Today is the fourth anniversary of the bombing of the World Trade centre in New York. Since then we have seen other terrorist atrocities and we live with the daily reality that our world has changed irrevocably as a result. No matter how much we think our lives are still relatively unaffected, we actually need to protest that in the light of the changes that have happened.

Certainly the official policies put in place subsequent to these tragedies have emphasized difference, encouraged suspicion, caution, even perhaps have, as a consequence, incited greater racial distrust.

So, it is very appropriate, perhaps, that we consider Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness today. And in this passage, there are various traps for those of us who would limit, unintentionally, of-course, the impact of our faith on our lives.

As a child I used to sit listening to sermons on this text and passed the time by working out how many times I was required to forgive those who persecuted me. I was an only child, but that didn’t stop me being able to think of many candidates who challenged my success rate on forgiving and I certainly didn’t widen my scope to include the wider world.

Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother. It might suit us to consider brother means someone in that particular relationship with us, [which might have let me off the hook] except that we know Jesus expects us to consider all people our brothers and sisters. So, no escape there.

Peter’s suggestion about forgiveness was revolutionary. He seems to have caught Jesus’ drift. After all, seven was the traditional number of perfection, so he could be asking, ‘is perfect forgiveness expected of me?’

Other, perhaps more familiar, interpretations, consider that Peter has an arithmetical concept of forgiveness; keep count and eventually you will be off the hook.

Whichever it is, Jesus ups the ante. Even perfection is inadequate, because perfection is self-conscious. Forgiveness is utterly unselfconscious, generous beyond comprehension.

And to demonstrate this, Jesus tells the story of the two servants who are in debt, one to the king and the other to his fellow servant.

Here we have another trap for the unwary. For often in these stories, the King equals God, and in this story, this seems to be the case….for a while.

For the king shows unprecedented forgiveness towards his servant who owes him an unimaginable sum of money. Ten thousand was the highest figure in arithmetic in those days, [like our billion], and the talent was the highest currency. So to forgive a debt of ten thousand talents was to forgive the equivalent of a hundred million working days for a day labourer. Laughable. Totally unreasonable.

And yet, hearing the desperate plea of his servant that is exactly what the king does.

The remission of the debt is an act of pure grace that is utterly unexpected and striking. The order of justice is overwhelmed by mercy. Sounds like the action of God the merciful.

So far so good.

Then this lucky, forgiven servant goes off to his fellow who owes him a relatively paltry sum. This bloke too begs for more time to pay, in this case a reasonable proposition, rather than the impossibility it was in the case of the massive debt. Bad luck. No chance. Absolute refusal and banishment to prison, which made repayment impossible anyway.

The unforgiving servant, whose entire existence has been restored through an overwhelming triumph of justice over mercy, now reverts, with brutal effect, to a narrow application of justice and we, as audience, are justifiably outraged.

We may also consider that the King acts appropriately, for he throws the forgiven debtor in prison, from where there is no escape. Mercy is withdrawn, the debt reinstated. The forgiven debtor is handed over to the torturers until the entire debt is repaid. Since that is impossible, this sentence is eternal.

 But if the King represents God, how does that change things? Where does that leave us?

Part of Matthew’s purpose in this section of his gospel, is to convey what Jesus’ instructions about what it means to be the church. This whole section is part of a wider section on reconciliation, and Jesus is teaching, according to Matthew, that true reconciliation comes through forgiveness, not merely accommodating, excusing or overlooking others’ errors, sins, hurts to us. True reconciliation means giving up rightful resentment, it means absolute elimination of all our wrath.

Which seems paradoxical, when the King demonstrates such fury………….

So how do we make some sense of this?

Matthew is addressing his church and this parable gives us a glimpse of his view of the church. It is a household whose special relationship to God derives from their intimacy with Jesus as his brothers and sisters, and is centered on him.

Matthew wants his community to understand that a person who does not forgive others shows that he/she has not really experienced God’s forgiveness, otherwise it would flow through.

We must also understand that we cannot earn God’s forgiveness. There is nothing we can do that merits such overwhelming generosity. But we can risk losing it, by trying to hoard it, rather than passing it on to others. We can lose relationship with God by creating a barrier between ourselves and God. Instead of accepting the invitation to share in the fullness of the divine life, we are free to erect the barrier of unforgiveness which will cut us off from the source of our life.

And the sort of forgiveness we have to embrace is spelled out for us, just in case we have missed the point. As the last verse of the passage reads, we forgive our brother or sister from our heart.

Forgiveness is not easy and for some of us, dependent upon our life experiences, seems an impossible requirement. The capacity to forgive is itself a grace and for many of us forgiveness will be a life long project.

What Jesus requires is forgiveness from the heart; from the radical core deep within us that only God’ grace can ultimately touch and heal. Forgiveness and consequent reconciliation may long struggle for life in our hearts. We can be grateful that God takes the longest view and will never deny the grace necessary for salvation, no matter how great our sin.

We live in an adversarial culture, often modeled by political and corporate leadership. We may have suffered under harshly critical regimes that reduce our ability to do anything but be more concerned about protecting ourselves than looking after the interests of others. This message is a clear challenge to such a society.

So, as we again reflect on the irreparable damage done to our world and to our trust in each other, by others with whom we seem to share little, let us pray for grace to grow closer to God’s standard and desire for forgiveness, lest we become like those we despise.

The church, whose primary reason for being is to be a light to the world cannot take the gospel message of reconciliation and forgiveness to the world while being unreconciled at its heart. And that means us.

Page updated February 19, 2006