Sermon: Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Sunday 17 September 2017
The Revd Pete Hobson, Director of Leicester Cathedral Revealed
Accountable to God (Gen 50.15–21, Rom 14.1–12, Matt 18.21–35)
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I have a biography of Martin Luther entitled ‘Here I stand’, based on words he quite possibly never said “Here I stand, I can do no other” – but that still sum up his approach. An inspirational role model? Or just an intransigent troublemaker? It all depends on your standpoint.
The general question is this. On any matter of opinion – be it politics or religion, or which team to support, or what colour the wallpaper should be. Does it matter? And if it does, what happens if you disagree with my answer?
Not just in the church but in life generally, the cause of so many of our problems. Global warming. Brexit. Same sex marriage. Altar or table – or both? Did you realise that some clergy in the 19th century were imprisoned for doing things we largely take as normal –wearing vestments, or putting candles on the communion table, mixing water with the wine? In the Reformation period, people were burned at the stake for their views on what was going on with that bread and the wine. Romans 14 gives us the issues of the 1st century – meat or vegetables? Special holy days or all days the same? Genesis 50 tells the end-point of a story of family power struggles worthy of any modern-day soap. Far-East Enders, perhaps. There always have been, and perhaps always will be, matters that divide us. When relationships of power collide with human diversity and difference, painful consequences usually follow.
Jesus told a story about this. Someone was hopelessly in debt. No chance of repaying it, he was hauled before the person to whom he owed it. And he was forgiven. I don’t know if you’ve ever been badly in debt – or possibly are so right now. It’s not a nice place to be. And if, somehow, someone cancels it – what relief!
So in the story, basking in that sense of relief, the very same man went out to someone who owed him far less and demanded it back at once.
And the people watching said: “Good on you, mate. You take him for all you can get.” No, they didn’t, in the story, of course. But if they had, it would have rung true. Because that’s the spirit of the age we live in. Everyone for themself. Get what you can. Defend it with all your might. Stand up for yourself – if you don’t, no-one else will.
Jesus’ point was different. As he told it, the bystanders were horrified – but had no influence on the situation. However, the original lender did. He too was horrified and he could act. And his action in the story, Jesus said, was a warning of God’s action towards us. So let’s stay with that for a bit, shall we?
The tricky thing is – what begins as a story of generosity ends with the king appearing as arbitrary and potentially vindictive as any other powerful ruler. And certainly, there is some religious talk that does seem to make God out to be as simply arbitrary and punishing. Is that what Jesus was intending us to conclude?
We may need to remember at this point that, like most of Jesus parables, it’s a story set within a familiar context to make a point. It’s not an extended metaphor. Jesus isn’t saying ‘Gods is just like the king’ – he is saying ‘we might learn a thing or two from the actions of the characters’. Look back to how the story is introduced. Peter has a question about forgiveness – not of himself, but of other people. “How often should I forgive my brother? As many as seven times?” No, says Jesus but seventy-seven times – or maybe seventy times seven – that’s 490 times. In other words, indefinitely. And then comes the story – which is not about how often someone is forgiven, but about our attitude to those who we believe have wronged us. And that’s the difficult part.
“Forgive us our sins – as we forgive those who sin against us” is a prayer we regularly use. Indeed, it’s something Jesus told us to pray and we’ll be invited to pray it again later in this service. This parable ends with the identical point. Unforgiving people should not expect forgiveness. Forgiveness is not about a transaction that clears the slate, leaving everyone involved free to go about their business more or less as before. It’s about an attitude of mind, a way of life. It’s the way we’re meant to live, in the kingdom Jesus spoke about.
That’s still tricky, of course. Because one of the things I need forgiving for is my aptitude for being unforgiving. Or, to use different language, my tendency to be judgmental. On all those issues that I mentioned before, I have views. They may not be your views. How does that make me view you? Are you only OK if you agree with me? Am I only OK if I agree with you? Are we all only OK with God if we all agree with each other? That would present difficulties, across the board of human experience!
The causes of the continental reformation are many and various, and historians and theologians can doubtless debate that till the cows come home. But the issue that seemingly sparked Martin Luther off was the selling of papal indulgences. These, to his mind, reduced the complexity of forgiveness to a straight transaction, indeed a financial one. In heaven, just like on earth, you get what you pay for. And he just couldn’t reconcile that with what he read of Jesus’ teachings. And nor can I.
Religion is not a transaction where you work out what God wants, you pay it over, and then you get on with what you want. It’s a way of being, or living, of doing, that understands we’re all in need of forgiveness – and so we’d better all get used to being forgiving. That’s how the kingdom works.
Applying it – yes, that’s difficult. We can all come up with our own list of awful things, experienced by ourselves or others. And readily brand them ‘unforgiveable’. And none of this is meant to minimise in any way the terrible things people are capable of doing to each other. Some of which may well have been done to you. That was the place Joseph found himself in, with his brothers. I also don’t want to suggest it can’t be incredibly difficult for us to deal with that sort of stuff that may have come our way. Because it can be, and it is.
So I think the point of this story is that we are clearly at liberty to categorise some things as unforgiveable. But what counts is not what we may see some people do to some other people. What counts, when the chips are down, is stopping to ask – what if God should consider me unforgiveable too?
Martin Luther knew forgiveness is not a transaction of any sort – not financial, not religious, not emotional. Forgiveness is a way of life, the very air of the kingdom Jesus called us to inhabit. Peter asked Jesus – how often should I forgive my brother, when he sins against me? Jesus answered “Seventy-seven times”. He didn’t say it was easy. But he did say it. And, in the end, he also did do it. Just as God does it for us.