Today, the Collect, the 1st reading, the Psalm and above all the Gospel bring “forgiveness” before us. St Matthew hands us the parable of the unforgiving servant and with it ends ch. 18 of his Gospel.
Today, we feel we are at the heart of the Gospel, of Christ’s message. We’re facing something so vital, so central to our own well-being, here and hereafter. “Unless you forgive your brother from you heart…” And we might feel it’s beyond us.
Today, too, there’s plenty of mathematics: one hundred denarii, ten thousand talents, and forgiveness to be given not seven but seventy-seven times. In that opening exchange between Peter – “should I forgive seven times, Lord?” “No, Peter, seven multiplied”, our Lord is once again undoing the age-old dynamics of sin. There’s a background. In the early chapters of Genesis, there are many genealogies, and in two of them appears a figure called Lamech. In the first genealogy, he’s the four times great grandson of Adam, through Cain the murderer. He’s portrayed as entertaining his two wives, Adah and Zillah with a grim little dityy. “You wives of Lamech”, he sings, “listen to what I say. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Gen 4:23-24). Lamech, literally, ups the anti. He’s the original Avenger. He sets a pattern for violence. He advocates the use of “overwhelming force”. He turns on the stream of anger and lets it flood into human life. Another original sin. In a second genealogy, he appears again. It may be a different person of the same name. But a curious detail is given of Lamech 2: he lived 777 years (Gen 5:31). If it were the same person, doesn’t it suggest that this man’s whole life turned on being offended and taking revenge? A whole life encased in bitterness and anger and feuds and violent pay-backs. And so it can be, so it can be, God knows. Small-scale, large-scale.
In that brief dialogue with Peter, in the following parable, in the Lord’s Prayer (forgive us as we forgive), in his prayer on the Cross (Father forgive them), our Lord takes on the Lamech syndrome; he’s re-coding the Lamech gene that has entered our fallen history, this foul force. He wants to get us out of Lamechland. “Unless you forgive your brother from your heart”, he says. Christ comes to put right the heart. He comes with the seven-fold Spirit.
So, forgiveness. It’s such a theme.
First, Jesus shows us the forgiving king, an image of his Father. The Gospel is precisely the good news of a God who forgives, and to believe in the Gospel is to receive his mercy. A Christian is a forgiven sinner, a sinner in constant process of being forgiven. Forgiven, first, through the baptismal washing in water – perhaps before we have committed any personal sins. There’s a sense in which forgiveness precedes us. It’s there first. And this forgiveness becomes a living river on which the boat of our life can sail towards the eternal ocean. It carries us. It can always be renewed: every time we mean what we say in the Lord’s Prayer, every time we connect to the absolution at the beginning of Mass, and most of all when we come to the Sacrament of Reconciliation with a contrite heart, take ownership of our sins and receive absolution from God, “the Father of mercies”. We have been forgiven, we are constantly being forgiven anew, and we can hope for forgiveness in the future, forgiveness too for all the sins we haven’t seen or are only vaguely aware of, forgiveness through the great absolution of the judgement to come. And so, “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”
Jesus “was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). He sent his apostles to preach and actualise the forgiveness of sins, to let it flow through the centuries. He wants us, the Father wants us, not to be like Lamech, 777, not encased and enwrapped, shaped and defined by our resentments and angers, but rather re-worked, surrounded and carried by the mystery of mercy. How Christ longs for us to share his vision of his Father! And then, not just share it, but like good children, live it out, replicate it.
And you would have thought the man in the parable would have got it. You’d have thought – more maths – that owing ten thousand talents and being released from that, he would have got it. The talent was the highest currency in that world; so large it wasn’t minted. You couldn’t hold a talent in your hand. 10,000 was the highest number used in calculations. This servant owed one hundred million denarii – a denarius being a day’s wage. He would have had to work 2,739 years to pay it. It’s a ludicrous sum and meant to be. And his fellow servant owes him a hundred denarii, that is, 3 months wages – not nothing, but infinitesimal by comparison. But our man seems to go looking for him, forgetting the mercy he has just received, and actually starts to throttle the man, deprive him of the breath of life. He refuses to be a missionary of mercy. We can imagine the shade of Lamech, 777, miserably applauding from the sidelines.
We can’t go through life without giving offence and being offended, without trespassing and being trespassed against, without wounding and being wounded. Notice that in the end the man who won’t forgive is handed over to the torturers. Only forgiveness can save our lives from being a form of torture given and received, living in Lamechland. And only the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, can move our hearts that way. Forgiving doesn’t mean saying nothing happened; it doesn’t mean trivialising serious wrongs. It doesn’t mean that bad deeds should not be sanctioned or justice not pursued or redress not required or measures not taken to protect others. Nor does it necessarily mean instant reconciliation; that’s a further step and may have to wait.
I think forgiveness means not restricting the one who has hurt us to that particular action, to what they have done to us. It’s allowing them the space to be more than a misdeed. And, correspondingly, it’s allowing ourselves not be defined by our hurts, to be more: to have been wounded, yes, like Jesus, but risen too. The unforgiving servant wanted to take his fellow-servants breath away, to throttle him.. Forgiveness allows us to breathe again, to begin again. The Greek word for “forgive” first means, just, release, let go, let off the leash like a dog, or let go of like a weight. “It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offence” (CCC 2843), but the first step is forgiveness in the heart, in the will, in intention, and in time the Holy Spirit will do the rest, purifying heart and memory.
And when it really is beyond us, when we can’t frame that phrase, “I forgive you”, we can, like Jesus on the Cross, turn to the Father and ask him to forgive, “Father, forgive them…” (Lk 23:34).
These are daunting, beautiful Gospels we hear Sunday after Sunday: great gifts offered, great demands made. But it’s all good. Today the Lord, through his grace, leads us out of Lamechland and into the life and joy of the kingdom of his Father.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 13 September 2020)