Sunday 17 September
Year A: 15th Sunday after Trinity (Proper 19)
Liturgical Colour: Green
- Exodus 14:19-31
- Psalm 114:1-8
- Romans 14:1-12
- Matthew 18:21-35
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is talking to his disciples about forgiveness. They are discussing how many times they should forgive someone who does them wrong. Peter was perhaps thinking he was being quite good in suggesting he should forgive them seven times, especially with seven being such an important symbolic number. However, Jesus disagreed. Whether you understand his response as 77 times, which is what most translations have, or even 7 x 70 as the King James Bible has it, he clearly wants him to go further, and probably means as many times as it takes.
Jesus then illustrates his point by telling the parable of the Unforgiving Servant. This time the specific offence is unpaid debts.
It is interesting that the words sin and debt are used almost interchangeably in the gospels. This is perhaps because of the culture, but also because Jesus would almost certainly have spoken Aramaic, which uses the same word (khoba) for both. When the oral recollections of Jesus were written down in Greek (which like English has two separate words for debt and sin) someone had to decide which one to use.
This is why the two versions of the Lord’s Prayer that appear in the gospels are slightly different. Matthew (Matt 6.9-13) uses the Greek word for debt, while Luke (Luke 11.1-4) uses both that and also the Greek word for sin, as you can see in the accurate NRSV translation. To confuse matters further, the writers of the Book of Common Prayer choose the word trespass instead. This is a different word again to the other two. Jesus uses it in his explanation that follows the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew (Matt 6.14-16). It means overstepping boundaries and has its roots in Old Testament violations of the law.
In both today’s parable and the Lord’s prayer there is a clear link made between our own forgiveness and our forgiveness of others.
The readings from both Romans and Matthew are essentially about helping communities of disciples live together by addressing the attitude of heart they should have towards one another. I am put in mind of the minor irritations at people’s difference in practice or thoughtlessness that can occur whenever a group live closely together. No doubt you will, like me, have your particular favourite that instantly gets you hot under the collar. But of course, forgiveness is a key Christian concept that goes way beyond quietly putting a teaspoon that has been left ‘incorrectly’ on the kitchen worktop into the sink!
As St Paul says elsewhere ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3.23). This might be described as our core condition, whether we understand that as being a result of what Augustine, referring to the story of the Garden of Eden, termed original sin, or our birth and continued existence and collusion in a world that is chronically and systemically unjust. The same is also true of our everyday misdemeanours ‘in thought, word and deed, through negligence, weakness, through our own deliberate fault’ and sometimes of course, much worse. In all of these senses, we are all guilty.
Guilt is often linked with idea of deserving a penalty or punishment. Actually though, even if a penalty is paid or a punishment served, it doesn’t take away the fact that the crime or sin was committed in the first place. We cannot undo any of it and the guilt remains unless we are also forgiven. And only God can truly forgive, because divine forgiveness is more than a pardon; it is a total cleanse, a new beginning and restoration to right relation, wholeness and community.
Both guilt and anger can easily become traps that bind people on both sides of the offence. When we have done wrong, or been wronged, we can get like a stuck record and replay the incident, sometimes for decades or even a lifetime. Being forgiving or forgiven isn’t the soft option, and whether we are talking about forgiving ourselves or others, it is not something that can be hurried or imposed, especially when great harm has been done. But forgiveness is the key to not only healing the past, but also to unlocking the future and moving on.
In our worship we confess our sins, debts and / or trespasses and are assured of God’s forgiveness in Christ’s name. In saying the words aloud, we are proclaiming the possibility (or actuality depending on tradition) of a new beginning to people present, and we and they are invited to respond in acceptance with ‘Amen’, which means ‘let it be so’. This huge gift of forgiveness can be life-transforming. How might we make more of it?