How many times?

Signpost for 14th September 2014, 13th Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103: 1-7, 8-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness. Whatever theological label (if any) we attach to ourselves – conservative, liberal, evangelical, feminist, progressive – we cannot deny that scripture, tradition and reason (and even modern psychology) are dominated by the necessity to forgive in order that we might be forgiven. The Genesis reading is a supreme example of forgiveness of a heinous crime committed against Joseph by his brothers (“…after all, they had tried fratricide” as Tim Rice puts it in his clever lyrics in my favourite musical). It also gives us the encouraging thought that God can and does use evil for good.

In the Gospel reading we are commanded to forgive over and over again – as many times as it takes – in many instances a lifelong commitment. (The term Jesus uses – seventy-seven, or seventy times seven – appears in Genesis 4:24.) And that speaks to me. I have had no crimes committed against me that would shatter my life. Indeed even when it comes to lesser sins I tend to worry about whose fault it was. (One can go too far along that track.) Nevertheless there have been incidents of undeniable injustice or disloyalty or mischief, or sheer irritating habits, which have to be forgiven, and that takes time and prayer.

The parable of the unforgiving servant presents a problem. How on earth could anybody rack up a debt that would take 160,000 lifetimes to repay? But Jesus was not averse to using a little hyperbole to make his point. I suppose every little act of uncharity, unkindness, dishonesty, pride, sloth, envy, avarice, gluttony, wrath and lust (I was going to introduce a lighter touch with “maybe not so much that last one”, but I’m rather afraid that impure thoughts and questionable jokes count) that I commit all day every day, to say nothing of the sins of omission, soon mount up, to the point where I am simply a “miserable sinner”, totally dependent on the grace of God.

I believe we have too lightly discarded the Book of Common Prayer confession, and it is salutary to enact it again sometimes – there are several opportunities at Christ Church. What the New Zealand Prayer Book does offer us is the reminder that being forgiven is not totally passive – “Know that you are forgiven”, “Take hold of this forgiveness”. After all, if we don’t truly believe we are forgiven, we are in danger of setting ourselves up as a higher tribunal than God.

The Ancients knew about it – take time to read the Psalm!

Sheila

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