Then Peter came up and asked him, “Lord, how many times may my brother sin against me and I have to forgive him: seven times?” (Matthew 18:21-35)
Those seem like auspicious words with which to kick off a sermon given on the tenth anniversary of ‘9/11’.
Yes, there’s no getting away from it! This was the day, ten years ago, when our world took a dramatic turn for the worse – when 3,000 people were killed in New York as a result of the attack upon the Twin Towers.
Osama Bin Laden, as we know, took full credit for the attack, claiming (if I remember) that he had “bitten the head off the American snake!”
Yet ten years later, Bin Laden is long dead and the snake (so to speak) is alive and well (well … if not ‘well’, still ‘alive and biting’ at any rate).
It happened on the other side of the world to people I did not know and yet it is an event that is so personally relevant to me and to all of us here that I find it hard to remember what the world was like before 9/11!
It’s curious when I think that my dad died some six months before this event took place, and he never saw this world.
Dad died in a world where the ‘red menace’ of communism had faded into obscurity and where there really seemed to be no reason for the world’s population to live in fear.
Dad had no idea that he should have been living in fear of his Muslim neighbours and that there had been a ‘clash of civilisations’ going on since the time of the crusades that was just waiting to erupt in his own living room.
And how the world has changed since then? How many people have died since then – 3,000 in New York indeed, but a thousand times that number in the strikes that have followed!
We live blessedly shielded from most of it but we are not unaware of what has happened. Countless men, women and children have been killed, countless families have been torn apart, entire cities have been levelled, social infrastructures torn apart, and the indications are that the grim reaper isn’t planning on taking a holiday any time soon!
Indeed, as I’ve been talking to people from different countries around the world over the last few months what I notice is an increasing degree of dread about what lies ahead.
I’ve spoken recently with numerous folk returning from southern Lebanon who speak of the fear that people there are living in there. I’ve spoken with people returning from Syria (that renowned safe haven for Christians and Jews in the Middle East) where people are understandably living in tremendous dread! And as I travelled across American recently I heard some very dark prophecies, none darker than from my friend, Father Labib (whom many of you have met via the miracle of Skype).
Labib’s feeling is that more violence is imminent and that the division between Christians, Muslims and Jews is about to get a whole lot worse. His feeling is that soon we are going to be facing real anti-Semitism (as against the manufactured variety many of us are familiar with) and it will then be our time to stand up for our Jewish sisters and brothers once again, as it will be time for those of us who have built friendships across the Christian-Muslim divide to do all that we can to keep those lines of communication open!
I hope my friend is wrong. I hope they are all wrong – these prophets of doom – and yet it is hard today (especially today) not to carry some degree of dread – particularly today. So much bloodshed, so much pain, persecution, torture and torment, racism and racial profiling, militancy and miscommunication, politicking and power-play! And Peter came up and asked him, “Lord, how many times may my brother sin against me and I have to forgive him: seven times?”
Jesus told Peter a story:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. When he had begun to settle the accounts, a person who owed him 22 billion dollars was brought to him!”
That’s a rough figure, of course, but if we take a talent (which is a weight of around 34kg) and the price of gold which, according to today’s figures, comes in at around $1,855/ounce. There’s roughly 35 ounces in a kilo, which means you multiply 35 by 34 by $1,855 which comes out at roughly 2 and a quarter million dollars per talent, and this man owed 10,000 talents!
In other words, this guy owed an amount that may well have been bigger than his country’s national debt! How did he rack up a debt like that we may well ask? Was he trying to buy himself a country? Was he trying to construct the 9th‘Wonder of the Ancient World’? Was he trying to maintain an ageing church building?
How do you rack up a debt like that? And more mysterious still, how is it that the king in the story hasn’t noticed the debt until now?
It’s conventional wisdom I’m told that if you owe the bank a million dollars you have a problem, but if you owe the bank 100 million dollars, the bank has a problem, and this guy owes a thousand times that amount, so he’s got problems but it’s the king who has real problems in this case, and yet it appears that this king had been blithely unaware of this national crisis until he started on his long-overdue audit!
I find this aspect of the story strangely comforting in some ways, as one who has more than once failed to pick up inconsistencies in accounts until much damage has been done. I am not good with accounts and figures, but I’m a downright genius compared to this king!
Of course it’s just a story, and in many ways it’s a crazy story, depicting a strange king who loans out impossible amounts of money to his servants and then forgets to follow up on the loans.
If the loan was a crazy idea, so too is the king’s first plan – to sell his servant and the servant’s family into slavery as a means to recouping his losses.
Mind you, it might be crazy but in this case it’s exactly the sort of thing our government does! Some of you will remember one parishioner of ours who was found guilty of pension fraud. She was told that she’d have to pay the money she owed back through deductions from her pension cheque. We worked out that she was going to have to live to age 125 to pay it all back! Well, if she had to reach 125 before paying back her debt, the guy in the parable would have had to reach 1025 before repaying his!
And if the loan is crazy and the king’s first solution is crazy, so too is the plea of the servant, “Give me a few more days and you’ll have it all back!”
But whatever else is crazy in this story up to this point is surely overshadowed completely in downright craziness by the next response from the king when he says: “Ah … forget about it!”
How can anyone forget a debt that big?
Is it even remotely responsible to just forget about a debt that big?
But it says of the king that he had compassion on his servant, and ‘compassion’ has to be one of the greatest words in the English language. The king had compassion on his servant, and I guess it’s at this point that I start to find myself in the story.
Biblical scholar Daniel Via compares the parables of Jesus to windows that we look out on to the world through – windows that change the way we look at things – and then, all of a sudden, we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the reflection of the window!
This is where I catch my reflection as someone in need of compassion and forgiveness, and perhaps you do too? If you don’t, I don’t think it’s my place to try to convince you that you’re actually a far worse sinner than you think you are! Perhaps you’ll find yourself somewhere else in the story, and yet this is the psychology of Jesus, I think, in that Jesus evidently did believe that compassion and forgiveness on our part starts with a healthy appreciation of how much we’ve been forgiven ourselves.
This is an approach to life that stands in some tension with the more popular psycho-therapeutic schools that would encouraged us to distance ourselves from anything that might damage our self-confidence.
That approach started with Carl Rogers, I think. He called it humanistic phenomenology – using a complex term, I suspect, to mask the simplicity of his thinking.
Get people to love themselves – that was his goal in counselling. And so he would show his clients ‘unconditional positive regard’ so that they might love who they were more and in the strength of that new self-confidence solve their problems themselves!
Many Christian thinkers gravitated towards Rogers’ approach, and the late, great Father John Powell went so far as to rephrase the so-called ‘golden rule’ of Jesus by saying “Love yourself and you will love your neighbour. Hate yourself and you’ll hate him too!”
And in truth I don’t want to knock Father John (who I deeply admire) just as I don’t want to minimize the importance of self-confidence in any number of areas of life. Even so, it is very hard to be forgiving towards the failings of others if we can’t see those same failings in ourselves, and the compassion and forgiveness of God gives us a context wherein we can make our own sober self-assessment with a degree of confidence
Of course the servant in the story seems to go through no process of self-assessment at all, despite the compassion he is shown!
No sooner has the servant escaped the court of the king, so it seems, than he bumps into a fellow who owes him money – not a small amount, but by comparison and entirely trivial amount. Yet the servant has no compassion on his fellow, despite the compassion that was shown him.
And so the first servant inevitably gets his come-uppance! The king hears about the man’s behaviour, is outraged, and it turns out that he hadn’t really forgiven the man at all (or at least if he had forgiven him, he certainly hadn’t forgiven and forgotten) for the king unforgives the ruthless servant and then hands him over to the torturers who are instructed to do whatever it takes to extract from him every penny that he owes!
And so this crazy story finishes with some black humour from Jesus, and a warning: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each one of you unless you forgive your brother from your hearts.”
Forgiveness is serious business, and when we look around our world we know that it is indeed serious business. There is so much that needs forgiving, and so much that appears unforgiveable!
Of course we don’t need to look to foreign lands and different cultures in order to find people to forgive. We’re probably struggling enough just to forgive our sons and daughters and wives and husbands and mothers and fathers and the boss at work and my former best friend and the person who absconded with the church funds. Even so, on this day, and most especially on this day, when we look back on ten years of violence and misinformation and mayhem, let us take time to make a sober re-assessment of ourselves and so learn again to forgive, in the hope that we might be forgiven too.
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, September 11, 2011.