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Sunday Worship 17 September | Forgiving Others

Updated: Jan 12

Matthew 18:21-35 (NIV)
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.’

Romans 14:7-12 (NIV)
For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: ‘“As surely as I live,” says the Lord,“Every knee will bow before me;    every tongue will acknowledge God.”’ So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

I would usually preach through a passage from start to finish, but I want to go backwards through the gospel reading this week, to defuse the final two verses. They feel quite explosive and I don’t want them to be a distraction if we’re waiting for them to go off. 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.” I went back to the original Greek to see if there was a “not” that had been overlooked for two thousand years, or if “torture” was a bit strong as a translation, but these verses really do seem to say that God will hand us over to be tortured if we do not forgive, and given that the amount the servant owed was so great he could never have hoped to pay it back, we seem to have here a threat of eternal torment. Perhaps that does not cause you any surprise, because that is what you have understood from ideas of hell, but it does cause me significant discomfort, because I cannot reconcile it with ideas of mercy. 


I’ve talked before about the need to tackle the things we find uncomfortable, so let’s face this head on. One thing to note is that Jesus is not tapping into an existing idea of eternal torment. The Hebrew scriptures do speak of an afterlife, but it is simply the place of the dead, where both the righteous and unrighteous go. In the centuries before Jesus, understandings had started to diversify, and the idea that the afterlife might involve punishment for sin had begun to develop, but even then it was a process of purification, more like Catholic ideas of purgatory. So rather than deriving from a theology of damnation, these verses have been used to create one, but I would suggest that they are a flimsy framework for such theology, especially when compared to the foundations laid by references to God’s unending grace and abounding love. 


I think we might also recognise that the handful of gospel references to eternal punishment come in parables, which by definition require some interpretation. And they are not straightforward allegories, but stories which illustrate a core message. If we deconstruct them too far, or push the symbolism in them to extremes, we can risk losing or warping that message. The kingdom of God may be like the story Jesus tells, but that only means that the story reveals some trust about the kingdom. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we are exactly like the servant and God is exactly like the king. And remember that Jesus tells this parable in order to further his point about forgiving others as many times as necessary, which does suggest that “God will stop forgiving you” can’t have been the take home message he intended. 


And so with those caveats in mind, I want to suggest that the central message of this parable is that forgiveness must be given as well as received, because we cannot experience the fullness of its blessing unless we are able to forgive. That doesn’t mean that God deliberately or maliciously tortures us, but that the things we hold on to will cause us such pain that it will be as though we haven’t been forgiven at all. As I read this week, “forgiveness isn’t letting the one who hurt you ‘off the hook’; it is the decision to remove the hook from your own soul - the hook that continues to pull you back to the place of hurt, tearing angry new wounds with each tug on the line.” We can only be free of all of our hooks when we know forgiveness from both sides.


Parables may have a core message, and we may need to take care not to read things into rather than taking things from them, but I have said before that they are a little like jewels, reflecting light differently as we turn them about, so I think there is more to say as we move backwards. It is striking that the debt owed by the servant threatens not only him but also his family, and we might ask questions of a system in which anyone can be in such colossal debt in the first place. There are layers of brokenness and injustice here, layers which we could easily identify in our own structures, and everyone is connected, just as our lives are more entwined with others than we often acknowledge. Last week we focused on how we reconcile with those who have hurt us, but here we see the need for a reconciliation which embraces the whole of society. The king's forgiveness, which he surely intended to be passed on, "maintains the integrity of the community and demonstrates that mercy is the thread that holds the kingdom together”. I wonder what difference it would make if we saw mercy as the thread that held our world together.


We’ve come back now to Jesus’ point about forgiving seventy times seven times, a point which I accidentally spoilered last week because I hadn’t looked ahead. Of course it is a message we probably need to hear seventy times seven times, and there is so much to say about forgiveness that it only seems right that it should spill over. I had thought I might try and share some real world stories of forgiveness here, and then I stumbled across a documentary called “Humza: Forgiving the Unforgivable” on BBC iPlayer. It was the most extraordinary piece of television, as YouTube creator Humza Arshad explored whether or not he could ever forgive the person who stabbed his cousin fifteen years ago. I recommend looking it up, but I do want to share a little from it now.


Humza’s cousin survived the attack and had been able to forgive, but his own anger and sense of guilt at not having been protector or avenger meant that he had not. The very idea of forgiveness seemed an anathema to him, but things started to shift when he learned that the attacker had been a fourteen year old war refugee, who had started carrying a knife to protect himself after he had been beaten. He could no longer cast him as a monster, and we began to see that pain only begets pain, so somewhere the cycle needs to be broken. That also came through when he met with the father of one of the men killed in Birmingham during the 2011 riots. I was in Birmingham at the time, and I remember the fear of further retaliation, which dissipated after this father stood in front of angry crowds and told them to go home unless they wanted to lose their sons too. He forgave the man who killed his son, and that act of forgiveness broke the cycle and prevented further violence. 


Humza also met a man who had been on the other side of the fence. He was convicted of manslaughter after he killed a man with a single punch thrown in a drunken fight, and when he was released the man’s parents sought a restorative justice meeting with him. They asked him about what had happened, and they told him about their son, and having tried for years to block out what had happened, he finally took full accountability for what he had done. The man’s parents also told him they forgave him, and they asked what he was going to do with his life now, and that spurred him to return to education and get a degree in criminology. Their forgiveness and their desire for restoration led him to true accountability but also to new freedom. I don’t know what his life would have been without it, but I suspect another cycle was broken in that meeting. The documentary was honest in showing that forgiveness is not cheap or easy, but the grace and the peace that were at work in the lives of those who had forgiven and been forgiven made clear that it is worth the cost. Jesus wouldn’t ask us to pay it over and over again if that was not the case.


Let’s switch to Romans briefly, and I want to begin just before the passage we heard, with Paul saying that there can be disagreement within the church, but disagreement should not destroy the beloved community. I didn't include those verses in the reading because I think the way Paul characterises different views as weak and strong is unhelpful and potentially distracting, but I want to mention them here because the point is really timely. I think it speaks profoundly into the discussion our union is having about same sex marriage and ministerial accreditation, which is really asking to what extent we can disagree and remain in relationship. Paul’s contention is that we should each act according to our own integrity, but in such a way that we do not cause offence to those who disagree, allowing them the freedom to also act according to their own integrity. It is a really important principle for any situation where we are seeking to disagree well, and I think it will be helpful to have it in our minds as we come to our own conversation about ministerial rules later.


Coming now to the verses from Romans that we did hear, Paul’s central point is that we will all stand before God and give account of ourselves, so we should stop judging one another. It puts the emphasis on the relationship between us and God, but I don’t think the intention is to reduce faith to something that is purely personal, and we should be wary of blinkering ourselves so that we see God but not one another. Paul is reminding us that we all stand in relation to God, but he is doing so in the context of writing about the community, and so I think we are to understand that we remain in relation to one another, but that relationship is one characterised by solidarity rather than judgement. I also think these verses need to be held in tension with the gospel reading from last week, which called us to confront those who have sinned against us. That may seem like judging others, but there is a difference between accountability and judgement, as the former can lead to reconciliation whereas the latter will lead to division.

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