First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary

Pentecost 18

William Loader

Pentecost 18: 14 September Matthew 18:21-35

Grace has the last word. Last week we saw that the theme of chapter 18 is dealing with people who go astray. Matthew surrounds the traditional rules of conflict resolution with the message of compassion and forgiveness. Today's passage is particularly emphasising forgiveness.

The parable might come from everyday life. There are such rogues and doubtless such things occurred. However this is a story and contains the storyteller's exaggeration. The amount owed is huge, larger than the estimates of the value of whole economies. Try doing the arithmetic. A talent is around 6000 denarii; a denarius is a day's living wage. It is an absurd figure, so unreal, as to distract the hearer from the literal meaning to the point being made behind the story. God's forgiveness is also massive. 'Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors' is the literal translation of the standard Lord's Prayer as found in Matthew 6:12. Releasing debt was a common image for forgiveness. The rogue in Luke 16:1-7 who went out and forgave his master's debtors may be Jesus' parody on himself: he declared God's generosity and was declared a rogue servant who acted without recognised authority. The saying in 18:21-22 is also making its point by exaggeration: 77 times!

The image of debt is helpful in considering the meaning of forgiveness. When someone is in our debt we have power over them. To forgive is to give up power. Forgiving is a form of giving. We no longer hold something back in our relationship with someone. Notice that we use words like 'hold' in expressions like, 'hold resentment'. Holding back is destructive for others and for ourselves. The movement of the gospel reflects the being of God. God created: God gave. The giving is also seen in the coming of Christ. It is a giving that goes the whole journey, even to the cross. It is the losing of protected life, the refusal to be devoted to a false self which keeps people at bay. It is a generosity which sets the cat among the pigeons, because it defies the arithmetic of deserving.

Forgiveness in this sense is relational. Too often it is reduced to 'sorry' without restoration, without reconciliation. This is especially the case where the focus is on sins. The reduction of the gospel to forgiveness of sins misses the point of the gospel which is about making people whole. Forgiveness cannot be deserved as if we - or Christ for that matter - can balance the equation, make the arithmetic work and keep everything clinically balanced. Reduction of God's forgiveness to a kind of trick transaction in which he has his son pay off his debtors' debts is rather lame. The more the imagery is pressed the more God becomes a dealer who does not have the generosity to forgive but is just determined to get paid off one way or another. This is far from the God of Jesus in the gospel who actually wants to be generous and does not insist on getting his pound of flesh from somewhere. It is people who cannot cope with such generosity who have had to think up mechanisms that do not involve God in being as vulnerable as that.

Yet forgiveness is costly. It is costly to the one who forgives because it is giving up something. It is also costly to the one forgiven. It is costly because it entails acknowledging the need of forgiveness and that means turning away from the lies and the pretending. It means allowing oneself to be vulnerable, allowing oneself to be loved. It means facing up to oneself. That is why it is so healthy that Matthew's discussion takes place in the context of dealing with wrong and not sweeping it under the carpet. Some forgiveness demands a degree of restitution, not as the repayment for past wrongs, which can mostly never be repaid, but because injustice and loss is acknowledged.

Is it possible to commit wrong and then be rehabilitated? If it is not, then let us fear forgiveness! Let us resist facing ourselves! Too many people have experienced so little forgiveness that honesty (to themselves or to others) poses an enormous threat. The gentleness of the gospel may sometimes need to be whispered ever so tenderly to the souls of blatant, hardened, frightened people.

Forgiveness is therefore far from naive. It is facing realities and doing something which changes the equation. It disturbs the established values. Just look at the outcry it has created in Australia over reconciliation with Aboriginal people! People are afraid to be forgiven. Corporate guilt is so much more difficult to deal with because we cannot quantify responsibility; we are afraid of losing control. Forgiveness and being forgiven is about letting go of control, accepting that debts can never really be squared. We can change the equation but in most circumstances we cannot resolve it quantitatively. Grace given and received is the basis for reconciliation. People are also afraid to find a way to forgiveness and restoration.  Just look at the cry for capital punishment! Just look at the lust for vengeance in the wake of 11 September! Circumstances warrant the cessation of love? What a terrible thought. It inspires both the avengers and those against whom the vengeance is sought who have abused the rights of others. Such lack of generosity invites the kind of fear which swirls into irrational hate which will seek to crucify the very love which seeks to address the pain and loneliness which is its source.

Epistle: Pentecost 18: 14 September  Romans 14:1-12

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