Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 13 2014

Genesis 50:15-21
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Today Jesus continues his teaching on forgiveness. This is the heart of the gospel, the good news of Jesus: God love us and forgives us, and we are to forgive one another. But, how much?
Jesus has been talking about forgiveness and Peter, who so often in the gospels doesn’t quite grasp what Jesus is saying, has a question. “How often should I forgive? As often as seven times?” thinking, probably that seven times would be very generous, almost unheard of. And Jesus answers, “not seven times, but seventy-seven!”
Now, what does he mean? If someone sins against me and comes repeatedly asking for forgiveness, am I to keep a note of how many times they’ve done it up to seventy-seven, but then, at number seventy-eight, I can say “Aha! Now I’ve got you!”
Well surely not. If we were keeping count like that, we wouldn’t really be forgiving the first seventy-seven times, would we?
As often happens Jesus is making a reference to the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures that of course his hearers would have known so well. That phrase, “not seven, but seventy-seven”, has occurred before. It’s in the Book of Genesis, chapter 4: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”
The book of Genesis is about our origins, that’s what the word “genesis” means. It is an epic tale of myth and heroic story, from the Garden of Eden to the twelve tribes of Israel. This book of origins holds up a mirror to us and tells us who we are. It tells us the truth about being human.
And this is where we meet Cain and Lamech. Cain was one of the sons of Adam and Eve, and the first murderer. He killed his brother Abel, out of rivalry over whose sacrifice would be acceptable to the Lord. After this the Lord predicted that this was but the start of an escalating cycle of violence, “whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance”.
Vengeance, once unleashed, has a life of its own. Four generations on from Cain we get to Lamech, a violent hoodlum who swears, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”
So there you have it. Not seven but seventy seven times is how violence and revenge escalate, causing more death and destruction in every generation. So when Jesus repeats those numbers, and says we must forgive, ‘not seven times, but seventy-seven times’, he is going right to the heart of the problem, right back to human origins. He is reversing that ancient escalation of vengeance into an escalation of forgiveness. Jesus is pointing the way out of the cycle of violence that has engulfed humanity from the beginning.
Genesis tells us about that as well, as we heard in the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers who had betrayed him and sold him into slavery. Humanity’s basic problem is there in Genesis, but so is the forgiveness that frees us from the cycle of violence and revenge.
To emphasise this point Jesus tells a parable about a king and his slaves. The first slave has a ridiculously large debt – billions of pounds in today’s money. Why does Jesus make the debt so large? Perhaps it is exaggerating for effect, or perhaps it is meant to stand for the huge collective desire of all humanity to “get our own back”, that consuming human desire for revenge. The fact that the consequence of his debt involves the slave’s whole family suggests this may be so. But when the slave pleads for time to pay – as if he ever could have time to pay back that much – the king cancels the entire debt. It’s a sudden revelation of astonishing generosity.
Now the slave could have chosen to imitate the King’s generosity and forgiveness. Something so amazing and overwhelming should surely have brought about a change of heart, given him a new insight into the debts of others. Forgiveness has set him free, and that should have opened his eyes to other people’s need to be forgiven, too. It could have changed the whole way he related to other people, not holding on to debts, but forgiving.
But, the slave is himself owed a debt by a fellow slave. 100 denarii. That’s not a small amount, perhaps around four or five thousand pounds today. So it wouldn’t be a trivial matter simply to let that go. But he has seen his master’s generosity in forgiving his own debt. He has experienced the freedom that brings. He could begin to live in the new way of forgiveness that his master has shown him. But he doesn’t. He demands that his debt be repaid.
But by doing so, he shows that he is still living in the old way of being human, the way of vengeance and getting your own back, the way of ever escalating desires and retaliation. Forgiveness is not just something we receive. It’s a new way of living that we need to inhabit.
Now it may seem that there’s a nasty twist in the tale when the King orders the unforgiving slave to be handed over to the torturers. What does this mean? Does God torture people who don’t forgive?
Well, parables tell us what God is like, but they also tell us about our own perception, our skewed perspective on God. God is always loving and forgiving, and he does not change. It is our perception that changes. We can choose to live according to God’s love and forgiveness, and that will set us free. If we do not, we remain living in those old cycles of violence and vengeance, and everything will be a torment for us.
God has created us in love to live in love, but our death-bound desires of rivalry, violence and revenge stop us reaching this goal. But in Jesus Christ it becomes possible at last to live in the love that created us. His death and resurrection wipe out our own debt of sin and enable us to live in his risen life, the life of forgiveness.
So when we pray the Lord’s prayer, we pray to be forgiven our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. It’s not that we’re striking a bargain with God, but that receiving and giving forgiveness are two inseparable aspects of the new life God gives us in Jesus.
Forgiveness isn’t cheap. If someone has really hurt us very deeply, or we have done so to someone else, it can cost a lot to forgive. Sometimes of course there is a need for justice, or a need to protect others. But that is not the same as revenge. Forgiveness means letting go of our hurt, giving up what we think we are owed. But that is the way to freedom. Holding a grudge, desiring vengeance, these are deadly things that eat away at us from within.
Forgiveness sets us free, even if, in the world as it is, it is the way of the cross. The cost of forgiveness was shown by Jesus himself, who prayed for his murderers, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” We see all too well, in the world today, even in this morning’s headlines, the human tragedy, the trail of destruction still being wrought by our insatiable desire for violence and revenge.
But the way of the cross is the way of resurrection. Jesus risen from the dead comes to us as the victim of our human violence, but bringing forgiveness, not revenge. He is no vengeful ghost, but our life and our freedom. Ultimately, the last word on the universe, as the first, is love. And we can begin to live in that love, if we will, here and now.

How much should we forgive? Without limit, for that is how much God loves and forgives us in Jesus his Son.

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