region of 30 kilograms. This would have been 20 years pay for a day labourer.
This must have been a very important slave indeed because he owed this king 10,000 talents – or 300,000 kilos of gold which could have kept 10,000 men working for 20 years. You could build pyramids, or perhaps HS2, with this much money. It is a ridiculously stupid amount of money.
The slave couldn’t repay the king this money and so the king orders the slave and his family to be sold into slavery. This probably makes us squirm firstly because we are not comfortable with talking about buying and selling people in this way but also because this story is putting this king in the position of God and this doesn’t fit with our image of God. But, as a pure matter of law, this is the just thing to do at the time. The king has to recoup his money somehow and, given the sums involved, I suspect that selling all these people would hardly begin to scratch the surface of 10,000 talents of debt.
Although the king is acting justly and within his rights the slave falls to his knees and begs for mercy: “Be patient with me and I will pay back everything.”
Then the king does something unexpected, and perhaps more in keeping with our view of God. He doesn’t say, ‘alright, I will give you 12 months or 12 years to pay back this debt.’ What does he do?
The king took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go. He wrote off 300,000 kilos of gold of debt. Mercy triumphed over justice. This slave has been forgiven a huge amount, an incredible amount. Surely, as the burden of this debt is lifted from the shoulders of this man he will give thanks for his forgiveness and exercise the same forgiveness towards others?
Sadly not. As soon as he left the presence of the king he encountered someone who owed him a hundred silver coins, or denarii. A denarii was one days pay for a labourer, so this is between three and four months pay. Not a small amount but tiny compared to the amount which had been owed to the king.
In begging for mercy the man who owed the hundred silver coins uses almost the same words that the slave himself had just used towards the king: “Be patient with me and I will pay it back.”
Amazingly even these words do not remind the slave of what has just happened to him – this person has some emphathy issues I feel – and rather than forgiving the debt in the same way that he was forgiven he has this debtor thrown into prison.
When the king found out he was not best pleased. He says: “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?”
The king then has the unmerciful servant thrown into prison to be tortured until he can pay his debt, which given its size may be never and Jesus then spells it out in letters ten feet high and covered in flashing lights:
“This is how my heavenly father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
God’s mercy towards each of us triumphs over his justice. Weighed in the strict scales of justice none of us can ever be perfect and the amount we owe to God could easily exceed 10,000 talents. But when we acknowledge our shortcomings and pray for God’s mercy on us he doesn’t give us an easy payment plan. He wipes the slate entirely clean and we are forgiven our sins. His mercy triumphs over justice.
But although God does not expect us to repay our debts to him he does expect something in return. He expects us to be changed by the experience of having been forgiven. He expects those who have been forgiven to be forgiving. That if our huge slates have been wiped clean that we should be prepared to wipe clean the much smaller slates of those who may wrong us.
But here is the really challenging part, especially for those of us who might like to think our relationship with God is always unconditional. In both this parable of the unmerciful servant and in the Lord’s prayer it sounds to me as though our forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiveness of others.
God forgives us first and we are, brothers and sisters a forgiven people. God’s grace towards us has triumphed over his justice. But there is a cost to this grace, it is free but it is not without price. We need to show our thankfulness for his forgiveness every single day by being graceful and forgiving to all those around us, without grudge. We forgive others not seven times and not seventy seven times nor even seventy times seven but we forgive others an infinite amount and from the heart because that is how God forgives us.
“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”