Lectionary: Matthew 18:21-35
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?' Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him;and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything." And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.
But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, "Pay what you owe." Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you." But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, "You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?" And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.'
I guess Bilbo's eleventyfirst birthday meant very, very old. Seventyseven times means many, many times; effectively always. The kingdom of heaven, as Matthew saw it, was a place of forgiveness. It was forgiveness in the face of overwhelming odds; ten thousand talents is an unpayable sum. Despite everything the slave promises, the lord knows it will never and can never be, repaid. To use the old language, the kingdom of heaven, is a state of grace. It is not something we deserve or can ever pay for. It is more than forgiveness 77 times! It is pure gift.
The contrast of this seventyseven times with the attitude of the servant is absolute. Owed only a hundred denarii, he is without mercy. A denarius was perhaps a day's wage for a labourer. And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.' Matthew's "fire and brimstone" tendencies are on show again! We can see how seriously he views the fall from grace. In the first instance, the slave and his family were to be sold. But now, lacking forgiveness, he will have no end to his torture; he will be tortured until he repays the debt, which can of course, never happen.
Eternal torture, and burning with unquenchable fire, were not images that seemed inappropriate for the author of Matthew. They're not images that sit well with us today. I part company with Matthew's insights into the nature of God when he goes down that street. My own understanding of a god which would inflict such endless pain, is that it is not worthy of being God. Despite that, I do see considerable truth in what Matthew is saying.
Most of us are not particularly bad people. We're not serial killers or war criminals. But it doesn't take much reflection to meet again our incredible sense of personal inadequacy. As important as self esteem may be, and as much as religious groups may have abused and assaulted us, and overloaded us all with guilt, that inadequacy is a true instinct. We are not merely missing something, or somehow inferior to everyone else, when we feel inadequate. Whatever unnecessary guilt we carry, our sense of inadequacy, or falling short, or sinfulness, is true. We all fall far short of what we know could be the state of humanity. Indeed, we all fall far short, most of the time, of our own best living of life, let alone our aspirations. This failure to maintain, or even reach, what we aspire to and long for in our best selves is what we call being "sinful" or "fallen." It's the huge gap between what we can dream of, and know should be, and what we can be.
I understand "kingdom of heaven" to have at least two meanings. One is that place/state/time- who knows, it's beyond language and barely imaginable- it's that something where all that is and will be has reached some kind of completion or perfection.
The other meaning of "kingdom of heaven" is about present glimpses of the glory of that finality in our present life of discipleship, especially as it is lived out in the church.
It begins with the knowing that God loves and accepts me, despite everything. I am the slave with the unpayable debt, whom the lord forgives. These two sentences are both stories about the same experience. We, in the west at least, have reified the first statement as doctrine, and as something more objective and less story-like than the second. But both are story. Both point to a truth, and an experience that is real, and yet not quite explicable.
For me, it's about knowing that despite all my shortcomings, despite the low self esteem and self hatred which sometimes paralyses me, I am ok. One day, cleaning my teeth, I looked in the mirror and loved me. For the first time. Ever. I am no different, but everything is different. The burden is lifted. The sin is forgiven. I'm in a state of grace. It is not rational; there was no reasoning out that, all things considered, I am doing the best that can be expected. It was something given; something else I could let go of. But it is not irrational; it is real.
The truth in Matthew's story, is that if I treat you as the slave treated his fellow, I am the greatest of hypocrites. For you and I are in this together. Whatever the "lord" is, we are slaves to it. I have no greater worth, no greater influence with the "lord," than you or any other person. At best I may be like DT Niles' beggar; blind, but haltingly able to show others where I have found bread.
There is more than hypocrisy. If I will not live as the lord of this story lived, and if I live as the forgiven slave lived, and judge you, and will not forgive, I will lose what I have been given. I will find I have smashed the mirror into which I looked. I will trample across my new self, and clamber back into slavery. I will become what I live.
Some Notes on Forgivness
Andrew Prior September 2008
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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