The readings for this Sunday are all on the theme of forgiveness, and of not judging. Here’s what I said.
If you are of a certain age you will remember Max Bygraves singing about hands. I don’t – I’m far too young – though I do know the more recent version sung, bizarrely, by The Sex Pistols. Max Bygraves sang in his 1958 song You need hands:
You need hands to hold someone you care for
You need hands to show that you’re sincere.
You need hands to show the world you’re happy
and you need hands when you have to stop the bus.
So awful was the song that the following year Bernard Bresslaw released a parody of the song called You need feet:
You need feet to stand up straight with
You need feet to kick your friends
You need feet to keep your socks up
and stop your legs from fraying at the ends.
Well – Max Bygrave’s song You need hands was so fascinatingly awful that it deserved the treatment it got in You need feet. And yet it said something quite profound:
You need hands to hold someone you care for
You need hands to show that you’re sincere.
Our hands are so demonstrative – we use them so much to reach out in love. And yet how quickly we can misuse them.
There is a Peanuts cartoon where Linus is watching television. His sister Lucy demands that he change channels. So he says to her, “What makes you think you can walk right in here and take over?”
“These five fingers,” says Lucy, holding up her hand. “Individually they’re nothing but when I curl them together like this into a single unit they form a weapon terrible to behold.” So he changes the channel.
A hand that one minute can be used to reach out, a hand that can touch and caress, a hand that can bless another, can so quickly be turned into an instrument of hate, an instrument of hurt.
And our hearts are just the same – except we can’t see them in the way that we can see our hands. Our hearts can reach out to others in love – but how quickly, even as Christians called to love all people – can our hearts turn to anger and resentment. Anger at things we perceive others have said, or things we perceive they have done, resentment at the way we feel we have been treated – or perhaps not treated – by others. The problem is that too often we do not see it – we do not see what is inside us in our hearts – we do not recognise when our hearts have turned away from love to hate. Our hearts – like our hands – need to be open, not metaphorically clenched up like a fist.
In our journey through Matthew’s Gospel we have seen Jesus dealing with relationships between Christians. And this week he focusses on the need for Christians to set aside anger with others and to forgive without condition.
Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive his brother, then answers his own question by suggesting seven times. Now, this is significant, because it shows that Peter is beginning to grasp that people who follow the teaching of Jesus are expected to be different, to go beyond that which would normally be expected.
Jewish tradition taught that God forgave three times and then punished on the fourth occasion. So logically if you had been wronged by someone else, since you couldn’t be expected to me more gracious than God, it followed that you only had to forgive three times. So according to that tradition Peter’s measure is generous – he is clearly learning that Jesus is teaching something new and different and far more-reaching than other rabbis.
But according to Jesus, even though Peter is going much farther than something that was already thought to be generous, it is radically insufficient. In his reply Jesus reverses the old law of vengeance, the old concept of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Just as in the old days there was no limit to hatred and vengeance, so among Christians there is to be no limit to mercy and forgiveness. Jesus – by saying you must forgive seventy-seven times – is saying forgiveness never ends. And he tells the parable of the unforgiving official in order to underline the need for forgiveness.
When a king calls for an audit the accounts, he discovers that one of his slaves owes him ten thousand talents, a colossal sum of money. This was a sum that would have been impossible for anyone to ever pay back. The sum is deliberately extravagant, running into millions of pounds, to heighten the contrast with the few pounds owed to the slave himself. When the king orders the sale of the debtor and his family into slavery, the slave pleads for time. Well – he could have had all the time in the world, but he could never have repaid so much. Yet the king feels sorry for him and decides to remit the whole of the vast debt. The slave, however, learns nothing from his experience, for he refuses to give a colleague time to pay a trifling debt; instead, he has him thrown into prison.
When this heartless behaviour is reported to the angry king, the grant of full forgiveness is retracted and the unforgiving slave is brought back to the king – and is now worse off than before – because instead of being sold to offset the debt he is thrown to the torturers.
Forgiveness is so important. Saint Paul in our second reading reminds us of the importance of not judging each other because ultimately we all have to face the judgement seat of God.
Apart from anything else, the unforgiving slave in the parable is guilty for loss of memory. Forgetfulness of our own sins leads to lack of compassion; remembering how our sins have gone unpunished by God, have been forgiven, should lead us to forgive others. Through forgetfulness of God’s compassion, we can end up becoming cruel to each other. That is why during each mass we are invited to be mindful of our own sins. Only when we do that can we pray the “Our Father”: forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Interestingly that is the only petition in the Lord’s Prayer that has a condition attached: forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
I have to say at this point that from the point of view of a priest responsible for the spiritual care, the spiritual welfare, of a congregation, this parable worries me more than any other. Because like any pastor in any church I am only too aware of how many people at any one point are being unforgiving with others in the congregation, are nursing feelings of anger and resentment – and who seem unaware that Jesus teaches that unless we can bring ourselves to forgive, not only can we not expect to be forgiven ourselves but any forgiveness we have received can be taken away. Remember that warning from Saint Paul – we all have to stand before the judgement seat of God.
The Lord’s Prayer, and today’s gospel story, remind us that when it comes to forgiveness, God’s forgiveness is infinite, but it is not unconditional. Just as the king in the parable forgave an enormous and irredeemable debt, so God will forgive anything if we are truly repentant – and if we in our turn forgive others. If we fail to forgive others, then the message is clear – God will not forgive us and will withdraw the forgiveness already given!
And that is a somewhat sobering thought! God forgives your sins – but he expects you to do the same to those you feel have wronged you. He expects you to reach out with the same love with which he has loved you. He expects you to bless others as he has blessed you.
And just as the unforgiving official in the parable finds that his lack of forgiveness results in the king withdrawing his forgiveness of the official, so our own forgiveness from God is dependent upon our forgiveness of others. And I can’t emphasise too much how important it is to understand that.
The official could never have paid of his debt to the king – it was just too big and he needed the king’s forgiveness.
We can never pay the debt due to our own sin – it’s just too big and we need our King’s forgiveness. And right at the beginning of each service we remind ourselves of that.
The purpose of calling our sins to mind is not to make us feel bad about ourselves but to remind us that we all live in the gracious forgiveness of God. To forget that is spiritual suicide. Whoever we are, we remember our sins because we need to remember always to forgive – we need to remember God’s grace to us and to share that grace with each other.
Essentially the lesson we learn from the teaching of Jesus today is that our anger toward others, our resentment, our lack of forgiveness – no matter how serious the issues might be or be perceived to be – has a serious spiritual consequence. Our inability to forgive, our inability to let go of our anger, does not affect the other person. It affects us, for God’s forgiveness of us is conditional. It affects us when we, in our turn, face God’s judgement seat.
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
As we approach the altar to receive Jesus, we need to be at one not just with God, but with our brother and sister. Jesus gives himself to us in love as we receive his body and blood, broken for us on a cross.
And as we leave the altar we need to go back out into the world with hands that bless, not hands that threaten – with hearts that love, not hearts that nurse anger and resentment. We need to give ourselves in love to others.