In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. We say these words every day, and we may give them more-or-less serious thought. Today’s gospel is simply a development of this simple idea that we find in the Lord’s prayer.
Last week’s gospel, which you didn’t hear because we were keeping our Patronal Festival, presented some pretty stern and uncompromising teaching from Jesus about how to deal with sin within the Christian community. The person who has been sinned against should first take it up one-to-one with the person who has done them wrong; if that doesn’t get them anywhere, they should involve one or two others; finally, they should involve the church, and if the wrongdoer does not listen to the church, they should be expelled.
This stern and uncompromising teaching from Jesus is then followed by the teaching we have heard today: Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive his brother is rendered absurd by Jesus’ response. The number Jesus uses is sometimes translated as seventy-seven, and sometimes as seventy times seven, but the actual number is immaterial – this isn’t a maths exam. The number seven had a symbolic value in the ancient Jewish world, representing perfection, and so whether seventy-seven or seventy times seven, the idea is clear: we must forgive without limit. Poor Peter is no doubt at this point feeling a little silly, and not for the first time, and Jesus then goes on to make his question appear still more absurd by setting our forgiveness of others in the context of God’s forgiveness of us.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is like many of Jesus’ parables a simple story we can readily identify with. The outrage of the fellow-servants at the behaviour of the unforgiving servant is instinctively shared by the listener. Jesus includes a characteristic note of exaggeration: the ten thousand talents owed by the unforgiving servant to the king is an absurdly large sum. Just one talent was ten thousand denarii, when one denarius was a day’s pay for a labourer. Ten thousand talents is a huge sum, like a billion pounds, something totally beyond the capacity of the servant to repay. The hundred talents owed to the unforgiving servant, by contrast, is a modest sum – a hundred days’ pay. More than a bus ticket, but the sort of sum that could be reasonably expected to be repaid with patience.
Jesus’ parable concludes with the instruction that we must forgive our brothers and sisters from our hearts. And this is where it gets difficult. Jesus’ parable is very helpful in demonstrating the enormous generosity of God’s forgiveness towards us, and how trivial our grievances against each other are by comparison. But forgiving a financial debt is a relatively clear-cut matter, whereas forgiving from the heart is not. Release from a financial debt can be effected in a moment; release from a moral debt can be a lifetime’s work. A sense of resentment in the one who has been wronged, and the sense of guilt in the wrongdoer, these things can be buried deep in the darkest corners of our hearts, without losing any of their negative effects.
We see this in the story of Joseph and his brothers. It is one of the most powerful stories in the bible. In comes around in the cycle of readings for daily prayer during the season of Lent, and reading it day by day, building up to the final scene of forgiveness and reconciliation, it gets me every time. Reading just a little snippet of it as we do today doesn’t really do justice to the force of the story. If you don’t have much else on this afternoon you could start reading at chapter 37 and probably be done by dinner time, and you will be in tears at the end, I promise!
But the interesting thing is that the reconciliation scene comes twice. The first time, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in Egypt, and they are reconciled to him with kisses and weeping. The second time, which we heard today, comes after the death of their father Jacob, and Joseph’s brothers are fearful that with the death of their father, Joseph will now take revenge on them. Joseph comforts them and assures them of his forgiveness. We do not know whether the cause of this second scene was the continuing sense of guilt in the hearts of the brothers, or a continuing sense of resentment in the heart of Joseph, or perhaps most likely both. But there is clearly an ongoing work of forgiveness and reconciliation to be accomplished; forgiving from the heart, and trusting that forgiveness in the heart, is not something that can often be accomplished in an instant. And here perhaps we are brought back to that seventy-seven or seventy times seven or whatever it may be.
Over the years I have come to a growing appreciation of the absolution from Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. Modern liturgists often dislike this text. An absolution they argue should be clear-cut; we confess our sins, the priest pronounces the absolution, and then we are ready to sing God’s praises, and hear God’s holy word, and to pray for others and for ourselves. And they have a point. That’s how the Common Worship services generally work, and it provides a sense of putting our sins behind us and moving on, which is obviously helpful. But from a psychological and a spiritual point-of-view I think the Book of Common Prayer is more true to human life as it is actually lived. The absolution follows the confession, and it goes like this:
Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather than he may turn from his wickedness, and live; and hath given power and commandment, to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins: He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.
So far, so good. We have confessed our sins, and the priest has pronounced the absolution. But listen to what comes next:
Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit…
Hang on a minute, says the modern liturgist, this is illogical, we’ve already done the repenting and confessing of our sins, we want to receive the absolution and move on. From the liturgists’ point-of-view, this is a strange point to be asking for true repentance. But I think the old Prayerbook understands the human soul more deeply: repentance is the work of a lifetime. We may have made our confession, and we may have received the assurance of God’s forgiveness, but there are always dark corners of the heart that we have not managed to bare to even to ourselves, there are sins that we have committed that we do not yet have the spiritual maturity to recognise as sins. There is always more to be done. And so it is entirely right that after receiving absolution, we should pray to be taken deeper still into repentance.
And it is right too that we should pray for the Holy Spirit. Repentance is the work of a lifetime, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit. No amount of self-examination and self-criticism is going to help us, these things may be useful tools but on their own they will only lead us to self-righteousness or despair or both. But the Holy Spirit airs the dank and dark corners of our hearts, driving out the musty vapours, and bringing restoration, health, and life.
As with repentance, so with forgiveness. To forgive from the heart can take time, sometimes a very long time. This too is the work of the Holy Spirit. We may think that we have done it, and then in some difficult moment we discover that we are still nursing a grudge deep within, and we need God’s help to truly forgive and let go.
So let us pray for true repentance, and the Holy Spirit, so that we may be brought to a fuller and deeper sense of the extent of God’s forgiveness of us, and to a fuller and deeper capacity to forgive those who have wronged us.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit