This is a difficult passage. Difficult for two reasons. Firstly, because the subject matter, forgiveness, is difficult. None of us find it easy to forgive. And forgive 77 times, as Jesus said? Really? What am I, a doormat? Secondly, because it’s quite a tough parable, ending as it does with these harsh words: ‘In his anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or your sister from your heart’. Does that really seem like Jesus? A few weeks ago in our home group meeting, we read the Lord’s prayer and reflected on it. That line, ‘forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors’ (Mt 6:12), underlined in Matthew’s gospel, ‘if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’ (6:15) caused much heartache. Here’s a thought: Matthew was a tax collector for the Romans before Jesus called him. He knew from bitter experience exactly what happened when people didn’t pay their debts. He was also deeply conscious of his own unworthiness to be called to follow Jesus, to experience forgiveness, acceptance, love and a new mission in life. I wonder if a bit of Matthew’s past is colouring his telling of this parable. This parable doesn’t appear in any of the other 3 gospels. The other gospel with the Lord’s prayer in it, Luke, doesn’t have the line at the end that Matthew does, ‘if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’. I wonder if it’s Matthew’s way of underlining the message, don’t miss this!! Bearing all that in mind, let’s listen to what the parable is telling us.
Each of the parables of Jesus contains a ‘what??!’ moment where his listeners would have gone, ‘what? Did he say what I think he said? In today’s parable there are two! The first is where the slave, who owed his master 10,000 talents, was let off the hook, released from his debt, forgiven. This amounted to 100 million denarii. A denarius was a day’s wages for a labourer. So, billions of pounds in today’s money. Jesus’ listeners would not have expected that – they expected the slave to be sold, along with his family, made to somehow pay the debt (which he never could have done). God is like that master who forgave the debt! We cannot pay our way into his favour, release ourselves from the debt we owe: it is given as a free gift, and must be received in the same way. There is no other way. The second ‘what??!’ moment is where the forgiven slave goes out and promptly screws over a man who owes him a few measly pounds. The callous injustice of that catches up with him and his master sentences him to horrible punishment. Unforgiveness has a dark, negative energy that can infect our souls and kill them; it can take is into our own personal hell, and we all know this. We know too that to lash out and exact retribution will just start off a cycle of resentment and retaliation. Someone said this: ‘Not forgiving puts both parties in prison’
I had a lovely patient, a Filipino lady. Her husband had died, and she had met another man and started a relationship. At first all went well and she told me how happy she was. But things turned sour, and the man stole her money. She left him, but became deeply unhappy and angry, and would weep with me and express her bitterness when I saw her. Months passed, then one day, she came to see me for no other reason than to tell me that it was all behind her. Radiating joy, she told me what had happened. As a devout Catholic, she attended mass every week. That week, the priest, in his sermon – on forgiveness – quoted these words of Alexander Pope: ‘To err is human, to forgive, divine’. Those words changed her. She saw that she could not forgive, to let go, without the help of God. And there she was, in church, at prayer, at communion, and she handed the whole sorry story over to God and received, in that moment, the grace to indeed, forgive and let go. To not let that man’s actions continue to have power over her, to steal the joy and contentment in her life. It was a deeply moving moment. The grace of the moment spilled over into me. It still does. Look, it’s spilling out here, now.
And there it is. This is a one-point sermon, and the point is that what may not be possible for us, can be possible for God, if we will let him. Forgiveness is not easy, it is hard and it takes courage and resolution. It goes against our natural instincts. If we don’t do it, it will suck the life out of us. We will need to pray. Richard Rohr suggests that we should take time to actually feel in our body the pain and hurt of whatever it was that happened and then, gradually and with intent, bring that to God. Quite often, I think we’re not very good at actually telling God what it is we want. But this could be a very clear prayer: ‘Lord, I have been really hurt by this. I can feel the pain in my body, in my heart. I don’t want to live like this any more, I want to let it go. Please, take this away. Give me the grace to forgive.’ We may need to do that many times, it may not be as instant as it was in my lovely patient’s experience. We could even then go the extra mile and pray for the person who hurt us. This is to go even further against our instinct. It is like trying to straighten out a bent metal bar: we have to bend it in the opposite direction in order to straighten it.
So what do we make of our gospel reading, its harshness? Well, let’s not tune in so much to the negative but take into our souls the positive, the great good news – the unconditional, free, full acceptance by God as loved daughters and sons. Let us heed the warning, though, and take the time to come to God with what and who has hurt us. Do I think we can be consigned to everlasting torment because of something someone else has done, and our failure to forgive? No, I don’t. In the end, I believe that mercy wins. But let me end with these words: ‘To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to find that the prisoner was you.’