12 September 1999
As we forgive....
I have to admit that the gospel passage set for today is not one of my favourites. I find it gives a very odd picture of God, as though God is only waiting for us to feel the slightest bit of resentment against someone as an excuse not to forgive us.
Well, that isn't like the God I know, so why did Jesus tell this story? We know from elsewhere, the Lord's prayer, for instance, that we need to forgive before we are forgiven, but why? What difference does it make to us?
2. What's It All About?
Well, let's look at the story in context.
The story comes in a selection of Jesus' teaching, including the story of the lost sheep, and the bit where Jesus says what to do if someone sins against you. You remember: first of all you talk to them privately, then if they won't listen, you take someone else along for moral support, then you take the matter to the church, and if all else fails, you, quote, treat him as though he were a pagan or tax collector, unquote.
But then Peter comes along, probably in a tearing rage, and wants to know how many times you have to forgive someone. I wonder who'd been getting on his nerves! It sounds like someone had. And Jesus says, not just seven times, the way the Jewish law says, but uncountable times. Seventy times seven; you'd lose count long before you got that far. And then he tells this story.
What Does It Mean?
So, what does this story mean?
We're obviously supposed to see ourselves as the person who owed the king a fortune, and the other servant is someone who has hurt or upset us in some way. I suppose that Jesus is saying that no matter how much someone else may offend us or hurt us, it's nothing compared with how much we need God's forgiveness.
But then, what is forgiveness? In this context, it is described as letting someone off a debt. But, like everything to do with Christianity, there is a lot more to it than that. It is more than just allowing us not to pay the penalty for what we have done wrong. It has to do with healing and reinstatement and generally being made whole.
Because sin isn't so much about what we do - although that too, of course - but also about who we are. Let's face it, most of us here today would not go out and deliberately commit a dreadful sin, or not most of the time, anyway. But we know that deep down we are not whole. We are not perfect. We need God's grace, and his healing, and his love if we are to come anywhere near being the person he designed us to be.
For me, confession isn't so much a matter of saying "I'm sorry," but more a matter of facing up to who I am: yes I am the kind of person who would do this; no I'm not perfect; yes, I do need Jesus. And, of course, so does everyone else.
As I'm sure you know, most people who commit crimes seem to do so out of their own inadequacy. That doesn't excuse them, or anything, but it does help to explain it. Because we, too, are inadequate people, although possibly less inadequate than someone who goes round knocking old women on the head.
Everyone needs God. You do, I do, those who attack people simply because of the colour of their skin do. Because it is only through God that we can become whole people. And, just as we need to accept ourselves for who we are, so we need to accept other people for who they are. In fact more so, because while we can decide we need to change, and we can do something about ourselves, with God's help, we cannot make that decision for others. Other people must make their own decision. We can't force someone else to become a Christian, or to stop drinking, or lose weight, or come off drugs, or anything else. We can, of course, ensure they do no harm to others, and we can offer them opportunities to change, but we can't force them to.
You remember the story of the Prodigal son, I expect. The son who asked for his share of inheritance and went into the world to have some fun, and when he was in the gutter decided to go home again. And the father ran to meet him, and put on a massive celebration for him, and had obviously been longing and longing and longing for his son to come home again.
But the father couldn't make the son come home. He had to wait until the son chose to come home of his own free will. What's more, the son had to accept that his father wanted him home again. He could have said "Well, no, I don't deserve all this," and rushed off to live in the stables, behaving like a servant, although his father wanted to treat him as the son he was. The son had to receive his father's forgiveness, just as we do.
And don't forget, either, the elder brother, who simply couldn't join in the celebrations because he couldn't forgive his brother. How dare they celebrate for that lousy rotter! I don't know whether he was crosser with his father for having a party, or with his brother for daring to come home. I feel sorry for him, because he allowed his bitterness to spoil what could have been a good time.
And that is exactly what happens to us when we do not forgive one another. We allow our bitterness to spoil what could have been a good time with God.
So how do we forgive others? Sometimes it just doesn't seem possible that we can ever manage to forgive someone. But we must, or we can't make any further progress in our journey towards wholeness. Well, the only way I have ever found that works is to pray about it. God is a terrific person to pour all your bitterness and anger out on to. He can take it. And if you are really honest with him about your feelings, some surprising things can happen. You might find, for instance, that it isn't really the other person you are angry with, it is you. Or perhaps it's God himself you need to forgive, and that can be difficult, too.
I remember, years ago, being very angry with God after someone I loved had died in an accident - God could have prevented the accident, God could have healed her, and so on. I remember saying to someone that I hoped I managed to work through my grief soon because it would be nice to be able to pray about something else for a change!
The thing is, when we come to God and admit we are angry, or hurt, or upset, by someone or something that has happened, God doesn't tell us that we mustn't feel like that, or that we are very wrong to feel like that, or even that this isn't how we're really feeling. God isn't like that. He enters into our pain, and shares it. Oh, it might be pointed out that you are indulging in a fit of self-pity, if that's what is happening - all too easy, don't you agree! - but he does sympathise and he does listen.
And as we go on praying, something happens. We let go of the self-pity - that is always the first to go - and we gradually work through the anger, and the pain, and the sorrow, and, next thing we know, we have forgiven whoever it was we needed to forgive.
The acid test for me is if I can ask God to bless someone who hurt me, and mean it. And could I see them at a Communion service and wish them God's peace? It's surprising how often I can, if I have prayed.
So, then. We need to forgive other people, we need to forgive ourselves, and occasionally we need to forgive God himself before we can receive God's forgiveness. It isn't that God won't forgive us - heavens, God's forgiveness is as constant and unremitting as all of God's character - it is that we can't receive God's forgiveness if we are full of bitterness and pain and anger. There's no room to let God in if we are too busy holding on to our own feelings.
The debtor, in Jesus' story, hadn't really grasped what the King had done for him. He hadn't hauled in that he had been forgiven his debt. He went on acting as though nothing had happened, which is why he required his debtor to pay him back. He was too busy focussing on his own feelings, and hadn't really grasped that he was now free from debt, his burden had rolled away, so he should help other people lose their burdens.
It's only really when we are prepared to put our own feelings down that there is room for God to act. I remind you, too, that in our first reading Paul tells us not to be snooty about our brothers and sisters who are Christians in a different way from us, or who have scruples about things that we don't have scruples about, like shopping on a Sunday, for instance. "Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand."
So we mustn't pass judgement on other people, and we must forgive them when they hurt us. Basically, when it comes to other people, we must put down our own feelings and think of theirs. And that way, we make room for God to act.
So, is there anyone you need to forgive this morning? Do you need to forgive yourself? Do you need to forgive God?
You may have noticed that we haven't had a prayer of penitence yet. We're going to, now. Let's take a few moments of quietness, and then I'll lead us in prayer.
In peace, let us pray to the Lord.
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