s057g99 Somerton Park 12/9/99 Sunday 24 a
"Out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt." Matthew 18:27
If there was ever any story of Jesus which shows us the true paradigm of our relationship with our heavenly Father and the appropriate response on our part - it would surely be this one.
It shows us that the words of Jesus are not directed towards those "out there" who don't come to Church, but fairly and squarely directed towards us "in here". For if anyone knows the forgiveness of God, it surely must be us - not those "out there". So Jesus always "preaches to the converted". If we make our proclamation to those who know not of God's forgiveness, saying that THEY ought to be more forgiving, we have missed the whole point of this parable.
The words tell us in no uncertain terms that the trifling little debts we consider we"Christians" are owed by another human being are nothing compared to the debt of forgiveness we "owe" to God. We as "Christians" "know" this, but do we act on it?
And the words tell us the paucity of what we ask of God - merely time to repay - and the magnitude of what God offers - complete forgiveness and remission of debt.
This transforms an expectation of life long servitude - to a life of complete freedom - a freedom restricted only by the imperative not to lord it over others - like demanding full restitution and obeisance from others.
It shows us the nature and purpose of grace - a grace which ought to be welcomed by all and sundry, if we and they actually perceived the immensity of that grace being offered - instead of the sham offerings dressed up as religion.
One of life's four letter words is "commitment" - and it is not just the Church which finds people loath to make commitments. Lots of social clubs find it difficult to get people to commit themselves to a cause. We are very blessed here, with lots of people generally ready and willing to help out where there particular skills lie.
But is it not our own experience that is often really difficult to get off the mailing lists of charities, both church and secular? Unsolicited email is dubbed "spam" on the Internet. Curiously, for my reasonably public ministry on the Internet - the amount of "spam" that comes my way is fairly insignificant. I have ceased to bother trying to remove my address from these lists. I get more in my real physical letter box, but it all ends up in the same place - in the trash - usually without being read. We have to recognise that people are loath to be committed for a reason.
In my life in the Church, time and again I have seen and been a part of various schemes and programs. It might be a youth camp or a series of Bible Studies. And, as the phrase goes: "A good time was had by all". The gospel was expounded, friendships were made, people become more sure of the faith they hold.
But the words of the parable tell us that the faith we hold is lived out in the complexities of our relationships, one with another - and in particular in our acceptance of those with whom we differ, and those with whom we think "owe us" something. So the gospel is about real skills for life.
For we choose our God - and our choice does determine how we relate to others. Indeed I suspect one of the lessons that we could take from this parable, is that we really show what sort of God we worship in the manner that we treat other people - and ourselves. The real God we worship is far more closely associated with our actions towards others than with all our piety and professions of faith here in church.
We can choose a God who is penny pinching and a hard taskmaster, and guess how we will act towards others? We should not be at all surprised when we get the sort of God we worship. We can choose to worship a God who in reality (we think) is actually just ready and waiting to change his mind and wreak on us precisely the disasters we fear. It is we who bring a life of torture on our own heads, as the God we choose gives us only what we ask for in the first place - time to repay the whole of our debt.
Or we can choose a God who forgives freely, a God who completely remits our debt - not that we might live a life feeling eternally indebted to God - but only that we might act similarly towards others when we consider they owe us some trifle.
One of the things that our secular society most craves is freedom. We lament the demise of "traditional" "Christian" values in life. And yet I wonder how much of those "traditional" "Christian" values really centre on this fundamental premise that anything that we think anyone else owes us is to be forgotten.
I have spent a life thinking that I owe God and others things, and all the while the gospel has been sidelined.
Two things we can't do - firstly we can't blame God for any misunderstanding. God has made the gospel plain for us to see, if no where else, in the death and resurrection of his Son, our Lord. Secondly we can't impose on others a God interested only in restitution in full from everyone - and certainly not in the name of Christ. The offer of free and full forgiveness, and complete remission of any debt to God, is made quite freely to all. We can choose to accept this or not.
The parable shows us that God does not call us to be messengers of the words of scripture, especially words about how the rest of humanity ought to act. We are called to live our lives and relate to others as ordinary individuals as an embodiment of the forgiveness we have experienced. In this sense, again, it is we ourselves who are sent - not taking the Blessed Sacrament, the fellowship of the Church, the Bible, or the Cross. Just ourselves, just as Jesus himself was sent - travelling empty-handed - to accept the contributions that one and of all might make to him. We travel, simply as forgiven sinners, and therefore no one owes us anything. No one has to live up to our expectations, nor what we perceive as God's expectations.
For that which makes the Lord of the story angry, is not the accumulated debt, nor the inability to pay, nor the request for time, nor the desire to repay and be free of the debt. What does make the Lord of the story angry is that mercy is not passed on to other people. If we are unmerciful and think that God is angry with us, we appease God's anger, not by claiming the merits of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but by doing what God wants and being merciful rather than unmerciful. The death and resurrection of Jesus is our permission to be merciful, even when we think God would be angry with us or others.
So we proclaim the gospel by we ourselves being merciful towards others - like the ancient people of God the Jews, Moslems, Hindus, atheists and agnostics. The words of St Paul seem particularly apropos here: "Who are you to pass judgment on servants OF ANOTHER? It is before THEIR OWN LORD that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand." (Romans 14:4) These are remarkable sentiments indeed, and should put paid to any suggestion that it is a central tenet of the Christian faith that God condemns all of differing faiths to eternal damnation simply because they do not specifically acknowledge Jesus as Lord. I don't believe that, and I don't believe that St Paul believed that either.
For our God is a God who has pity on people - all people. Some people get themselves in a mess with dependencies on other people and things. Other people get themselves in a mess thinking that God is some ogre and more a reflection of the demons which assail each of us. Others get themselves into a mess, trying to live up to quite unrealistic expectations, that they put upon themselves, or which have been put upon them by parents or others.
Whatever the mess that we might have got ourselves in - God has pity and forgives, each and every one of us, for this is God's very nature and this is the gospel. We are bidden to do likewise - for above all else, God wants us to live amicably, one with another.
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