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Reflection on Matthew 18.21–19.1 (2022 Week 19)

Listen to a reflection for Thursday 11 August 2022 on Matthew 18.21–19.1

Reading
Matthew 18.21–19.1

Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in 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 sister from your heart.’

When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.

Reflection

When we speak of forgiveness we often find ourselves in a difficult place. As the news of worldly atrocities is transmitted around the world, almost as soon as they have been carried out, many of us, in horror and shock, declare that the actions of some can ‘never be forgiven’. The concept of forgiveness is anathema to us. But … in today’s reading Jesus tells us that our capacity to forgive should be unlimited. This is revealed in his answer to Peter: Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

‘Seventy-seven times’ is a linguistic code. It does not mean that we should be keeping a tally of the number of times we forgive someone. It is a number that cannot be calculated without a constant recalling of previous hurts and disputes. It is a number that represents our need to ‘let go’ of the past and to move forward in a spirit of Christian love.

We all know that living a life of true faith is difficult. It involves self-sacrificial love and generosity; it involves humility; and it involves forgiveness. Even those who come close to living a life of true love, generosity and humility will often find themselves struggling with forgiveness. I do not need to catalogue the sorts of crimes that human beings commit against each other which bring about feelings of unmitigated horror and revulsion. We can all conjure up such a list, a list that can so easily cause us to say: ‘I can never forgive someone who has done that!’ But, that is not what Jesus teaches. Just as he teaches us to love our enemies, so he teaches us to forgive.

The Christian calling to forgive should not be misunderstood or misinterpreted as a position of weakness. Scripture makes it clear that there will come a time of judgement. But the ultimate judge is God and not us. If we put ourselves in the judgement seat we are presuming the authority and the wisdom of God, an authority and wisdom we do not have.

Of course society has to protect itself against the cruelty of those who would cause it harm, but Jesus is warning us against turning such dispassionate judgement into something that will cause both worldly (physiological) harm and eternal (spiritual) harm. As we strive to love, so we should be striving to forgive. It is an important part of our Christian teaching that God forgives and welcomes those who repent. Scripture places no limit on that. Anyone and everyone who turns from their evil ways can receive God’s forgiveness, and can know the joy of his welcoming embrace. If God can forgive, why can’t we?

This is one of the most challenging matters in the Christian faith … Jesus’ call to forgive. Let us pray that we may know the workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives, that we might find that capacity to set aside our worldly sense of justice, and that we may truly trust in the God who is both judge and redeemer of us all.