Bible reading: Matthew 18:21-35
Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor
21 Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”
22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!
23 “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. 25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.
26 “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27 Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
28 “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
29 “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
31 “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.
35 “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
I don’t know how many of you use social media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and so on. I despair when the conversations get so toxic, just because people don’t agree with each other. The social media world is not a grey area when it comes to different opinions. Measured discussion is not possible when character numbers are limited and so people turn to the lowest common denominator – trading insults instead of viewpoints. And yet I continue to use these platforms because there are people out there that I look up to, like to have a conversation with, or even, sometimes, disagree with, but what I hope is in a measured way. Certainly, I have never been blocked or unfriended by anyone because of a differing opinion. I have also had some good conversations and shared information, opinion and recommendations with a number of people, some famous, some not. Surely this is how we should discuss matters on social media, not drive people to insult? As we have seen in the news all too often, such insults can lead to tragic consequences.
We use a significant amount of words each and every day, mainly for conversations with our family, friends and colleagues, and for the most part these words are cordial and allow for the exchange of information. But there are times when words are used in divisive or unhelpful ways, and often these can cut to the core of a person, or worse when they are used to condemn someone to a third party, specially where there has been some sort of disagreement.
These words may make the person who has been upset feel better for a moment as they vent their anger or frustration, but, very soon, this action becomes an empty act and that is where the danger sets in where the process is repeated time and time again. Without realising it the person has sullied someone else to a number of people, and all without the subject of the conversation being aware that this has happened, well until the point when the conversation comes back, and the damage has been done, namely their character has been defamed, or slandered. I am sure we have all experienced this in one form or another and know how we felt or even feel. We can be victims of a disagreement and gossip and not know how to solve the issue.
We can also deliberately or otherwise, cause the argument, disagreement or gossip and maybe a situation can get out of hand and what starts as a disagreement with another person is blown out of all proportion, and we are guilty of doing exactly what Paul is talking about in our epistle this morning. We have cast a judgement on another because their view is opposed to our own.
It’s a dangerous road to travel, and causes hurt and pain for everyone involved. However, to really see the consequences we need to turn our attention towards todays Gospel.
Peter was asking about forgiveness, and Christ begins by saying seventy-seven times, and then tells a parable. At the beginning it looks like a story about charity and the generosity of the king who forgave the slave such a great debt. But as it continues it very quickly becomes sour as the slave who has just been freed from a massive debt persecutes a fellow slave who in comparison owed him pittance.
The story quickly unfolds and the king learns about the deplorable way that the slave has acted, and as a result he finds himself in custody with the debt firmly around his neck and now due for full payment.
Forgiveness for all of us is a difficult concept, usually when we are wronged, what we want to do is retaliate, he or she did this to me, I’m going to repay them by doing this. The fire of anger enrages us, and if we are being honest it is highly unlikely that the first thing on our mind is repentance.
But of course, in doing this we have cast judgement onto them. We know we are right and they are wrong. It eats away at us and it can cause wider hurt and splits in communities as we gather supporters and polarize our opinions and entrench our positions. This section of Paul’s letter to the Romans is not the only time he is trying to heal rifts in the congregations he is keeping in contact with. His letters have many such examples.
We should continue to listen to St Paul and take note of what he says here and elsewhere. Earlier in his letter to the Romans he said, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
We need to remember that in forgiveness there are three parties: the one who has been hurt, the one who caused the pain and God
You see there may be a time when the one who had caused the hurt comes to apologise, and if that is heartfelt and truthful, then we are taught that we should forgive, just as we have been forgiven. If we do that then our relationship with God remains true.
But what if we refuse to forgive? This causes issues for us, because none of us are perfect, and as we would want to be forgiven for things we have done, then we must also do the same.
However, there is one more aspect which we often don’t think about, and that is what if the one who has caused the hurt doesn’t come to apologise? This is possibly the hardest scenario, because the pain that we feel has no outlet, and if we’re not careful then it can consume us, it can remain an open wound which can become infected. It is at this point that we have to come to a place where we find forgiveness for their actions in our hearts, so that we can move on. As I said earlier, it can eat away at us and this can lead to many negative thoughts which can hurt us even more.
It may sound strange to say this, but consider the words of The Lord’s Prayer, “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Notice how the words are focussed on us, our reaction to what is happening, not on what another person has or hasn’t done. The prayer asks that God sees that we keep our relationship right with Him. It is up to the other person to take the necessary steps to make themselves right with God, that is not our responsibility. Our responsibility if we are the one who has been hurt, is to ensure that if restitution is offered, that we have found that peace, and come to a place where that gift of forgiveness can be offered, just as it is offered to us by God, freely and with grace.
C S Lewis said “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you”
Social media shows how the world expects us to condemn others; to trade insults. To do otherwise is counter-cultural and there are many in the world who cannot accept that there is another way, a better way. Christ and St Paul remind us today that there is a better way, and as we pray the Lord’s prayer, perhaps it’s time to shed that pain and hurt which has been eating away at us, forgiving others as He forgives us. Amen.
You might find this form of penitential prayer from the Church of England helpful. It can be said alone and reminds us of the call to forgive. You might find it helpful to say all the words out loud, and perhaps to return to it several times as you search your heart and seek God’s forgiveness and learn to forgive others.
A candle may be lit and silence may be kept.
Come, Holy Spirit of God,
All and search our hearts with the light of Christ.
Our Lord Jesus Christ said:
The first commandment is this:
‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, with all your mind,
and with all your strength.’
The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
There is no other commandment greater than these.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
All Amen. Lord, have mercy.
After a period of reflection
Come, let us return to the Lord and say:
All Lord our God,
in our sin we have avoided your call.
Our love for you is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early.
Have mercy on us;
deliver us from judgement;
bind up our wounds and revive us;
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
May almighty God,
who sent his Son into the world to save sinners,
bring us his pardon and peace, now and for ever.