Sermon for Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, September 13 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Today’s reading follows on last week’s, about reconciliation within the church, and it is also the first time, though certainly not the last, that we have to deal with Matthew apparently comparing God to a vicious and unprincipled dictator as if this were a good thing. This is a fairly specific Matthean problem—the author of the gospel had a disturbing interest in seeing wrongdoers violently punished, and we’ll talk more about that as the fall progresses. But there’s a considerable trickiness, not apparent in the translation, in the way that Jesus introduces his parable. He actually uses the passive voice, and in a past tense —“the Kingdom of Heaven has been compared to a king” might be a more accurate translation. New Testament Greek is a tricky thing, but I think we need to take seriously the idea that Jesus may not be presenting here exactly what he believes the kingdom to be like; in fact, he may be setting up a partial contrast between the conditional forgiveness of the parable, and the unconditional forgiveness which is both offered to us by God, and demanded of us by our faith. The parable, finally, collapses back into a world in which debt and violence control humanity, the same world in which the liberation of the Israelites is purchased with the lives of all of Pharaoh’s soldiers. The kingdom, the real kingdom of God’s liberation, depends upon imagining our way out of that world.
Peter comes to Jesus wanting a specific limit on forgiveness. How many times is too many to forgive? It’s a question we have probably all asked, either in those words or implicitly. But the answer Jesus gives—translated here as seventy-seven, and more usefully, I think, in the older translations as seventy times seven—is a deliberate non-number. It’s not meant to have us making check marks in a notebook, so that when we get to seventy-six, or for that matter, four hundred and eighty-nine, we know we’re nearly done with the forgiving. The doubled seven is, in fact, a representation of infinity. We are to forgive beyond counting—because we ourselves are forgiven beyond counting.
The man in great debt is offered entry into that world. The amount of money he owes in the story is vast, almost ridiculous, and yet it is written off. Number, calculation, economics briefly cease to have meaning. There is a horizon of liberation. But he himself voluntarily plunges back into the world of debt and calculation. Into, precisely, the world which many people imagine to be the shape of God’s kingdom, one in which our debts are counted against us, and vicious punishment follows upon bad behaviour or a failure to live up to the divine standard. The kingdom of God has been compared to this. Quite often, in fact. But the kingdom in its fullness is in that infinite forgiveness, that escape beyond number, spoken of by Jesus, glimpsed in the story’s first movement, waiting for us to recognize.
That Jesus uses the metaphors of debt and economics is not incidental. Debt was a crushing reality for the poor in ancient Palestine, and the regular cycles of debt forgiveness laid out in the Hebrew scriptures had long since crumbled under the power of the imperial economy, which recognized no such possibilities. Being sold into slavery, being imprisoned, losing everything because of debt was a real threat, and many people laboured every day under a painful debt load. Debt is, obviously, a very present reality in our own day as well. Literal debt slavery is part of ordinary life in some places, and many countries are unable to thrive because of absurd debt levels. People in this city have struggled quietly with debt every day, and many more are now, under the conditions of the pandemic, thanks to an economy which depends on debt, which is geared to generate debt, which cannot function if everyone simply has what they need to live a decent, modest life. To imagine a world in which debt is suddenly, globally, forgiven is to imagine a world transformed, a possibly terrifying but also amazing opening up of new possibility. When we talk about forgiveness, we need to keep in mind this economic reality; it was not just an arbitrary metaphor. Our scriptures call on us to forgive financial debt, to turn away from the accumulation engine which is our economic reality, to live directly with each other as persons with needs and gifts and the right to a decent life. But that is not the primary focus of today’s reading, where the economic metaphor is being used to bring a kind of urgency to the issue of how we relate to each other, to the inevitable offenses of living in community.
And we must begin not from calculation but from the realization of gift. For we receive so much as pure gift that, if we began to count, we’d be lost before we started. We do not make ourselves; we receive our very lives as gift. We receive the air, the water, the earth. We have received the care which has allowed us to survive to this point—and for some, it has perhaps been barely enough to survive, but we have all, at some time, been loved and tended by another person. We have received God’s love through the hands of others. We are fed by the work of others. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. We are never self-sufficient, never alone—and if there has been any good to come out of the pandemic, it has been that, for some people, the awareness of interdependence has been heightened, the important of mutual aid and care reaffirmed. And this is even before we enter into the question of our offenses against other people, great and small—our indifferences, our little cruelties, our inabilities to love or to be kind, our bitterness and lack of faith, each small wound on the body of Christ, our need to be forgiven, over and over, for the actions of that hard knot of ego we cannot untie.
If we counted, we would be debtors to the world and to God and to each other a million times over. So we do not count—but sometimes we also forget to acknowledge, to understand our profound and absolute dependence, and our own responsibility to be, in our turn, the agents of the gift. To understand that we, who have been given and forgiven so much, can only live out this vision through our own return of love and grace and forgiveness.
This is never easy—and it is sometimes complex. Forgiving abuse does not have to mean putting up with more of it; asserting your own right to be treated decently is the first of many necessary precondition. More seriously, we cannot ever pressure others to forgive. We do not know the depth of another’s suffering, and no one who has suffered deeply can be told by anyone else when or how they may offer forgiveness. Generations of oppressed peoples have found comfort in the drowning of Pharaoh’s army, the picture of the oppressor swept away, and I, from my position of privilege, cannot say this is wrong. A pandemic is a natural phenomenon without ethics, but those political leaders, above all in the United States, who have created the conditions for hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths—how can grieving families forgive them? How can the families of murdered Black and Indigenous peoples be compelled to forgive? Forgiveness for great pain inflicted is an unmerited grace, and sometimes, those who have suffered cannot and will not offer forgiveness, and that is a measure, not of their failure, but of the depth of our societal sin against them.
And yet I, who owe so much, who must be forgiven for so much, cannot finally believe that anyone is beyond the reach of forgiveness, even if it is on God’s horizon and not within the boundaries of this world. I cannot let myself believe that any being has gone beyond the infinite reach of God’s terrible forgiveness and love. It is not magic. It does not make the harm go away. To forgive someone does not make them good. Jesus challenges us to an infinity of forgiveness faced with an infinity of offense, and that is exhausting, and we must struggle to grasp what it means to forgive and to resist at the same time. I am not very good at it, but I try. Because what it does do is open that window into a world beyond the chains of debt and measurement and deserving, beyond failure and punishment; the kingdom of possible freedom.