Matthew 18.21-35 & Genesis 50.15-21
When you hear Jesus’ parable in Matthew’s gospel today how does it make you feel?
If you are like me your first reaction may be that you sink down a bit and wish that you were naturally a bit more forgiving.
Whilst I’m sure that God does want us to forgive each other the message we take away from the parable all depends upon where we find ourselves in it and also in the story of Joseph and his brothers. When we open up the situation we are often forced to think a bit harder and reflect truthfully on how we might have behaved.
A business contact was recently telling me how a newspaper with a certain political bias was fed some numbers which made a good story and which was rushed to press instantly. When she took the trouble to feed the full facts together with some context the journalists were far less interested.
I guess it’s nothing new but it’s a reminder to us all that context and reflection on the different perspectives of the characters involved will give us some chance of finding real meaning in our bible. Otherwise, it’s so easy to hear words in a way that suits us and then jump straight on that bandwagon of condemnation.
Just to start with, have you ever had a really annoying sibling? If so you might sympathise with the brothers in selling Joseph for 20 shekels without a thought for his welfare.
I guess that’s step too far however there’s probably a greater chance that you’ve looked back on family relationships and been left feeling bad because you wish you had behaved differently.
At the point we meet Joseph today the tables of power have been turned and thanks to him his brothers are living comfortably in Egypt. They think they know how they deserve to be treated and fear what is coming to them when their father dies yet Joseph has grown as he understood his part in God’s plan to help the people of Egypt and he’s not interested in petty, short lasting revenge.
Already we are being prompted to have a rethink about forgiveness. In many circumstances forgiveness can be very difficult, so it follows that we beat ourselves up because sometimes we struggle to forgive others.
The trouble with this approach is that we then often assume that we are judged in the same way.
When I first started exploring Christianity a wise man told me that an important thing to remember about the relationship with God is that it can constantly grow and renew. God is not interested in piling every sin we ever commit into a sack on our backs until we collapse under the weight, becoming dysfunctional and useless. Rather he forgives us in a way which makes our natural response to him one where we walk more lightly as people consciously trying the shed our old ways and not giving up when we fail.
Talking of burdens, it’s all too easy to be left wondering whether we have the capacity to be as forgiving as the king owed a massive debt or whether we would behave more like the servant seeking repayment of a lesser debt.
Perhaps at least part of the problem here is that we have become detached from all the possibilities that God offers and see things in far more transactional terms, where stuff isn’t just granted for free.
The fact that all around us we see examples of closed minds, selfishness and injustice only adds to the complexity of what forgiveness really means.
Take the servant who’s just had his debt cancelled. It may be us that need to be forgiving to him when we consider his circumstances.
His debt may have been erased but perhaps he is still left with nothing and has a family to provide for. The way he sees this may be as a one off chance to get his finances straight, have a little breathing space, know where his next meal is coming from.
There’s no suggestion that the debt to him wasn’t rightly payable it’s just that we expect him to be generous as well because of what he has been excused.
Is he thinking that surely his master will commend him if he never again appears in front of him destitute.
In these uncertain times many may sympathise with his craving for some financial security for himself and his family.
As we start to think about what forgiveness means to each of us personally it’s important that we recognise that we are people who are forgiven by God on a daily basis.
It won’t mean that we in turn are always ready to forgive and it’s even possible that in some really bad situations we may never totally forgive.
A strong starting point is to put ourselves in the shoes of the first servant in our parable, hugely indebted, powerless and fearful for himself and those he loved . Once again we are reminded that God doesn’t judge by the standards we think we deserve but when we encounter his staggering generosity and grace which offers true freedom from the burdens we allow to slow us down it’s something we can only accept in awe, wonder and humility.
It’s sad to think that the first servant was apparently unmoved despite experiencing this life giving generosity, thoughts for his immediate needs took priority, essentially his whole life just changed and he missed it.
His master wasn’t just forgiving the one slave his debt but was showing what forgiveness looks like so that others would come to know that this was also possible for them.
Our challenge is to be people of forgiveness even if we can’t always find it in ourselves to fully forgive. If we recognise what we have received from God then our strength to at least struggle with forgiveness comes from this. The final words in todays Gospel reading make it clear that if we reject any efforts to forgive others then we reject the Kingdom that God offers for all, because ultimately God wants us reconciled to each other and him.
It’s important that we don’t confuse forgiveness with ‘brushing bad things under the carpet’ or entering into some sort of denial where we pretend that bad things haven’t happened.
It’s especially important that we don’t confuse our efforts to forgive with any mistaken belief that we should stay in or return to relationships where harm occurs. Sadly, our attempts to forgive someone’s past actions don’t necessarily meant that the person forgiven has changed for the better. It’s essential that we support each other as we are able in such situations.
There may be deep and disturbing reasons why we sometimes struggle to forgive others but feelings of superiority or self-importance can never be valid.
A final thought, Tom Wright points out that Peter’s question to Jesus of ‘how often should I forgive’ approaches the subject from entirely the wrong stance. This is not really about forgiving someone at all but simply postponing the time of revenge. Jesus’ answer of 77 times exaggerates to make the point that this is the wrong approach entirely, forgiveness becomes part of who we are as Christians rather than being something there is a finite amount of . It’s an integral part of our Christian make up, no matter how much we may struggle with this.
As we approach difficulties and challenges where others have done wrong the message from today is that we should seek to resolve them in a spirit of forgiveness confident that ultimately this will prove stronger than any thoughts of vengeance.
12th September 2020