Sunday 24 • 17 Sep 2017

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

Rev. Prof. Clive Pearson

Some years ago I was teaching theology in the University of Otago in New Zealand. One of my duties was to be a faculty person for a pastoral group – that was a group of about half a dozen students: we would meet on a weekly basis to see how things were going; if they were being formed for ministry within the church, then how their formation process was going; and we were expected to lead worship several times per year. That is standard stuff in theological colleges.

There were a lot of Pacific Island students in our student body. Ete (not his real name) was a second-generation Samoan student from Porirua to the north of Wellington. He was rather thickset and, in order to help pay the bills, he had taken a part-time job as a bouncer in the Robbie Burns Hotel. I had had a lot to do with Ete. He was in one of my classes: we were talking about how does your understanding of faith, your understanding of who Christ is for you, when your family migrate from one part of the world to another. What happens when you become what one Tahitian woman theologian, Celine Hoiore, has called a hoto painu – a drifting seed.

In the course of our time together I had set aside some space to talk through things with 3 New Zealand-born Samoans. Things had not been easy for them; I had asked these three to go away and think about what stories to do with Jesus spoke most to them and their personal situation. Ete chose a whole gospel rather than one or two texts: he said the whole of Mark’s gospel because the disciples in that gospel are always getting into trouble; they seem to make errors in judgment; and, then, he added “I am always getting into trouble” – and so he chose Mark’s gospel.

Towards the end of my time with him he came to see me: he was in trouble. I am not sure of the exact details any longer; I know the police were involved but that, in one sense, the least of his problems. He had offended a fellow student who was older than he, and whom, by custom, he should respect. He had violated what is called fa’aaSamoa – that is, the traditional, customary practice of life that had grown up over time within his culture and how people relate appropriately to one another. What was he do?

Now I know that there is a particular ceremony in fa’aSamoa that deals with such offence. It is called the Ifoga ceremony – it is way of asking for forgiveness and being forgiven and thus effecting reconciliation with honour restored all around. The family, sometimes the village of the person who has caused offence make their way to the fale - the home - of the one who has been offended.

They take their best mats with them; they sit out in front of the home; they cover themselves with these fine mats. They will stay there with no food or water or any other protection from the sun and the sweltering heat. They will stay as long they are needed. It is not a foregone conclusion that their apology will lead to forgiveness; there are no guarantees but more often than not there is. There are speeches; there are tears; there is food, there is no further retribution; there is forgiveness.

I cannot remember how things played themselves out in Ete’s case but I was struck by the way in which in his culture had a process for making apology and receiving forgiveness. For most of us forgiveness is a big ask; it is full of risk and vulnerability; it can be as difficult to say sorry as it is to forgive and receive forgiveness – besides which in this day and age, this time and place, we are more likely it seems to lay claim to our rights and seek justice, rather than pursue forgiveness and grace.

And yet for us gathered here this morning there is a nagging reality. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the gospel that the Christian faith seeks to proclaim. It does so in so many ways, not least in the conviction that God sets out to forgive us through the life, the cross, the resurrection and the ascension of Christ Jesus. That is what the Basis of Union calls the completed act of Christ.
Our reading this morning is taken from the gospel of Matthew. The parable that Jesus tells in response to Peter’s question, “if another member of the church sins against me, how many times must I forgive” - that question is not found in any of the other gospels – and that is a sign of one or two differences that he has with those other gospels on this subject.

For example, Matthew takes out any reference to the forgiveness of sins from the preaching of John the Baptist; and, again, later, Matthew will add those words to what Jesus says, when he takes the cup, and say this is my blood which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins. What Matthew is doing here is binding all that talk of the forgiveness of sins to the mystery of the cross and the covenant God has made with the people of Israel.

Back to our parable. I can imagine that for those who belonged to the community, to the gospel for which this gospel was written – I can imagine that it was read out in a morning service they would smile – or perhaps let out a gasp. They know things we don’t know. They would be amazed at the sums of money involved. Ten thousand talents! Time for you to talk to your bank – or make that you’re using your Platinum visa card.

Ten thousand talents is a great deal of money. That’s the amount the king is willing to forego in the first part of the story. The Jewish author, Josephus, writing about much the same time, says that the whole of Judea was only expected to pay six thousand talents per year to their Roman overlords. No one would loan another that amount of one, least of all to a slave.

The king’s forgiveness is lavish; it is extreme; it is generous almost beyond measure. By way of comparison the amount that this forgiven slave would not forgive of his fellow slave was the equivalent of three months wages. Through his response – his throwing into prison the one who is indebted him – the first slave has misunderstood the nature of his own being forgiven by the king.

It is a gift; it should have transformed him – but what he has done is accept this gift of forgiveness only insofar as it benefits him and no doubt his wife and family. He has been selfish and he has been greedy. He has accepted the gift on his own terms only for the king to hear how he has dealt with his fellow – and now he loses the gift that bestowed on him.

In response to Peter’s question – how many times must I forgive – the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel is saying that those who have been forgiven must seek to forgive others who are in their debt. It’s subtle, but it’s different from the other gospels, where those who are forgiving will receive forgiveness. Here, in Matthew, the servant has already been forgiven and now practise this gift, lest he loses it.

Which is all very well, if only forgiveness was easy – if only it was straight forward – because it is not. I know that several times along the way of my own journey in faith others have on occasion said, either “forgive me”, or “I hope you have forgiven them”. Those kind of statements are blunt; they are so direct and in your face; they seem to brook no compromise; there appears to be no room for negotiation – and I can recall a mumbled response and thinking hard and feeling much about it for sometimes afterwards.

This question of Peter’s, this parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus’ words from the cross in Luke’s gospel, “Forgive them, Father, for they know what they do”, that line in the Lord’s prayer – “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”, and those words in the communion liturgy – “this is my blood, poured out, for the forgiveness of sins” – all these texts are inconvenient texts; they crowd the heart and mind. And, far too often, we may be left feeling that we have failed, because we have found the actual act of forgiving another ‘a big ask’ that seems to be beyond us.

Over the years I have found myself refining what forgiveness is. I still want to say that forgiveness lay at the heart of Jesus’ own ministry; I still want to say that the forgiveness of sins lies at the very heart of the Christian gospel: it is an aspect of that goods and that is why, every week, I will have us sing that Caribbean chorus, “Halle, halle, hallelujah”. It’s there for a reason. The word “hallelujah” means “Praise God” and so that chorus it an act of affirmation and praise in the wake of receiving the gift of God’s forgiveness.

I do not wish to surrender any of those hopes, those beliefs. And yet I have also come to see that forgiveness is seldom an on the spot response to offence; it is seldom frozen into a moment of time. And it is not just a decision of the mind, and a few words uttered. How often has one seemingly said the right things, only to be ambushed later by memories and by feelings that threatened to undermine that good intention. The call to forgiveness can then feel like a trap: it can become difficult to forgive ourselves for not being able to forgive the other.

Forgiveness can so often seem to be ongoing, more like a process, where every now and then we must revisit the whole thing. It is for that reason I have ended up thinking more in terms of forgivingness – rather than forgiveness. Forgivingness.

It seems to me that this call to forgive seeks to accept, first of all, that in and through Christ God forgives us. We cannot match that act of divine forgiveness. We can only receive it as a gift and be thankful – hallelujah. We are then faced with the continuing business of forgiving others.
It has sometimes been said that there is something provisional about our capacity to forgive. Yes, there will be times when the forgiving of another will signify closure; there may well be a restoration of relationship and a reconciliation. And yet there are other times when forgiveness is made and taken on trust, we might say. There is always the possibility of fresh hurt that can make inroads into what has been so hard won-by.

I suppose by seeing forgiveness as an ongoing series of intentions and acts - that can free us to notice how complex, how many various ways there are to forgive the deeds and being of another. It may be said through touch; it may be said by the willingness not to give up on the other; it may be said by your simple presence (without a verb or a noun being said) when your continuing presence need not be guaranteed and you have resisted the temptation to walk away. Seventy times seven – I wonder if that number is a little on the light side.

If we can be kind to ourselves, if we can be generous to the other, we might notice that forgiveness / forgivingness holds out the prospect of transformed and grace-filled lives. For all the difficulties of such the Christian faith cannot sideline the call to forgive. It is part of the title deeds of our faith that we are ourselves are forgiven, and, if this parable of the unforgiving servant is anything to go buy, then we cannot hold tight to that forgiveness as if it is meant only for each one of us.

Jesus reply to the Peter is this: those who have been forgiven must embark on the way of forgiving others. The task of the church, the calling of a congregation, is to craft not communities of judgement as can happen; rather, the calling of a congregation is to craft communities of forgiveness, communities of forgivingness. And if Matthew is right, then they are called to be so because they are themselves made up of those who have been lavishly and generously forgiven.