Last year, I found revisiting 5 of Jesus' better known parables for Lent surprisingly profitable. I say surprisingly for familiarity can breed - well, if not contempt exactly, then at least a feeling that there is little new to be discovered. As it turned out, that certainly wasn't the case last year and nor is it proving to be so this year as we look at 5 more.
Last night, it was the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. You probably will all know it. A servant having been forgiven a massive debt by the King goes out and demands a relatively small one from a fellow servant. When the fellow servant can't pay, the first servant has him thrown into gaol. The King on hearing of it from other servants, distressed at what has happened, has the first servant handed over to be tortured until he pays his debt, something he could never hope to do.
Jesus' punch-line is unambiguous: 'So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.' (Matthew 18:35)
In my thoughts on the parable, I talked about three stages of forgiveness:
1. Taking sin seriously. The parable is about real debt, not imaginary debt. In my preparation beforehand, I puzzled over the amount of the debt Jesus uses in the story. 10,000 talents is a huge figure. The problem is that it is if taken literally, it is unrealistically so. Commentators try to calculate how much it is with figures such as 60,000,000 denarii being used, meaning it would take a day labourer 164,000 years to repay. I rather suspect that Jesus is not expecting the figure to be calculated in this way. What I think he is saying is that the debt was so great, you couldn't put a realistic figure on it. It was unimaginably great.
2. Taking our own sin seriously. The parable challenges to see that our debt to God is beyond imagination. It is, however, a real debt and not an imaginary one, one that we can never hope to repay. Taking our own sin seriously is not something we are encouraged to do either in the Church or out. It goes against the emphasis of much preaching and teaching. Reading older hymns and sermons gives you an idea of the difference in emphasis: 'Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.'
Today's sermons are more likely to encourage people to think that they are not wretches, but valuable and loved by God. The aim of the sermon being more to build people up than to bring them down in their estimation of themselves. But surely if we do not think there is anything much that we need forgiving for, we are not going to appreciate Jesus' message of forgiveness. This message is not that the debt does not matter. It does. More than we can ever comprehend.
We are I think in danger of confusing welcome and acceptance with forgiveness. Because we rightly want to welcome and accept people, regardless of who they are or what they are like, we think we should not in anyway been seen to suggest that anything they have done is unacceptable to God. Forgiveness thus verges on being about condoning and not challenging people's lifestyles.
Surely the Gospel message is one that challenges us in the first place to see how bad we are, but then offers us the good news that if we turn from our wickedness, God will out of his boundless love and mercy forgive us. We may know this in our minds, but seldom nowadays, I think, do we feel it in our hearts. Certainly not with the intensity of a John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, or of a Charlotte Elliott, who wrote these words:
Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
sight, riches, healing of the mind,
yea, all I need, in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come.
3. Forgiving other people their sin. Jesus made forgiving others a central part of his teaching. Hence our promise to forgive others every time we say the Lord's Prayer. But it is hard, isn't it? We are very good at forgiving ourselves, largely because we don't think we have done anything particularly wrong. But even the smallest of hurts or sleights causes us to come down heavily on other people. I know that many of us have suffered great wrongs at the hands of others. But Jesus' point is that even they are nothing compared to our debt to God. Last night, I think the few of us who studied this parable together felt its challenge to forgive very clearly.
As we all agreed, however, doing it is much harder.