Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, 13th September 2020
Readings: Ecclesiasticus 27:33-28:9; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35
In a strange twist of the lectionary, today’s sermon might seem to be a sequel to last week’s – following this theme of forgiveness that we’ve been hearing about the past few weeks. Have you ever gotten cross with someone, only to realise that you were guilty of the very same thing?
This happened to me only yesterday, when we were on the ride and stride. On our way to the Highgate Methodist Chapel, I got lost when some of our party knew a shortcut through the Morrisons car park – but I got stuck on the other side of the pedestrian crossing on Blackfriars Road, and by the time I got across they were out of sight! When we finally got reunited, I asked – a little tersely, I confess – to please stay in sight of each other. Well, sad to say, skip forward half an hour and we are zooming down the cycle path from Lynnsport towards the railway crossing on Tennyson Avenue – and I realise two of our party are out of sight – stuck with a problematic pedal! I had to apologise for the very same thing I had gotten cross about.
The parable in the Gospel today presents us with a challenge. The King – God – has a number of servants. And one of them owes a large sum of money.
Ten years ago an economist who is also a Christian looked at this parable and did some maths. I shan’t bore you with the details, but when I brought his maths up to date on minimum wages and so forth – and these are only estimates, not hard and fast exchange rates – but by my maths I can tell you that the ten thousand talents that the first man owed the king would be equivalent to twenty-nine billion, eight hundred and ninety-two million pounds – a quarter of the worth of Bill Gates, more than ten times the worth of Donald Trump, and twice the annual GDP of Slovenia.
The servant has no hope of paying this back – it’s the equivalent of two hundred thousand years of his current wage. Imagine the generosity that cancels that debt!
What debt do we owe to God? We all are guilty of something, no matter what it is. That’s why we begin our Mass by confessing that we have sinned, through our own fault, in our thoughts and in our words, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do.
The sins we confess – the sins we commit – these are our debt to God.
When we sin, we damage or break the relationship we have with god or with one another. If I tell a lie to a friend, it hurts them and strains our relationship. With enough severity it could break altogether. When we confess these sins, we acknowledge that we are in the wrong. We say sorry. We ask for forgiveness. And that forgiveness restores the relationship, whether it’s with God or with another person.
Forgiveness sets us free – whether we are forgiving or being forgiven. This is why the first reading tells us not to hold grudges, not to hold on to our anger. If we refuse to forgive someone, if we hold onto our resentment, it’s like a little bit of rot inside a pumpkin – you might not be able to see it straightaway, but it devours us nonetheless.
Let’s return to our parable. The second servant owes 100 denarii. That’s about four month’s wages, a little under five thousand pounds. Still quite a sum, but nowhere near what the man had had cancelled for him by the king.
So to relentlessly pursue this small amount when he has been forgiven shows quite a degree of selfishness.
The first reading asks, “If a man nurses anger against another, can he then demand compassion from the Lord?” and in the parable, the King says, “I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?”
Can we expect God to forgive us, if we won’t forgive other people?
And so this is why in the Lord’s prayer we say, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
We ask God to forgive us our sins. When we say “as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we aren’t justifying God’s forgiveness with ours. We aren’t saying, “Forgive us, because we are forgiving others.” The Lord’s prayer is a prayer where we ask God for the things that are important, and this is no exception. Forgiving people can be hard, and so we pray, in effect, for God to help us in the task of forgiveness.