Sunday, September 14, 2014

the vital importance of forgiveness

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross – a day that commemorates both the finding of the True Cross in Jerusalem in 326 by the Emperor Constantine's mother, St Helena, and also the Cross itself as the instrument of Salvation. Knowing that Christ died so that we might be forgiven of our sins makes the what we hear in our Gospel reading all the more telling - 
I'm sure when we hear the parable of the unforgiving servant the natural reaction of us all is one of astonishment and indignation. How could anyone who has been forgiven so much be capable only minutes later of behaving in so hard-hearted a fashion themselves? And so, no doubt, we think the fate of this selfish man when his master learns of his behaviour to be not only just, but richly deserved. The great debt that he had hoped was forgiven is called in; and he is handed over to the torturers until all he owes is repaid. 

But often when I hear that parable I think also of the parable that the prophet Nathan told King David about the wealthy man who had stolen and killed the pet ewe lamb of a poor man; David was angry and shouted that such a man should be punished severely for such wicked behaviour. And it was then that the prophet pointed his finger at the king and said – you are the man. For, as we know, David a wealthy man with many wives had murdered his good and faithful servant Uriah so that he might take for himself his wife Bathsheeba. And how does Jesus end this parable? Thus shall my heavenly Father do unto you if you do not forgive. In other words, if you do not forgive, you are that wicked servant. Thou art the man.

Let us consider some of the details of the parable for a moment. I have sometimes heard people preaching on this parable speak of the debt that the other servant owed to his wicked brother as being trivial. Now to our ears the sum of 100 hundred denarii might sound quite small, but I can assure you that the crowd listening to our Lord that day, it was far from being a trifling amount of money. For them a single denarii was a day's pay for a man. So one hundred would have been more than three months wages. And imagine what it would have been like for one of them to save that much money – it would have been an impossible task. No, to them, 100 denarii would have been a fortune. It is only in comparison to the other amount that it seems small; for one talent would have been the equivalent of what it would take a man 15 years to earn. So 10,000 talents would would take someone like them 150,000 years to earn – an impossible amount!

So the wickedness of the first servant is not that he refuses to forgive a petty debt and treats the one who owes it to him with unwarranted severity; it is that having been forgiven so enormous a debt himself, he should have found it within himself to forgive an amount that was insignificant in comparison.

Now, just in case anyone is getting lost, let us clarify some points: the kingdom is heaven, the king is God, the unforgiving servant is us, the debts spoken of are our sins and offences against both God and neighbour, and the torturers are hell. Which may prompt you to wonder why it is that sins committed against us are compared with the sum of 100 denarii, while those we commit are comparable with the vast fortune of 10,000 talents? What if the offence against me is great – what if the sin I find hard to forgive is of great seriousness … a spouse who has been unfaithful … a thief who has taken all I own … a killer who has murdered one or more of my family members?

And what if I, while no saint, have never contemplated, much less committed, sins of such great magnitude? Why is my debt so much greater and theirs so small? How can it be right not only to make that comparison, but also to say if I do not forgive that it is I am the one who will be condemned?

But that is to turn the meaning upside down. Consider not what it may 'cost you' in terms of pride, or letting go of what you see as a justifiable anger against the other person in forgiving their sin or 'debt' to you; consider rather what you gain in having your own debt cancelled, in having your own sins forgiven. You gain, as any child will know from Sunday School, eternal life. That is why offences against you are in the parable represented by the smaller, but not insignificant, sum of money; while the sins for which you are forgiven have in their place a fortune that would take thousands of lifetimes to earn. If your sins are not forgiven, if Christ had not died for them, then there would be no place for you in heaven.

And realising that you have been given so precious a gift, the pearl beyond compare, should fill you with joy – such great joy that you can find it within your heart to dismiss the wrongs that have been done to you. 'Rejoice with me brother,' or 'rejoice with me sister,' you cry. 'So much has been given to me that I can give a little to you in return.' It is not impossible; it is not too hard; we know this because God tells us so. Where? Why in today's parable when our Lord tells us we must forgive. He would not command us to do something that we cannot do. So when he tells us to control our emotions and our passions and forgive, this is something that we can do and indeed must do.

I finish with some words from the martyr St Philotheos of Sinai on the dangers of refusing to forgive: Do we forgive our neighbours their trespasses? God also forgives us in His mercy. Do we refuse to forgive? God, too, will refuse to forgive us. As we treat our neighbours, so also does God treat us. The forgiveness or non-forgiveness, then, of your sins—and hence also your salvation or destruction—depend on you yourself, man. For without forgiveness of sins there is no salvation. You can see for yourself how terrible it is.

As we reflect this day on all that Christ did for us by his death on the Cross, I pray that God may grant you, and all his children, the grace to forgive others and that you will yourselves be forgiven by him. Amen

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