OK -back on track with the lectionary:
Matthew 18: 21-35
and here's a first draft...
Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness ‘How many times should I forgive?’.
What a good question.
She let me down again – should I forgive her again?
He really hurt my feelings this time with what he said - how can I forgive him?
The crime is so awful, the implications so enormous – where is the place for forgiveness? in the story of the Twin Towers & 9/11, or the death in custody of Baha Musa, or the shootings carries out by Raoul Moat.
What difference would it make to this world if we really took forgiveness seriously? How many times should I forgive?
So Jesus tells one of his parables. A parable about forgiveness.. or maybe unforgiveness.
A slave owes his king 10,000 talents. A talent was about a year’s wages for a labourer. This is a huge sum. Even if the man lives on nothing and gives all that he earns to the king it would take him 10,000 years to pay him back. This slave is in deep, deep trouble. Jesus doesn’t tell us how this man has racked up that kind of debt – but he wants us to know that when the king threatens to sell the man, his wife & children and everything he owns it will still not make more than the tiniest dent into the amount he owes.
He cannot pay this debt.
So he begs ‘have patience me and I will pay you all I owe’.
No he won’t. He can’t. He can never earn enough to pay the king back – not in a month of Sundays (or approximately 10,000 years).
But the king has pity, releases the man, and, says Jesus, forgives the debt.
But then Slave number 1 bumps into Slave number 2, who owes him a hundred denarii. Now a denarius is the daily wage for a worker – so in other words, Slave 2 owes about 100 days’ or 4 months’ wages. So he begs ‘have patience me and I will pay you’. It may take a year – or even two – but he should be able to pay his debt off, because it’s 4 months wages, not 10,000 years wages.
But Slave 1 – because he is nasty and unforgiving- throws Slave 2 into prison until he pays off the debt.
So Jesus shows us what unforgiveness looks like – pretty stupid, actually, fairly inhuman, if we’re honest: a man who has been forgiven 30,000 times what his mate owes him refuses to be moved by almost exactly the same plea that got him off his huge debt ‘have patience me and I will pay you’.
As so often with Jesus’ parables this is a ridiculously exaggerated story – no-one, surely would be so stupid as Slave 1.
But he gets his come-uppance.
His fellow slaves are as outraged as we are by his awful, mean, nasty behaviour and tell the king what has happened.
Then the king summons Slave 1 and points out ‘I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me - you should have been just as forgiving’.
And then the king does something strange – maybe we miss it because we’re so pleased to see horrible Slave 1 get his just desserts – the king hands Slave 1 over to be tortured until he has paid the whole debt.
What debt? Didn’t the king forgive Slave 1 – so he wiped out his debt. Except he didn’t, did he?
We call this story the story of the unforgiving servant or the unforgiving slave – but we could call it the story of the unforgiving king – because when the king hears what Slave 1 has done he re-activates the debt which he is supposed to have forgiven.
And Jesus tells us this story to help us to think about forgiveness. Perhaps we wonder if Jesus tells the story to show how God forgives. We often assume that any ‘king’ in a parable is automatically meant to be God. But surely we don’t want God to treat us like the king – who forgives but then changes his mind.
So how does God’s forgiveness work, and can it help us with our forgiveness?
Jesus tells Peter to forgive not just 7 times, but 70 times 7 – in other words – stop counting! Forgive, keep being ready to forgive, never give up on forgiveness. But the parable also tells us that forgiveness must be real, and lasting and ‘from the heart’. You can’t just say you forgive someone and then take it back later.
And the parable also reminds us that when we stop to take in how much we have been forgiven, it will make our much smaller amount of forgiveness that much easier to offer. When we recognise that God, compared to the King on the story, is even more generous, even more loving and forgiving, with a grace that lasts and never gives up on us... When we know how we are forgiven, then we know we can afford to forgive. God’s forgiving love can change us into people who can be forgiving – truly, deeply, once and for all – people who offer a forgiveness which lasts – and which changes lives forever.
Thanks be to God.