13 September 2020

God’s forgiveness in its
abundance is holy in its giving
and infinite in its reach

‘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?’ (Matthew 18: 32-33) … a stained-glass window in Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 13 September 2020

Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIV)

9.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Castletown Church, Kilcornan

11.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer (Morning Prayer 2), Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale

Readings: Exodus 14: 19-31; Psalm 114; Matthew 18: 21-35

‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything’ (Matthew 18: 26) … old, worthless banknotes heaped up outside an antiques shop in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Gospel reading this morning (Matthew 18: 21-35) looks critically at the limits we place on forgiveness and the over-abundant generosity and universal scope of God’s forgiveness.

What are the limits to my capacity to understand and forgive others?

Are there limits to God’s willingness to forgive?

Forgiveness is so central to Christian faith and life, that it is emphasised throughout Saint Matthew’s Gospel, and we heard about it last Sunday and this morning, just to get this point through.

In the Gospel reading, Saint Peter asks how many times he should forgive, and is told ‘not seven times but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,’ or, as some sources put it, seventy times seven.

We have seen in recent weeks that the number seven always indicates holiness, as in the seventh day, the seventh month, the seventh year or ‘year of release,’ and the Jubilee year that follows seven cycles of seven years.

As the former Chief Rabbi Lord (Jonathan) Sacks says, seven is the symbol of the holy, that God exists beyond time and space.

But what about the number 70 when Christ says ‘seven times seventy’ or ‘seventy-seven times’?

Talmudic scholars approach the Torah as if it has ‘seventy faces’ (Numbers Rabbah 13: 15-16). The number 70 has sacred significance in Biblical Hebrew: 70 is the number of people who first went down to Egypt, the elders chosen by Moses, the years of King David, the Babylonian exile, the sages of the Sanhedrin, the translators of the Septuagint, the span of human life, the words of Kiddush, the nations of the world …

The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy points out in The Genius of Judaism that the number 70 is ‘no ordinary number.’ He calls it the ‘secret universal.’ It represents the fullness of humanity, the ‘other universal that escorts human beings on the path of their history and to the centre of their substance.’ It is ‘the number of infinity extended.’

So, Christ tells us in this morning’s Gospel reading that divine forgiveness is to be extended ‘seventy-seven times’ or ‘seventy times seven’ – in other words, God’s forgiveness in its abundance is holy in its giving and infinite in its reach.

In the second part of this reading, Christ explains what he is saying in a parable that is unique to Saint Matthew’s Gospel and that involves three distinct episodes:

1, A king decides to settle his accounts with his slaves or servants: the word δοῦλος (doulos) means either, so those who first heard this parable could imagine an end-of-year audit with court officials, financiers or tax collectors. One of these officials owes 10,000 talents, the equivalent to €3,877,551,979 today. No ordinary slave could accumulate such a debt. Of course, he is unable to clear a debt of such magnitude.

The king might have been reminded that Jewish law prohibits demanding payment from a debtor who is unable to pay (mitzvah 234; Exodus 22: 24). A lender may not embarrass a borrower by harassing him, and is forbidden to seize the debtor’s land or to sell him or his family into slavery.

When the servant seeks forgiveness, the king goes beyond the narrow constraints of rabbinical law, shows overflowing generosity, and agrees to clear off the loan.

2, Now, however, this senior official demands the repayment of a loan of three month’s wages, 100 denarii – about €7,473 today – from a lower-level servant. Imagine the senior official as the line manager for the official who asks for forgiveness. Once again, there is commandment not to take a pledge from a debtor by force (mitzvah 239; Deuteronomy 24: 10). The man already forgiven now refuses to forgive when it is his turn, even his obligation, and he compounds this with his use of force.

3, When the king hears about this, he retracts his original forgiveness.

After telling this parable, Christ identifies the king as God, the first servant as any Christian, and the second as anyone else.

Christ makes the point that God’s forgiveness in its abundance is holy in its giving and infinite in its reach.

As for the first reading, I have to admit to some difficulties with the readings from the Book Exodus in recent weeks.

We have had very specific details about how the Passover Lamb is to be killed and cooked, with splattering of blood on doorposts and lintels.

Then we have the warning that the first-born are going to be slain. It is an image of God that is terrifying. And then, this morning, we have a story in which we meet the Angel of the Lord or the Angel of Death.

Not only do I find myself asking why Pharaoh and his army had to drown. Why could events not take another turn so that they arrive late, after the people cross and after the waters return?

To make matters worse, Moses and the Israelites later sing a triumphant song of gratitude to God for wiping out their enemies, declaring: ‘God is a Man of War’ (see Exodus 15:3). The Bible does not get any more masculine and militaristic than that.

Why is the ‘Song of the Sea’ (Shirat Hayam), or ‘The Song of Miriam’, so violent and unforgiving?

Where is God’s compassion and mercy?

First of all, this story is part of a longer passage that recalls the contrasting images of God parting the waters of Creation (Genesis 1: 6) and God promising after the Flood that the world would never be flooded or drowned again (Genesis 9: 11).

So, this reading holds promises of a new creation and redemption.

We need to be sensitive too to the ethical problems in this story. The Talmud says that when they see the Egyptians drowning, the angels are about to break into song. But God silences them declaring, ‘How dare you sing for joy when my creatures are dying’ (Talmud, Megillah 10b, Sanhedrin 39b).

The Talmud reminds us that our personal elation should never let us forget the misfortunes of others (Berachot 31a). The mediaeval commentaries (Tosafot) say this is the source for the Jewish customs of breaking a glass at a wedding and spilling out drops of wine on Seder night, at the Passover meal, reminders that the cup of deliverance and celebration cannot be full when others suffer.

The mediaeval rabbis say God continues to pour out pity and mercy for the rest of life even while wrongdoers are destroyed. Even when the oppressors engage in gross evil, God is open to forgiveness.

‘The Song of the Sea’ is so challenging, so disturbing, that the General Synod dropped it from the canticles in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland in 2004.

There is a dichotomy. If we are not happy that evil has been punished, then we do not care enough. But if we are not sad at the loss of life, then our humanity is weakened.

Perhaps the two shores of the sea represent two sides of the one story. Perhaps we must pass through the middle, preserving and valuing life, yet not drowning in war and hatred. The middle path between justice and mercy is difficult: at any moment we can be washed away; we must tread carefully so as not to drown.

In the Gospel reading, Christ calls us to forgive in a way that is so difficult that I am still wrestling with it.

Many of us grew up with language that chided us, so that when we did something wrong and said sorry, we were told, ‘Sorry is not enough’ or ‘Sorry doesn’t fix anything.’ Such phrases allow a hurt person to withhold forgiveness, to find comfort in their own hurt, to control us in a way that allows us to know mercilessly how much we are in need of mercy.

But we also live in a culture of half-hearted apologies that are difficult to forgive. Politicians say they accept responsibility by resigning – so they never have to answer for their actions. Half-hearted apologies – ‘I am sorry if I have offended you’ – mean those who are hurt feel they need to apologise for their response, their reaction, for being hurt.

There are times that I have no right to forgive, when it is not my place to forgive. I cannot forgive the perpetrators of the Holocaust, because, no matter how many times I have visited places that are an intimate part of the Holocaust story, I am not one of the victims.

I cannot forgive slaveholders or mass murderers in wars and killing fields, because I am not one of their victims. On the other hand, perhaps, because I am not a victim, I might find it is not so difficult.

The true difficulties arise in my own personal life: members of my own family, lost friends, near neighbours, former colleagues I think hurt me in the past. I walk around with perceived slights, insults and hurts, like some crutch that helps the wounded, broken me to walk through this broken and hurting world.

But then I am reminded, time and again, that God’s forgiveness in its abundance is holy in its giving and infinite in its reach.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt’ (Matthew 18: 27) … a stained-glass window in Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 18: 21-35 (NRSVA):

21 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22 Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 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. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 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.” 29 Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31 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. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything’ (Matthew 18: 29) … a collection of denarii among old Greek coins in an exhibition in Callan, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical colour: Green (Ordinary Time, Year A).

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
whose only Son has opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
Give us pure hearts and steadfast wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Collect of the Word:

O God,
you call your Church to witness
that in Christ we are reconciled to you:
help us to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may turn to you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God, the source of truth and love:
Keep us faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
united in prayer and the breaking of bread,
and one in joy and simplicity of heart,
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

‘The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained’ (Exodus 14: 28) … an illustration in the ‘Passover Haggadah’ by the Polish-American artists Arthur Szyk


421, I come with joy, a child of God (CD 25)
503, Make me a channel of your peace (CD 29)

‘Lord … how often should I forgive?’ … ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’ (Matthew 18: 21-22) … what is the significance of the number 70 in this reading? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

Forgiveness and love in the face of death and mass murder … a fading rose on the fence at Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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