On a Saturday this time last year, I was taking some bags of garden waste out to Stainton Grove tip in the back of our ‘2014 registered’ Vauxhall Meriva. I’d come back to the church, collected a few things from the vestry and climbed in the car to drive home: a warning light came on, a little red oil can. ‘Low in oil’ I thought, ‘I’ll deal with that after the weekend’. I drove home, parked on the drive, used our little Nissan on the Sunday and phoned Maudes’ Garages on Monday morning to sort out the oil problem. Stephen’s invitation to bring the car up to the garage proved impossible: the oil pump had failed, the engine had been starved of oil and the car seized up on the Vicarage drive – it had to be towed away. Four months out of its extended warranty the cost of replacing the oil pump and stripping down the engine outweighed the value of the car itself. It was sold for scrap. It may be some time before I can forgive Vauxhall: the proof of forgiveness will only come when I buy another vehicle.
Today’s reading comes from a chapter that is all about keeping the Christian family together. The question that kicks off our reading actually mentions ‘the church’ – ‘How often’ Peter asks ‘should I forgive a member of the church if they sin against me? Seven times?’ The answer (seventy-seven times) is Jesus’ way of saying ‘if your counting Peter then you’ve missed the point’.
Forgiveness lies at the heart of our Christian faith. The example set before us in Jesus’ parable of a servant forgiven a huge debt by his king but who cannot then pass on this forgiveness to anyone else, ends with the king asking ‘Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ We worship a God who forgives. Christians of all people should know that like the man in the parable, our lives have been given back to us by our Lord: a God whom we have hurt, failed, ignored, treated as nothing. This God, instead of writing us off, continues to want a relationship with us and the only way this can be achieved is if He himself bears the cost of our debt to Him.
Forgiveness is costly. The debt the King carried was immense. We learn forgiveness in our families – or at least some of us do. Families can be ‘schools of grace’: places where we rub up against one another, where we recognise that we are different as people and need to ‘bear with’ one another. Small, unspoken acts of forgiveness accompany our living well together. Where our families may fall short other institutions (perhaps especially schools) can help nurture respect and honesty in relationships and can teach us to disagree well (without retreating into bitter silence, not speaking to one another or ignoring one another). Forgiveness involves people trying to maintain their relationships against the odds: sometimes when we have been hurt we simply allow our relationships with others to wither – this or that person ceases to matter to us, we cut them out of our lives, cease to speak to them.
Again, Jesus’ teaching today is specifically offered to the church. There is a recognition here that following Jesus is done in community. Living closely alongside others will inevitably involve misunderstanding. It may well involve words or actions that are thoughtless or maybe exclude, overlook or hurt our fellow disciples. The King’s example says our relationships with one another are still important: when things go wrong we can’t write each other out of our lives– if we are to belong together we must learn to forgive.
On the surface, the man in our parable was forgiven by the king I don’t think he had taken to heart the forgiveness offered, for if he had, he would have been able to pass it on. The man’s actions suggest that he left the accounts room thinking he’d pulled the wool over the king’s eyes, that he’d got one over his master. His relationship with the King seems to have meant nothing to him.
Knowing ourselves to be forgiven is the foundation block for our being able to forgive others. Forgiveness and grace are what ‘oil’ the life of the Christian community, offering us a chance to pass these things on to others. Without grace and humility and costly forgiveness we seize up (like my car stuck on the drive) and we cannot function healthily as God’s family. So, it’s no wonder that churches are full of crosses: the world’s symbol of forgiveness. It’s no wonder that we break bread and wine as we remember Jesus’ bearing the cost of our debt to God. Forgiving others is just so hard we need, constantly, to remind ourselves of the forgiveness we have received from God to stand a chance of oiling the wheels of our common life together. How does the song go? ‘Freely, freely you have received. Freely, freely give.’ Amen to that.
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