Thought for the week - 17 September 2023
We often read or listen to readings from the Bible and listen out for our favourite bits, or maybe dwell more on the things that we agree with the most. This has much to recommend it, because it makes us feel better and reassures us that there are at least some things that we remember, and some teachings of Christ that have made an impact on us. The other side of this argument is that maybe we do not allow the teachings to challenge us much, and if we switch the practice over to another genre – watching the news for example – it may be reassuring watching the ‘News at Ten’ from thirty years ago when things were maybe less complex, but it would leave us not only in the dark about what is going on, but also it would make us look a little peculiar. So it is with our faith – the biggest challenge is to keep it alive and applied to whatever situations may arise, no matter how terrifying they may seem, because that way not only do we grow in faith but also those around us see the relevance of our faith as well. It’s hard though, I accept that and I know it too.
Forgiveness is one of those things that maybe we do not always want to dwell on – and not because we are bad people particularly. In the Gospel today, Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive: seven times? Jesus’ reply – seventy times seven times – is acutely problematic, not only from a practical sense – if someone steals from you it may seem right and Christian to forgive them once or twice, but if we allow them to continue stealing with impunity, society crumbles. If someone is convicted of murder, they are rightly locked up to prevent them doing it a second time. Maybe you think I am being a little harsh here, but I would like to draw our attention down the page to where Jesus tells a parable about a King who forgives his servant once (lavishly, it has to be said) but then hands him over to be tortured for his next transgression. What are we to understand by this?
I don’t think there is a simple, obvious answer that we can package up and display, but then our faith does not lead us to expect one. I always remember the statement made by Bishop Kallistos Ware some years ago when he said that the purpose of Christianity is not to provide answers to questions but to make us more and more aware of a mystery. However, this is not to say that the parables have no value as teachings or guides. So, what I would suggest is that we should take a step back and look at what sin is, and sin is surely imprisonment and forgiveness from sin is liberation, freedom. In today’s parable, the King is the only person who is free, and the rest are in debt, or metaphorically bound to sin and their debts, their sins, make them more and more tightly bound and in danger of losing their lives to prison or the torturers.
We can then suggest that, if sin is imprisonment and freedom is forgiveness, that the servant who has his debt (sins) forgiven then imprisons himself again through more sin – namely, greed and a lack of compassion – by demanding that his fellow servant pay the small debt he owes. If our sins are forgiven, then we are free, but we can lose that freedom by denying it to others. But there is more to see here, because we are told that forgiveness is unlimited, so however much of a mess we are in, God can forgive us and we should forgive each other for just that reason. Thus, freedom and forgiveness are not things we possess – we cannot hold onto it ourselves but deny it to others.
Maybe we should look at this in a starker way – and to do so, we can suggest that we are not able to go to Heaven alone, nor to possess heaven, nor to deny entry into it – in other words, we have to surrender to Gods plan for us at some point, either now or when we meet Him face to face. And that plan is that we should love one another and one way of showing that love is to forgive one another. Charles Péguy, the French poet, tells a beautiful story about a selfish woman. When she dies, the angels were initially unable to find a reason to smuggle her into heaven. Then they remembered that she had once given an onion to a beggar. So they lowered down an onion on its string to where she was swimming in the sea of Hell. She swam towards it and clung on and the angels began to pull her up. But others came after her and tried to hold on to it too, but she kicked them off shouting, ‘It’s mine.’ The string broke.
It is not just wrong when we fail to forgive. It does not just mean that we cannot expect God to forgive us. Rather, forgiving others is our way of sharing in the transcendent mercy and love of God. Forgiving others is our way of sharing in the way God lives. Forgiving others is our way of realising the salvation that God offers to us which is to share in his divine life. It may go against the grain for us to forgive. We may struggle with it. But if we do forgive others, it will make us as God is. It will set us free as God is free. The King in the parable of course is God and He is the King because He alone is free and He wishes us to be free as well, He wishes us to be like Him. Each time you forgive someone from your heart, you’re just a little more like God than you were before, a little more free, a little less inclined to possess the onion for yourself.