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Thursday, 16 February 2017

sacrificial payment and infinite forgiveness

The following is a transcript from an oral serman 
presented by Father Matthew Kirby to his parish.

Peter said unto Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?" Jesus said unto him "I say not until seven times, but until seventy times seven”. (Matthew 18:21-22)

To see the full significance of both Peter's and Jesus' statements we need to know two things:

The first is that Peter would have considered his maximum allowance to be seven forgiveness's per person as fairly generous, it was after all more than twice as many the number given by respected Jewish religious authority. It says to forgive 3 times so peter had clearly noted Jesus' teachings that were previously given about forgiving others. 

The second thing we need to know is that the number Jesus has given implies unlimited forgiveness. If we were to keep a written tally of how many times we had forgiven somebody (how else could we keep track of it) and then  consign them to an allowed-to-hate-forever-more list-number-491 we would be missing the point. You can imagine it can't you? someone keeping a list, "okay that is the 244th time, you are almost half way to the limit you know". To keep such a tally in anticipation of the day we may give up forgiving would show that we had never forgiven them at all. The kind of love that forgives is the kind of love that keeps no record of wrongs (to quote Paul in 1corinthians 13). So what Jesus is saying is that it is a countless number of times. 

The other important thing to note about the number Jesus uses, is that it counters (or stands against) the same number used by Lemech in the book of Genesis. Lamech used this number as a measure of revenge. (Genesis 4:23-24) " Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, hearken to what I say, I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”" (or 70x7 as it can be translated) And so this is a statement of revenge and he has revenged himself on somebody and he claims for himself without waiting for God something similar that has happened to Caine who had murdered his brother, God had punished him and said that no one can kill him or they will be revenged seven fold. So this fellow takes it upon himself to say "well if anyone has a go at me, they are going to be avenged seventy-sevenfold (70x7)". So Jesus is taking this particular verse (and what he says can be taken as either 70-times-7 or 77-times) from the Old Testament and turning it around (turning it on its head). That was about vengeance, this is about forgiveness. Jesus is deliberately contrasting unlimited revenge with unlimited forgiveness. 

In one commentary I read it talked about the unlimited revenge of primitive man, referring to that Old Testament example. I think it is safe to say that mankind as a whole is never outgrown its desire to go further than justice demands in seeking retribution. This is because love of justice is seldom if ever our primary motivation, fear and hatred tend to move us more than love of justice. There is many examples of this in our long and bloodied human history.   

When Jesus wants to underline limitless forgiveness he uses the parable in today's Gospel reading. In having told Peter to forgive seventy times seven or seventy seven times (uncounted times) he then goes on to tell a parable. In the parable we have a master forgiving his servant, then that servant NOT forgiving his fellow servant a debt of a much smaller amount. Again, it helps to know some of the historical context. The sum that Jesus mentions which this servant owed the Lord was 10,000 talents which is many millions of dollars in today's money. (The word talent, when used as a measure of money, refers to a talent-weight of gold or of silver. The gold talent is reported as weighing roughly the same as a person, and so perhaps 50 kg). This is almost like one man owing to total debt of a country, it was an astonishing amount. So this parable is deliberately using hyperbole because it is very difficult for a servant to owe his master that much, it is a huge amount. Then, what does the fellow servant owe him? a hundred denarius, now that is more than 3 months average wages. It is not a pittance, it is a substantial amount, yet it is so tiny compared to the previous sum. In other words Jesus in not saying "you have to forgive because what it is that you have to forgive is nothing". He is not saying that at all. He is saying "You may have to forgive a lot (the equivalent of Three months wages), but compare that to God and how He is forgiving you, the whole human race constantly and His forgiveness is unlimited". The interesting thing is that when this wicked servant (who was forgiven but would not forgive) tries to deal with the situation before he is forgiven, he says "Lord have patience with me and I will pay you everything." and that was an empty promise because he couldn't, he would simply be incapable of paying back millions and millions of dollars (or the equivalent). He was desperate. The response of his Lord was to have compassion, even though he knows this fellow is really fibbing and can't pay him back. 

But the King or Lord in this particular parable is not a direct analogy for God. It is a story we have to take on its own merits about an extreme example of a human situation. So the King is not necessarily equal to God. God wouldn't sell the mans whole family to pay off his debt as this King does later in this parable. We are meant to take this seriously as what would happen if humans behaved this way and then compare that to the way God would react to our unforgivness. As I have said before parables are not allegories, we can't say every single component in a parable stands in for something else directly, it is not that simple. Parables didn't work that way in the ancient world, they often had one or two points. You weren't meant to take every part of the parable and make it an analogy for something else. Indeed you might say that the parable is deliberately unrealistic in that we have a radical change in the the King's attitude and we have this ridiculous amount of debt, which was (even in those days) impossible for a servant to owe his master. However the massive debt does stand in for something. 

That massive debt is an analogy for how much God forgives us all for the weight of sin. There is a reason why God can not forgive the unforgiving. Because to not forgive when we are sinners is really not to repent from our own sin. The humble heart that seeks forgiveness is the same gentle heart that offers forgiveness. The two go together naturally. We need soft hearts in order to imitate Christ whose physical heart was literally broken, pierced for us on the cross. He who calls His heart meek, lowly, that is gentle and humble. One way to soften our hearts toward God and those who have hurt us is to meditate on the extent of Gods forgiveness of each and every one of us and on what it cost Him. 

So let us do that as we approach the Eucharist which is the memorial of Christ's sacrificial payment of our massive debt. It is the communication of Gods infinite forgiveness. 

In the name of The Father, and of The Son, and of The Holy Spirit. Amen.

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