Peter asks about forgiveness
Preached by The Reverend Charles Royden 11 September 2011
Tenth anniversary of 9/11, Ordinary 24 Year A
Gospel Reading - Matthew 18: 21-35
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go. “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
The lectionary theme for this Sunday is unequivocal, it is about forgiveness. All around the world, Christians are reading about the parable of the unforgiving servant with the theme that we must forgive. I am sure that the most poignant of places and the country where this reading will raise most debate is of course Americe. Today is a decade after 9/11. We can come back to consider this shortly but let’s start by looking at the parable itself.
The story starts with Peter who asks Jesus how often we must forgive. Rabbis limited opportunities for forgiveness for a given sin to three times. Understand then that Peter is really pushing the boat out when he indicates that he might be expected to forgive seven times.
Jesus tells Peter that he should forgive not seven times but seventy time seven.
We should understand the background in the Old Testament to understanding Jesus reply. In the Old Testament Lamech (Gen 4:23-24) called for vengeance seventy times seven.
‘If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times’
Jesus reverses the words of Lamech, instead of seventy times seven vengeance, Jesus calls for "seventy times seven" forgiveness. .
Seventy Seven means unlimited forgiveness. The number of completion, 7, multiplied by itself, and that further intensified by taking times ten. Jesus expands the arithmetic of forgiveness to teach that forgiveness which characterises the kingdom of God is beyond calculation or comprehension. To steal a phrase of Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story, Jesus is saying forgiveness is ‘to infinity and beyond.’
Then Jesus tells a story to demonstrate this infinite forgiveness
This is the parable of a servant who had a debt to a Gentile king. It was such a large debt that it is ridiculous, ten thousand bags of gold. This is a debt which would have been greater than all of the coin in circulation in Egypt. It was bigger than the national debt, the servant could not have amassed such a debt it was so huge. King Herod’s annual income from all taxes from all his territories was a mere 900 talents per year, the 10,000 talents would exceed all of the taxes of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria as well. Josephus reports the annual tribute from Galilee and Perea under the wealthy Herod to be only two hundred talents.
The king first of all demands the money be repaid, then he changes his mind and forgives this unimaginable debt. It is an amazing act of grace and mercy. The king having cancelled the debt, the man, is now free from the burden. It was an act of such mercy and grace and forgiveness that it should have transformed the servant into the most amazing forgiving person. sadly this is not the case the servant has somebody who owes him a debt much less, a debt equal to a hundred days’ wages, one hundred denarii.
The servant was not merciful as he had been shown mercy. When the debt cannot be paid he has the man thrown into prison in an action which showed complete lack of gratitude for the mercy which had been shown to him. We know that the outcome of the story was that these selfish actions were reported to the king who called the servant back and had him arrested and tortured.
The gripping story gives us a small glimpse into the times with kings, servants, torture. Most of all it makes us think about forgiveness. Jesus was uses hyperbole, extreme ridiculous language to make a really important point. As I say all around the world Christians will be reading this challenging parable and in America today they will be opening the memorial to the people who lost their lives in the 9/11 attack.
How did those 19 hijackers learn to hate so much that they would kill themselves and others so indiscriminately. Taking control of planes crashing two of them in the world trade centre in new York bringing down the twin towers, of the World Trade Centre. Another landed on the Pentagon and another crashed when the passengers fought back.
They hated so much that they would give their lives to kill the maximum number of people they regarded as enemies. 15,000 got out safely but 2,973 people were killed, grief shocked the world
We can talk about forgiveness but today we have real problems talking about it in the context of such a dreadful atrocity. How does a nation like America forgive? I suppose we all feel a senses of justice when the Navy Seals enter Pakistan and kill Osama Bib Laden the man behind the terror campaign of Al Qaeda, but we have to ask how this will bring an end to the violence, does it just continue the cycle of violence?
Since that act of war, in the decade following we have seen reprisals. War across the Middle east terrorism on a massive scale. There has been an attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan, against Saddam Hussein and those who supported him in Iraq.
It was so dreadful that 2,973 people were killed in the twin towers, but we need to be reminded that
in Operation Iraqi Freedom up until 9 September, 4,408 Americans lost their lives and
in Operation Enduring Freedom up to the same date 1,648 Americans had lost their lives in
That of course is just the American deaths, there have been 558 British troops killed and others from around the world, and then all of the deaths on the other side and innocent including civilians.
So we have a dilemma this morning trying to think through forgiveness and what it means in real life situations, when we feel that there has been real injury. How do we love our enemies and bless those who persecute us?
It is important to see that the call by Jesus to forgive is more than just a call to deal with hurt feelings. It is a radical call for peacemaking, for ending the cycle of violence, and for refusing to exact retribution.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu lived through the whole process of making forgiveness real as he led South Africa through truth and reconciliation after the end of Apartheid. This involved thousands of acts of confession and forgiveness. He has written of this process saying,
“Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence. It involves trying to understand the perpetrators and so have empathy, to try to stand in their shoes and appreciate the sort of pressures and influences that might have conditioned them.”
Forgiveness does not have to mean forgetting, and reconciliation is not always possible when the other side does not want forgiveness. However forgiveness does mean trusting judgment to God, and this is only possible by the grace that comes from God alone. Archbishop Tutu writes,
“Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin,
but it is a loss that liberates the victim.”
When he says ‘draw out the sting in the memory,’ that is about denying vengeance it’s power. Tutu is right when he speaks of poison. Refusing to forgive and storing up that bitterness, it is like a poison and it does nobody any good. If we forgive we let go of hate which is something we can build up inside of us and which causes harm. Not forgiving someone is like drinking poison in the hope that the other person will die, when actually the poison kill ourselves.
Forgiveness is a huge task and it is something which we must be reminded about daily. That is why we have a confession in our service, because it reminds us, even if we have not committed adultery or anything terrible this week, we do still stand in need of forgiveness and that should
change us to go and forgive others. This is why Jesus tells us when we pray that we should ask for forgiveness and then show forgiveness.
The parable is meant to help us realise that we owe a debt to God that we cannot possibly repay and yet God still loves us. In Jesus’ teaching it is quite clear we must be known by our forgiveness, based on our realization of how much and often we have been forgiven. God has forgiven us without reservation or limits. If we hold back forgiveness from others then this is a sign we have not accepted it ourselves from God and allowed it to enter our hearts to change us.
You and I might feel powerless to change the policies of nations, but we can change ourselves and we can influence others. Mutual forgiveness among us is pre requiste of the Christian community. The inability to forgive and the holding of grudges are destructive forces in our relationships and in our churches. Our Christian community must be a sign of God’s forgiving light in a world darkened by conflicts.
I want to finish by taking you back to the start of the parable. Jesus doesn't just give us a picture about forgiveness. The parable begins with the phrase, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to.”
This is Jesus way of describing the relationship which we have with God which put crudely ‘gets us into heaven, or gets us forgiven’
Jesus gives us a beautiful story about God’s love today. There is a debt which acts a barrier and the king in the parable removes that barrier. He does not arrange for the servant to pay the debt gradually, as it were in instalments. He does not arrange for someone else to pay the debt on behalf of the servant. He just cancels the debt, he makes up for what is missing out of his own generosity, he forgives and thus restores relationship.
Jesus doesn’t do theology very well, this explanation of the theology of the atonement would probably get a C minus at theological college. It is really simple, we owe God a huge debt, but God does not demand payment as the condition of restoration of relationship; instead God acts out of God’s own generosity to forgive sin, to overcome barriers to our relationship, to restore unity. Its back to the story of the cross when Jesus looks down on those who are killing him and forgives them, because he can do this.
Now here’s the consequence - if that is how God acts, then it is in turn how God calls believers to act. We forgive because we have a deep sense of gratitude to God and because we have known this love and mercy we are compelled to share it to others