Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 24 • 14 Sep 2014


Exodus 14:19-31
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35


Rev. Chris Udy


Forgiveness, peace and reconciliation
are having a hard season
in the global landscape.
Long memories, deep grudges,
old wounds and bitter feuds
seem to be gaining in power.
The world is watching in almost impotent dread
as Sunni and Shia militants in Syria and Iraq
battle for revenge
over hurts and insults recent and long-standing,
dragging the world back
into conflicts we’d hoped were over.
Closer to home,
the Prime Minister’s attempt
to punish and pay back his political enemies
in the Royal Commission against Trade Unions
is being overwhelmed by revelations
of corruption in NSW,
with all manner of betrayals playing out
to the dismay of everyone
who values justice and good government.
Fundamental attitudes of trust –
the absolutely essential foundation
for all relationships and every community -
are very hard to maintain
when everywhere around us
fears are being magnified
and integrity seems to have vanished.
 
In a world like that,
forgiveness seems weak - and foolish.
It’s viewed with suspicion,
and some people seriously question the morality
of leaving a sin unpunished
or a debt unpaid.
 
Even personally, and domestically,
forgiveness is a dangerous idea.
It seems to give permission
for people to abuse their power
and shrug off their responsibilities -
and maybe worst of all,
it seems to suggest
that the pain and damage done to others
when people do something wrong, doesn’t matter -
that the love and the skill and the effort
we invest in our relationships and in our work
has no meaning, and no value -
our deep fear is that when we forgive,
we make precious people
and valuable things look worthless.
 
Almost everyone recognises
that there needs to be some tolerance -
children need to learn,
people make honest mistakes,
and even the brightest and best
can have a bad day -
but there has to be a limit -
we have to draw a line,
and after we’ve offered correction,
and given a reasonable warning -
maybe after the third transgression,
surely then a penalty should apply.
 
At least, that’s the way Peter saw it.
“Lord”, he said,
“If someone sins against me,
how often should I forgive?
As many as seven times?”
Peter thought he was being very generous -
many teachers of the law
would have said 3 times was enough -
and found good arguments in the Torah
to support them.
 
But Jesus surprised and shocked him -
“Not seven times” he told Peter -
“but I tell you, seventy times seven.”
No limits, no lines, no penalties.
Jesus wasn’t suggesting a larger number,
he was rejecting the idea
that forgiveness could be rationed -
that forgiveness was nothing more
than a suspended sentence.
Peter wanted a policy
of “seven strikes and you’re out” -
but as soon as someone hurt him once,
Peter would have set the metre running,
waiting for the numbers to tick over
and reach the acceptable limit -
so Peter could write him off.
 
Like many others,
Peter really understood forgiveness
as judgement without the sentence:
the penalty was decided
and was waiting to be applied;
the relationship was already poisoned
and the heart already closed -
not looking for life,
but waiting for death,
and living with that cold polite distance
that’s more hurtful than anger
and more damaging than punishment.
 
But that’s not what Jesus meant by forgiveness -
and he told today’s parable to explain it.
 
A slave was ordered
to repay an enormous debt he owed the king.
The debt was greater
than the value of everything the slave owned,
more than he could ever be worth -
but when the king ordered
that the slave, his family, and his home all be sold
to recover some of the debt,
the slave begged him for nothing more than time.
“Be patient with me, and I will pay you everything.”
All he could really ask for
was a postponement of the penalty -
he was already a slave -
everything he earned or made
already belonged to the king -
and there was nothing he could possibly do
to raise the money he owed.
 
But the king was moved to pity.
He ordered that the slave be released,
and that the debt be forgiven - cancelled and closed.
 
Forgiveness isn’t postponed punishment.
If all we’re doing is waiting
and counting the hurts we accumulate,
we make life misery,
and there’s no hope for healing or freedom.
Forgiveness begins in pity -
or sympathy’s probably a better word -
and sympathy begins
when we recognise something of ourselves
in the person who has hurt us;
when we try to understand
what life could possibly be like
for the person who’s done us harm.
It begins with sympathy -
and it ends in release -
freedom for both the harmer and the harmed.
Anything less than that
is not forgiveness -
it’s either waiting to be hurt again,
or waiting for revenge.
 
The forgiven slave was leaving the king’s presence -
exercising his new freedom -
when he saw another of the king’s servants.
This other slave owed him a hundred denarii -
a few weeks’ pay -
but the slave who’d just had his debt
cancelled by the king
grabbed the other by the throat
and demanded the money from him.
His fellow slave used exactly the same words
he’d used with the king
“Have patience with me and I will pay you”,
but he refused,
and threw him into prison
until the debt was repaid.
 
When the king heard what his slave had done
he summoned him and said
“You evil slave -
I forgave you because you pleaded with me.
Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow slave,
as I had mercy on you?”
And the king sent him - not just to prison,
but to be tortured –
until the entire debt was repaid.
 
And Jesus finished his parable
in one of the most chilling verses in scripture.
He said “So my heavenly Father will also do
to every one of you,
if you do not forgive your brother or sister
from your heart.”
 
Forgiveness begins in sympathy,
and sympathy is a kind of creativity.
It brings together thinking and feeling -
putting ourselves in someone else’s picture
and trying to understand
what the world might look like from there.
Understanding doesn’t mean excusing or condoning;
forgiveness doesn’t mean
we can’t tell right from wrong,
but it does mean taking the time and the courage
to see what pressures and connections
other people live with -
to understand the fears and desires
that drive people to make bad decisions.
Sympathy begins in that kind of creativity,
and it finds its power
when we also recognise
that our fears and desires,
our pressures and connections
have also driven us to make poor choices -
bad decisions -
decisions that we don’t excuse in ourselves either -
but can come to understand.
 
Understanding the conditions
that led us to bad decisions
can release us from their power.
Understanding allows us
to change the conditions,
to see better choices,
and to make decisions
that lead to healing, not to harm -
and then forgiveness sets us free to try again
to find redemption,
and to put something living and good
where before there was only pain and death.
 
Forgiveness is, like grace, a gift of God.
It isn’t a substance we can generate and exchange,
it’s a power - like electricity.
It flows through us -
we can only give what we’ve received,
but if we don’t give it,
we can’t receive it.
Like a power, it can warm us
and illuminate us and motivate us -
but only when it’s moving -
only when the connections and networks
are established and maintained -
and as soon as we break the circuit
or lose the connection
the warmth and light and energy stops -
and our freedom and life disappears.
Jesus is disturbingly clear about this.
We cannot know God’s forgiveness
unless we also forgive -
and God is the source of the power we need
to find release and freedom
from the prison of bitterness and fear we construct
with our memories of harm.
 
We know that evil moves in waves and circles -
the wrong we do may not return to us directly,
but it moves on from person to person
until everything it touches is poisoned.
We live in networks;
we’re connected and dependent
on many, many others
for almost everything we have and do -
so when we think about forgiveness
we also need to look beyond
our individual, private and personal relationships
to see a bigger picture -
to understand that we participate in
and contribute to movements and patterns
and currents of damage and healing.
 
Sometime soon the world as a whole
will have to address
fundamental issues of forgiveness.
At some point soon we’ll discover
that duplicity and greed are toxic,
not only to the earth and the air,
but to the basic fabric of human community.
We’ll discover that military solutions
are always nonsense –
that missiles and drones and landmines
might seem to distance and quarantine
those who make and sell and deploy them
from the damage they inflict,
but some time soon
those they damage will come back
with weapons and munitions
probably made in first-world factories
and nothing left to lose.
Sometime soon the leaders of the world
will need to put in place
a policy and movement of forgiveness;
they’ll need to find a way
to let those whose lives and homes
and neighbourhoods and cultures
have been blighted
by rapacious first-world business
put down their burden of vengeance and retribution
and build a peace that’s reinforced with justice.
 
That will be a dangerous process,
because there will be some
who will mistake forgiveness for weakness,
who’ll be too afraid to live with trust
and will try, like the unforgiving slave,
to continue using force and fear
to maintain their place in the world.
Others will ask
why they should be asked to contribute
to the cost of the world’s healing and restitution
when they received no profit or benefit
from greed or corruption -
but none of us lives or acts in isolation;
all of us are damaged
by the faults and failures of others,
and every one of us contributes
to the world’s distress and damage
when we refuse to forgive and be forgiven.
 
And the good news
is that forgiveness and grace
also works in waves and circles.
When we forgive
we break the power of evil,
we absorb it and remove it
from our relationships,
from our communities, and from the world.
And even when we can’t see
an immediate benefit for ourselves,
only forgiveness can begin
the process of healing
that remakes the world
from a prison of self-interest and fear,
into a home of peace and love.
 
Forgiveness involves trust
that’s renewed and extended every day,
in tiny steps and almost insignificant ways,
engaging in honest conversation,
rebuilding open relationships,
restoring dignity and value,
releasing those to whom we offer forgiveness
from their failure and shame,
and forming a community
where we can support each other
and contribute to that universal movement
of forgiveness and grace
that is absolutely vital
to the world’s hope for survival.
 
It’s time to leave behind
the season of payback and revenge.
The world has grown too small
for us to live as predators
and hope that someone else
will clean up what we break.
What we do to those around us will return -
and it’s up to us to choose a way of life
that will return to us and to our children,
not as illness,
but as grace and forgiveness,
and healing and peace.