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s057g02 15/9/02 Sunday 24a

"So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart" Matthew 18.35

If we were to respond to the statement at the end of the gospel reading: "This is the gospel of the Lord" with any sort of reality, we wouldn't be responding "Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ", we would be saying something like "You've got to be joking - threatening us with torture? - that's good news? If that's good news, I'd hate to think what the bad news is!"

I have rather a soft spot for Peter here. He is probably trying to do just what he would understand God to do. For when we think about it, seven times is probably the answer we would come up with. We would consider it would be hard for God to forgive a murderer or rapist having forgiven them once. Yet on the other hand we would hope and pray that God would perhaps forgive us our anger at least 20 times throughout our lives. So perhaps a good compromise is 7, the number of days in a week and the number of colours in a rainbow, one of the biblical symbols of God's mercy.

Yet Jesus' answer surprised Peter, as much as I guess it still surprises us; seventy seven times. That number is no compromise, it is unlimited.

We all have a debt to society, not just because it gives us a couple of thousand dollars as credit on our bankcards, but really for all the important things of life. Little things like been brought up and cared for by our parents over just a few years. For our schooling, for the most part free of charge - in my case it was 20 years. For the love of our spouses and the help and encouragement we have from friends. These things we value beyond dollars and cents - they are the debt of mutual love of which St Paul tells us to embrace, not shun. We all have this debt, perhaps unintentionally, but just as surely, and for all our efforts we would never be able to repay it. In fact (of course) people would think we were rather more than slightly crazy if we tried.

I liken this debt to the disparity between the two debtors in the gospel. The second servant owned the first one a hundred denarii. Now a denarius was the equivalent of a labourers' daily wage, so 100 is perhaps a third of a year's wages, perhaps $10,000 today. This is a reasonable debt, which any bank or building society in Australia would be happy to finance - really with no questions asked. So this debtor's plea to "Give me time and I will pay you" was in fact quite reasonable.

On the other hand, the first servant who owed the master 10,000 talents, owed the equivalent of 60 million denarii, 60 million days wages, or about 200,000 years, give or take a year or two! So when he asks: "Give me time and I will pay the whole sum" - the only way he would ever be likely to do that was if he robbed a bank or won the lottery. I don't actually know if they had invented lotteries in those days, and even then even a lottery prize would hardly suffice. One commentator says an army of 8600 carriers each with a sack of 60 pounds in weight would be required, just to carry the coins. A bank robber, acting alone, would still have no show.

So there really is no way we could ever repay the debt we owe society for all the love and care God has put around us; we would be silly even to try. It is curious and sad however that we all do try - myself as much as anyone else!

It is wonderful to see the difference between what humanity asks for and what God gives. In the story both of the debtors ask only for time to repay and this reflects our human attitudes. In our world view - forgiveness and the complete wiping off of the debt is simply too much to ask or expect. Yet this is what God does. The last thing that God wants for us is that we spend our lives scrimping and saving to repay our debt. Life in all it's fullness is freedom from anything like this.

For, of course, if we are expected to forgive seventy times seven times, then God must forgive us, and all people equally as frequently. It is quite impossible for us to be more forgiving than God!

We cease to owe anything at all, and we can choose to accept this and his love or not. God forgives and remits the debts completely when the debt is acknowledged. Peter's question therefore about how many times must one forgive one's brother or sister, it is necessary that the brother or sister at least acknowledge his or her debt.

So often Christians are accused of being doormats, forgive and forgive again. so that others can treat us with impunity. We are called to forgive, when forgiveness is asked of us. Indeed we really can't forgive before this. And if people say "Give me time", perhaps the anger in our hearts doesn't allow us to forgive. Even so we can still do as they ask and give them that time. This passage cannot be used to justify accusing Christians of being insignificant doormats, nor can it be used to justify acting like an insignificant doormat. This also answers the question about pedophiles who expect to be forgiven again and again, when in reality they have yet to acknowledge that they are in fact doing wrong and are causing harm to another person.

This leads me to ponder why then do we continue to remember our past sins when we are told God has forgiven and forgotten. Let me assure you that I do this as much as anyone else. Is it lack of faith on our part? I do not think so. God permits us to remember our sins so that we act with compassion towards those who also sin, so bringing us all together.

When I ponder why God allows sickness in the world, I think part of the answer might be to give us a part to play in the love and care of others. After all, what need would the perfectly healthy person who has had his or her sins forgiven and he or she has forgotten about them also - what need has this person of friends? We are made not to be independent of others but interdependent on others. No one person can hold the key of life on his or her own - that key for him or her is always in the hands of others. Others with whom that person will most probably disagree!

And surely we can get the message from this parable that the time spent on our knees asking forgiveness of God is by and large wasted because forgiveness is already ours. God doesn't want us on our knees like this. What God wants is for us to get on with others. God's love is unconditional when it comes to our love (or not) for God, but it is very conditional when it comes to our love (or not) for others. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out what we need to spend our time doing.

This parable tells us that the real person whom we may need to seek forgiveness is not God but a person we may have offended. What a different world it might be if we were able to do so.

Compassion, tolerance and love are extremely expensive commodities, yet the price has been paid, not by us, but by our Lord Jesus Christ by his cross and resurrection. I find this as hard to believe as anyone else. It is such a different way of going about things than we and the world is used to. Yet there it is.

It is only as we continue in the faith that the real truth dawns and continues to grow in our lives. As that truth of complete forgiveness and remission of all past debts comes to us, the freedom of life in all its fullness more and more becomes ours. As we find ourselves truly free, then it becomes our joy and our devotion to love and serve our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, and all others for whom he died and rose again.


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