September 11 NOTES FOR RELECTION Pentecost 13
Texts: Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Theme: This week it picks itself. It is at the heart of the Lord's Prayer, and at the core of his teaching. The unforgiving are not forgiven. God's love may be unconditional, but his forgiveness is not. We are forgiven to the same extent that we forgive others.
Introduction. There is probably no more difficult challenge to those of us who try to follow Christ's teaching than this apparently indissoluble link between our forgiveness of others and God's forgiveness of us. No wonder it tends to bring out the legalistic hair-splitting side of our nature, so well represented by Peter in today's gospel passage. Recall that this passage follows on the teaching about dealing with an offending party within the community of faith. Peter wants to know about the serial offender: how many times should we put up with it until we finally give up on him? His suggestion of seven strikes and you're out seems pretty generous by our standards; but Jesus blows the whole idea of such counting and record-keeping out f the water. (Love, says St Paul keeps no record of wrongs: 1 Corinthians 13:5). Likewise, Joseph embodies the grace of God in contrast to the worldly approach of his brothers. Ultimately, says St Paul, we can leave it all to God as all of us will be called to account by him.
Background. In his book Living Prayer Metropolitan Anthony has a chapter on the Lord's Prayer. He draws a fascinating parallel between the development of the prayer, read from the end back to the beginning(!), and the Exodus journey. Here is an extract of what he writes about the petition 'Forgive us our trespasses...":
There is one thing that stands as a line of demarcation between Egypt and the desert, between slavery and freedom; it is a moment when we act decisively and become new people, establishing ourselves in an absolutely new moral situation. In terms of geography it was the Red Sea, in terms of the Lord's Prayer it is 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive...' This 'as we forgive' is the moment when we take our salvation into our own hands, because whatever God does depends on what we do; and this is terribly important in terms of ordinary life. If these people who are moving out of Egypt into the promised land take with them, out of the land of Egypt, their fears, their resentments, their hatreds, their grievances, they will be slaves in the promised land. They will not be freemen, even in the making. And this is why at the demarcation line between the trials of fire and the beguilement of old habits, stands this absolute condition that God never relaxes: as you forgive, the measure which you use will be used for you; and as you forgive, you will be forgiven; what you do not forgive will be held against you. It is not that God does not want to forgive, but if we come unforgiving, we check the mystery of love, we refuse it and there is no place for us in the kingdom. We cannot go farther if we are not forgiven, and we cannot be forgiven as long as we have not forgiven everyone who has wronged us. This is quite sharp and real and precise, and no one has the right to imagine that he is in the kingdom of God, that he belongs to it, if there is still unforgiveness in his heart. To forgive one's enemies is the first, the most elementary characteristic of a Christian; failing this, we are not yet Christian at all, but we are still wandering in the scorching wilderness of Sinai.
Tough stuff indeed! A failure to forgive is a failure to love; a refusal to be reconciled is a breach of fellowship or communion. To understand the eternal consequences of that we have only to reflect on the story of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:18-31).
Genesis. A wonderfully dramatic conclusion to the long and all-too-human saga of the Bible's most dysfunctional family, whose members became the founding fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel! Jesus surely had this episode in mind when he told the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Like the son, these brothers realise that they have got themselves in a hopeless position. They have surely forfeited all right to fraternal love, so they devise a survival strategy. They concoct a story about their father's dying wish, and when they are brought into Joseph's presence they declare themselves his slaves rather than his brothers. But Joseph, the servant of God, is gracious to them, and assures them of his care and protection for them and their children.
Taking It Personally.
· Take a moment to recall the enormity of the ill-treatment Joseph's brothers had inflicted on him. How would you describe it?
· Reflect on your own family relationships. Are you estranged from any family member? Do you feel any resentment towards any member for past behaviour towards you?
· Are you aware of any occasion on which some wrong was done against you and God subsequently used that to good purpose? Does that make it any easier to forgive the wrongdoer?
Romans. This reading departs somewhat from our main theme. It deals mainly with our tendency to judge our fellow believers on somewhat peripheral matters. Whenever we catch ourselves thinking, 'If he was a real Christian he wouldn't have done that', we should re-read this passage. It's that sort of attitude that St Paul is taking aim at. He opposes it on three grounds. First, on relatively unimportant issues (meat-eating is one of his examples) the unity of the fellowship is too important to risk in argument. Secondly, every Christian is a servant of the Lord. It is not our place to judge someone else' servant: that is a matter between the servant and the master. Thirdly, each of us must give our own account to God.
But there are some connecting threads between these ideas and our theme of forgiveness. Forgiveness pre-supposes some element of judgment: I cannot forgive someone unless I understand that he has offended against me. And here is a question to ponder: does our forgiveness wipe clean only the offence against us, leaving the offender to make his own account to God; or does our forgiveness also wipe out the offence against God? [See Matthew 6:14-15; 16:19; and 18:18]
Taking It Personally.
· Are you inclined to be critical of other Christians whose beliefs and practices differ from your own?
· How do you distinguish between "disputable matters" (v.1) and core, non-negotiable ones?
· How do you feel about the prospect of giving an account of yourself to God?
· If you do not already do this, consider ending each day for a week conducting a brief review of the day and giving an account of yourself to God for that day [a practice sometimes called "an examen of conscience"].
Matthew. Surely one of the hardest and most direct of all the parables. It covers all three classes of parable, kingdom, grace, and judgment. It shows the conduct required of us to live in the Kingdom of Heaven. All the details are grossly exaggerated. We're talking Bernie Madoff figures here! No servant could possibly have run up such a huge debt; and certainly any promise to repay, even by instalments, is complete nonsense. The whole point is to stress the extraordinary mercy shown by the King in forgiving the debt; and equally, the paltry sum owed to the servant by his fellow servant. The plea for patience made by each servant is the same; so again the comparison is between the attitude of the King one the one hand and the first servant on the other. Legally, the story doesn't work too well: once the debt had been forgiven the King could not reinstate it – it had ceased to exist. But this story is not a case study in contract law: it's about the response required of the recipients of God's grace. The servant's failure to extend forgiveness means that he has rejected the grace he received; the consequence of that is that he condemns himself to hell. Verse 35 makes it all too clear what Jesus is really warning us about.
Taking It Personally.
· Pray the petition "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" slowly several times. Then re-read this story.
· Ask God to draw to mind any matter that you may need to address by forgiving someone else.
· Re-read the passage quoted above by Metropolitan Anthony. Do you agree or disagree with the importance he attaches to this subject. Why?