Forgiveness is the core business of the church and yet we seem to struggle as much as any one else to know ourselves forgiven and to extend forgiveness to others in ways that bring about reconciliation and restoration. (Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Matthew 18:21-35 )
We come to this teaching on forgiveness at a time when there is much in our own lives as individuals, church communities and a world that needs the radical healing and renewal of forgiveness. And we know how hard that can be because while the forgiveness of God has been at hand all along but we just can’t seem to be ready or desirous enough to play our part.
In the parable we just heard, if the servant who was forgiven much been able to forgive a little the story would have finished simply and quickly. But like the evening news, or the machinations of our own hearts, the servant in the parable, like many of us, seemed to find it difficult to remember how much he have been forgiven let alone forgive the debt of others. In this parable the first servant is forgiven a huge amount but cannot find it within himself to forgive another servant a very small amount. Now often this parable is read as though it were a case of: if you forgive you will go to heaven and if you don’t then you will receive eternal damnation. Well the parable is a little more complex than that. For starters, both servants are in the kingdom of heaven. It is a story about what membership of the kingdom requires of us. In this respect then we must, at least in the first instance, see ourselves as the first servant, the one who is forgiven an impossibly huge debt. The caution of the tale is that this servant then forgets that they are a forgiven person and fails to exercise that same generosity with others, with one who owes them very little.
However forgiveness is not necessarily the same thing as forgetfulness, certainly not for us humans. We are not asked in Scripture to forget. Indeed in the Old Testament the Israelites are constantly asked to remember that they are a people who were oppressed and who were liberated by God. Remembering our failures and God’s goodness is an important aspect of faithfulness.
And the prophets were continually called upon to remind the people of God that they were failing to live as required and that they needed to repent and return and if they did they would meet a loving God. Indeed most of the teaching about forgiveness in the Old Testament was about relationships between God and the whole people of God.
However in the story of Jacob and his brothers (Genesis 50:15-21) two important aspects were added. That forgiveness between family members, between the people of God, was an essential aspect of forgiveness. And secondly Jacob understood that through his suffering from the sins of others he had come to be in a position where he could do God’s work and therefore he felt graciously toward the others. This is in keeping with the teaching of the parable which focuses of the need for forgiveness between the people of God, among those who live in the kingdom.
May I share a story with you from “The Prayer of the Frog” which is a collation of sacred stories from many different religions and cultures collected by Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest. (Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, Gujarat India, 1988, pages 232-3) Abbot Anastasius had a book of very fine parchment which was worth twenty pence. It contained both the Old and New Testaments in full. Once a certain monk came to visit him, and seeing the book, made off with it. So that day when Anastasius went to his scripture reading he found that it had gone and knew at once that the monk had taken it. But he did not send after him for fear that he might add the sin of perjury to that of theft.
Now the monk went into the city to sell the book. He wanted eighteen pence for it. The buyer said, ‘Give me the book so that I may find out if it is worth that much money.’ With that, he took the book to the holy Anastasius and said, ‘Father, take a look at this and tell me if you think it is worth as much as eighteen pence.’ Anastasius said, ‘Yes, it is a fine book. And at eighteen pence it is a bargain.’ So the buyer went back to the monk and said, ‘Here is your money. I showed the book to Father Anastasius and he said it was worth eighteen pence.’ The monk was stunned. ‘Was that all he said? Did he say nothing else?’ ‘No, he did not say a word more than that.’ ‘Well, I have changed my mind and don’t want to sell the book after all.”
Then he went back to Anastatasius and begged him with many tears to take the book back but Anastasius said gently, ‘No, brother, keep it. It is my present to you.’ But the monk said, ‘If you do not take it back I shall have no peace.’ After that the monk dwelt with Anastasius for the rest of his life.
In this lovely and innocent looking story there are the essential elements of forgiveness and in a way it is the mirror image of the parable. For the one who is wronged there is not a request to pretend it didn’t happen but rather to observe and know the wrong that has been done and then when it is time to choose forgiveness and generosity rather than punishment. And for the one who has done wrong there is a process of coming to a courageous awareness of our wrongdoing and readiness to repent and repair relationships and losses. Only because both parties are ready to enter into the process of seeking forgiveness and offering and then receiving does forgiveness lead to reconciliation. Forgiveness happens in the context of relationship and is ideally about repairing and restoring relationship.
Sometimes we cannot work it through with the other person because they are not available or willing to be involved. In those situations we need to try and work our way through the process as best we are able. Not simply forgetting or pretending that we were not wronged, or that we have not wronged others, but in remembering that we are people who are dependent on God’s forgiveness we can in our hearts practice remembering and forgiving those we cannot speak with. We do this not to let the other person off some hook that they may or may not know they are on but because our hearts need to let go of the hurt and the hate that imprisons us. It of course also depends on whether that person in still in our life. If the wrongdoer is in our life and continues to do wrong then we were told last week that they are to become as a Gentile and a tax collector to us. If the wrongdoer is gone and unavailable then there is work in our hearts and memory to be done.
Remembering and seeking to forgive also means that we grow in wisdom and use our knowledge of human nature and God’s nature to decide to what extent to make ourselves vulnerable to others. We do not need to unconsciously continue to place ourselves in positions that make us vulnerable, especially if the other person has not repented and changed. That is part of treating the unrepentant one as a Gentile and a tax collector – treating them with a degree of separation which can be closed in the future if they repent. Remember that while Jacob forgave his family he did not do so at the first encounter but only after a process when the brothers were more aware of their own wrongdoing and desired to be forgiven.
And so in the readings this week we are asked to do something much harder and more realistic than to forgive and forget, we are asked to remember and forgive. Remember that others have sinned against us and to acknowledge the depth of the injury and to forgive them. To remember that we have sinned and to ask for and receive forgiveness.
I, like the first servant, find it hard to remember that I am a forgiven person and one who will continue to need to ask for forgiveness, 77 x 7 times. If then I believe that God has, and will continue to forgive me; that I have been and can be forgiven by my fellow citizens of the kingdom; and that I have been commanded to and will be supported to find a way to forgive others – then I can live with hope and love even in the knowledge of my broken and imperfect nature and the broken and imperfect nature of others I share this life with. And this is good news for us here in our own small lives and for a world unable, so often, to forget or to forgive.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ.