TRINITY XXII – Si iniquitates
Introit: (Ps 130) If thou, O Lord, wilt be extreme to mark iniquities, O Lord, who may abide it? But there is forgiveness with thee, O God of Israel. Ps. Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord: Lord hear my voice. Glory be … If thou, O Lord …
Collect: Lord, we beseech thee to keep thy household the Church in continual godliness: that through thy protection it may be free from all adversities, and devoutly given to serve thee in good works, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(For the Vigil of All Saints) O Lord our God, increase, we pray thee, and multiply upon us the gifts of thy grace: and grant that we may be gladdened by the holy profession of All thy Saints, whose glorious festival we anticipate; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Thus saith the Lord; For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they have despised the law of the Lord, and have not kept his commandments, and their lies caused them to err, after the which their fathers have walked: but I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem. Thus saith the Lord; For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes; that pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the meek: and a man and his father will go in unto the same maid, to profane my holy name: and on garments seized as pledges they lay themselves down beside every altar, and they drink the wine of the condemned in the house of their god. Yet destroyed I the Amorite before them, whose height was like the height of the cedars, and he was strong as the oaks; yet I destroyed his fruit from above, and his roots from beneath. Also I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and led you forty years through the wilderness, to possess the land of the Amorite. And I raised up of your sons for prophets, and of your young men for Nazarites. Is it not even thus, O ye children of Israel? saith the Lord. (Amos 2.4-11)
Gradual: (Ps 133) Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity. V. It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down unto the beard, even unto Aaron’s beard.
Epistle: Brethren: I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, for your fellowship in the Gospel from the first day until now; being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ: even as it is meet for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart: inasmuch as both in my bonds, and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel, ye all are partakers of my grace. For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ. And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgement; that ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1.3-11)
Alleluia. Ye that fear the Lord, put your trust in the Lord: he is their helper and defender. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Peter said unto Jesus, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times; but, Until seventy times seven. Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow-servants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellow-servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not; but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow-servants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. (St Matthew 18.21-35)
“How oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?”
Today’s Collect and Epistle serve as an introduction to the Gospel, which is itself an illustration of what Our Lord meant when He taught us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.” If the precondition to divine forgiveness is our willingness to forgive those who sin against us, then it stands to reason that we should forgive “until seventy times seven.” But forgiveness is not just some sort of pragmatic business deal, and the full perspective for understanding forgiveness is what the Collect and Epistle provide for us, since certain words in them carry a great deal more information in the original languages than they do in modern English. The Collect, for example, was originally written in Latin in the fifth or sixth century, so where we ask God to keep “thy household the Church” in continual godliness, the original Latin uses the word “familia,” from which our word “family” is derived. But whereas the word “family” usually makes us think of a husband, wife, and children, with love and security as the basis of the familial bond, the Latin word familia, like the corresponding Greek word οἶκος, while not denying familial love and security, is centred around the idea of “order.”
Familia is derived from the root word “famulus,” meaning house-servant or slave. Originally, then, the “familia” meant only the servants who lived under the authority of a household, and for whom the head of the household, the paterfamilias, was responsible. Over time, however, the idea of familia grew to include everyone who belonged to a household, whether by law or by blood, on the basis of the father’s authority and responsibility to protect and provide for everyone who lived under his roof. It is in this context, then, that our Collect asks God to keep “thy household the Church in continual godliness.” We are members of the Father’s household, both His servants and His adopted sons and daughters by virtue of the Blood of Christ shed for our redemption—literally, in Latin, our “being bought back”—from servitude to any household other than God’s. So when we say that we belong to the “household of God,” we are really saying that we belong to Him by right, that all our work and service belongs to Him, and that all we do must be done under His governance alone. Thus, as the Collect says, we must be “devoutly given” to serve Him in “good works,” since it is only through His protection that we may be free from all adversities. Moreover, just as every well-ordered family has its norms and rules for right behaviour, so does the household of God. Thus, as our Father is loving, merciful, and forgiving, so as members of His family we must be loving, merciful, and forgiving as well, following His commandment and example.
But “how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”These are the types of questions that, within the household of God, we often wrestle with, so Peter really becomes the spokesman for us all when he asks this question. Yes, Jesus teaches of the forgiveness of God freely given to all, and we know we ought to forgive others as well, but shouldn’t there be a limit? When do I get to cut my brother off? Now Peter is actually being quite generous here. Jewish law required one to forgive a person three times. This was based on how the rabbis read the prophet Amos: “For three transgressions of Judah/Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.” If three times was enough for God, then that ought to establish the principle; so, forgive the person three times, and then POW! But Peter had been with Jesus for some time now, and at least some of His teaching had begun to resonate in his mind. Perhaps three wasn’t enough. How about seven? Seven is the Divine number, the number of Sabbath, the number of days of creation, the number of perfection or completion. That must be the “magic number.” Surely God couldn’t ask me to forgive my brother more than seven times?
But Jesus answered, “I say not unto you until seven times, but until seventy times seven.”NowOur Lord is not actually saying that we can shut the door on a person after 490 times. This number is simply meant to signify that there is no cut-off point. We should continue to forgive as many times as it takes, until we have lost count, or, more to the point, without keeping tally in the first place. Then to illustrate this point, He presents a parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened unto a certain king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.”A talent was an ancient measure of weight, approximately 75-100 pounds, and when used in monetary terms meant that weight in silver or gold. This poor wretch had somehow managed to accumulate a debt of 10,000 talents – which, if it is even meant to be a finite number at all, would be around four billion dollars! But the Greek word is literally “myriad.” One highly respected and scholarly Greek dictionary suggests that the best English equivalent here would be “a zillion.” This man owed a myriad of talents – so like a gazillion dollars, an incalculable debt – and now it was time to pay up.
In first-century Palestine, the average labourer earned just one denarius (“penny”) per day. A talent was 6000 denarii, so nearly twenty years’ wages. And this man owed … how many? Of course he didn’t have the money, so “his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. But the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’” Honestly, how much patience did the man hope his master would have? If he saved every cent he earned, he could pay off his debt in … about 200,000 years! Well actually, this man wasn’t unique. He was just one of many debtors. He was, in fact, an ordinary sinner like you or me. The word “debt” here is the same word we find in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors;” “forgive us our trespasses, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Sin is nothing other than the transgression and betrayal of the love of God. In this parable, Our Lord spreads before us the magnitude of our sin. Now, either He is exaggerating our debt, or we are grossly underestimating it, but in any case, it only takes one sin to separate us from God. And what about a lifetime of sinful thoughts, words, and deeds? How much do you owe? A zillion talents. This is your debt, for you are this man, and so is every other person who has ever lived. We are all debtors who live only by the grace of God. But while our sins are beyond reckoning, so too is the Lord’s forgiveness. The servant fell on his knees, imploring, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” But what did the Lord do? He did what He does for every person who cries out to Him for mercy. Out of His infinite love and compassion, He forgave the entire debt. This is the absolution which we receive. God does not put us on a payment plan or garnish our wages, He simply forgives … the whole debt! But, note what transpires here, for we often misunderstand forgiveness. In financial terms, the king writes off this man’s debt. But where does the debt go? It is really absorbed and taken on by the king himself. This is what God has done for us in Christ. He has absorbed, taken upon Himself, the sin of the whole world, through the cross. God says, “Your very real debt is now forgiven.” Real forgiveness is the only solution for real sin, and God gives it freely, with no conditions, no payment plans, no incarceration. He simply forgives, for the sake of Christ. The debt of human sin is answered and forgiven by the infinite love of God.
But now we come to the warning in this parable. This man, who had just been forgiven this astronomical debt, on his way home happened upon a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii (approximately $7000 by today’s wage standards). He seized the man by the throat, and demanded, “Pay me what you owe!” And when his fellow servant pleaded, using the same words this man has just spoken to his lord, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you,” he refused, and threw him into prison until the debt should be paid. Jesus says, in another place, that those who are forgiven much love much. How then could this man, who had been forgiven so much, refuse to forgive his brother for a relatively small offence? “Give me time, and I will repay my debt!” he had pleaded with his lord. Instead, the king forgave him. But this man would not believe that anyone could be so generous and forgiving. Although he had been forgiven all, he lived as though he had not been forgiven at all. Even as he went out from his lord, he was planning how he would repay the debt by his own efforts. Forgiveness is offered freely to all. But not all will believe and receive it. Our Lord is teaching us that unwillingness to forgive is the ultimate expression of unbelief. Faith takes the Lord at His word, but this man would not believe. In his heart he remained unforgiven, and, as a result, he could spare no love for his neighbour.
Because he would not receive forgiveness, he could not offer forgiveness. How could he afford to be forgiving small debts when he owed such a great debt himself? As a result, the master delivered him to the “jailers” (so, in many modern translations). Now, while this may be true, it is not quite accurate: he was delivered not just to the jailers but to the “tormentors” or torturers. So the fellow lands back in prison, to be tortured, not because he has not been forgiven, but because he will not forgive. Just as we underestimate the debts we owe God, so do we overestimate the debts owed to us and the offences we suffer. Has your neighbour sinned against you? Sometimes we are offended by sins against us that are not sins at all. Then again, when the actions of our neighbour are hurtful, we are often quick to assign motive: “Not only did she hurt me, she did it intentionally, because …” We short-circuit the love of God by telling ourselves that we don’t hold grudges, that we won’t let it bother us, when in fact it does bother us, and it colours all our future interactions with the other. We want to make them pay. We subtly try to torture them. But we only end up tortured ourselves, in a hell of our own making, devoid of mercy, forgiveness, love, peace, or hope; a slave and a prisoner of the past, shackled by what we have done and by what has been done to us, tormented forever by guilt and grudge. The only way to be free is to be forgiven and to forgive. George Herbert wrote: “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass if he would ever reach heaven; for everyone has need to be forgiven.” The unforgiving servant fails to act out of the love which has been given to him, and so imprisons himself.
“So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.” Now to forgive from one’s heart does not mean what we think it means. In the Scriptures, the heart is not the seat of the emotions or feelings. That is a relatively modern conceit. The seat of the emotions in the Scriptures is the gut—the “bowels” (Latin viscera), as in today’s Epistle reading (“… in the bowels of Jesus Christ”). This is where we get the term ‘gut-wrenching.’ So when Jesus ‘has compassion on’ people, the word that is used (σπλαγχνίζομαι [splangchnízomai], to be moved in the inward parts) tells us that He feels it viscerally in His gut. The heart, on the other hand, is the seat of the will. So, when our Lord instructs us to forgive from our heart, He means that we are to forgive willingly, and with determination. We cannot always control our feelings. They are gut-reactions. But we can control what we do with our feelings. When forgiveness has been given from our heart, from our will, we continue to live in that forgiveness, and this means that, despite the fact that we still remember the wrong, we choose—we will—not to let it define how we continue to interact with that person; we choose not to throw what has been done back in his face in the future. We choose to make our actions conform to God’s Word of forgiveness instead of making our actions slaves to our feelings. As David Curry says: “The forgiveness of sins goes beyond the limits of hurts given and received, not by ignoring them, but by going through them to something more. We are bidden to receive the grace of forgiveness and to show that we have received it by our acting upon it.” That is what reconciliation is. But when we refuse to forgive our brother from our heart, we are giving in to our fallen and sinful gut-instinct, which fails to believe God’s Word about sin and grace. And if we insist that God’s grace does not cover another’s sin, then we must likewise conclude that it does not cover any of ours either.
So we ask God to give us more time. We ask for His patience while we set up a payment plan. But He responds in mercy beyond human comprehension: “For the sake of my Son, I forgive you everything.” Our incalculable debt was paid at the cross. Instead of what we deserve, our heavenly Father forgives every sin and gives us eternal life. And if we hear and receive this gift by faith, He can make us able and willing to forgive our debtors even as we have been forgiven—freely and from the heart. In the same way that refusing to forgive is the expression of unbelief, so extending forgiveness to those who have sinned against us is the expression of faith. We who have been forgiven much, are now free to love much. We do not earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others. Rather, forgiveness is divine love working in and through us. We will not cut our brother off after the seventh offence, because God has promised that He will never cut us off even after seventy times seven; He will always hear our cries for mercy. As He has forgiven our great debt, so we can sincerely forgive those who sin against us—willingly, and without calculation. And this is a defining mark of our Christian Faith.
The Church exists for the glory of God and its supreme purpose is to serve Him devoutly. We do not ask God’s protection for the Church simply so that it will survive. St Paul wrote literally that Christ’s mercy came “from his guts,” knowing that both the physical human body of our Lord and His mystical Body, the Church, without its proper “insides” would be but an empty shell, and not alive at all in any real sense. Paul thus expresses his confidence that “he who has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ,” urging us to make our conduct worthy of the Gospel of Christ, setting aside pride and rivalry and following the humility of Christ, who “took the form of a servant and became obedient even unto death,” all the while praying, “Father, forgive them.” In that same spirit, we must be forgiving and forbearing of one another, that we may be “filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ unto the glory and praise of God.” Those who are forgiven much love much. How then can we help but give away that same love and forgiveness which God has lavished upon us?
But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give myself away; ‘tis all that I can do.
—Isaac Watts (Hymn #765)
Collect: O God our Father, who makest thy sun to rise upon the evil and upon the good, and sendest rain upon the just and upon the unjust: Help us to love our enemies, and to forgive those who trespass against us; that we may receive of thee the forgiveness of our sins, and be made thy children in spirit and in truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.