Families are wonderful, aren’t they? What would we do without them? They provide us with good times and occasionally not so good times. In our Old Testament reading, we heard of the family of Joseph. In the past they had treated him pretty shabbily, out of jealousy selling him into slavery, and now found that he had tremendous power over them. How circumstances change. How would he treat them? Reconciliation or retribution? Punishment or forgiveness?
I have had a mixture of thoughts about my own family in recent weeks. Not that they cast me out, or sold me into slavery, or they disliked me because I had a coat of many colours. To cut a long story short, the screen on my laptop decided not to function. So, I did the usual things: switched it off and on. No use. Muttered at it – still nothing. Hit the F10 button as instructed by my daughter – and even followed the online guidance to solve the problem. All to no avail.
When my elder daughter and her partner arrived, they determined that the screen was done for and a new one would cost as much as a new computer. Along with Alan, they very kindly bought me a new computer – it was my birthday – and spent time transferring data from the old to the new. Great. Then they went home.
I looked at today’s readings and the theme was forgiveness. Great I thought. I know I have some sermons from the past on forgiveness that I can adapt, save myself some time. I went to the file labelled ‘church’ and then into ‘sermons’ where I found to my surprise six sermons. None on forgiveness. Now I have been a Reader for over 20 years so I must have written at least 200 sermons. Where are the other 194? Not in my computer. In the ether, in ‘the cloud’. I don’t know, but being told not to worry, that my younger daughter would have backed them up and would rescue them when she visited at some time in the future, was not a lot of immediate help. Understanding and possibly forgiveness of family was definitely needed.
Put brain in gear
Our Old testament lesson was about Joseph forgiving his brothers, putting the past behind them, restoring family ties and creating new relationships within them, and our gospel reading is also telling us about forgiveness and reconciliation.
It begins with Peter, strong impetuous Peter, putting a question to Jesus. Peter, who to use a phrase of my mother in law, often engaged his mouth without putting his brain into gear. He puts a question to Jesus – how many times should he forgive someone? And immediately supplies his own answer – seven times. No doubt Peter thought he was being inordinately generous, for traditional Jewish teaching was that someone should only be forgiven three times. This was based on the teachings of the prophet Amos, who said that God forgave three times and no one should be more generous than God.
But Jesus does not accept Peter’s decision and replies that forgiveness should be not seven times but seventy seven. I don’t think that this was meant to be an absolute number but indicated an enormous number of times – an uncountable number.
And in true Jesus style, he tells a parable to explain his message. A king wished to settle his accounts with his slaves and called one to him who owed him ten thousand talents. Now that was a heck of a lot of money. A talent was actually a weight in silver, gold or bronze. And when I saw one in a museum in Crete I was amazed at the size. The ten thousand talents were approximately 20,000 years pay.
Out of pity
You have to wonder how someone ran up so much debt. There was no way the slave could repay it and his Lord ordered him to be sold together with his wife and children and all his possessions. It is unlikely that such a sale would release sufficient funds for repayment. The slave pleads for mercy and out of pity the lord released him and forgave him the debt. Wow! what a feat of generosity.
The slave must have been overjoyed. But what does he do? He goes to another slave who owes him money a piffling amount of 100 dinarii and grabs him by the throat and says pay what you owe. Now 100 dinarii was about 4 months pay. In comparison to what the first slave owed it was peanuts. The slave asks for patience to repay but the man he owed money to refused and threw him into prison. Certainly, he did not treat his debtor as he had been treated.
But his fellow slaves report him to their lord who summons him, rebukes him and hands him over to be tortured.
And Jesus ends by saying to Peter and the other listeners: “So my heavenly Father will do so for everyone of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” And if he says it to them then he says it to us.
We must forgive those who hurt us be that by causing physical, financial, emotional or spiritual harm. Is that easy? C. S Lewis in his book ‘Mere Christianity’ says that forgiveness is a lovely idea until there is something to forgive. Simple in theory more difficult in practice.
No, forgiveness is not always easy. In my case to forgive my offspring for temporarily losing my sermons is easy. No one was harmed and I had to go back to first principles to write this sermon, which was no bad thing. And the situation will be easily remedied.
But supposing the harm had been far greater. I am thinking of those people sitting in the courtroom in Manchester last week, listening to the inquiry into how their loved ones were killed or injured in the bombing at the Manchester Arena. How easy will it be for them to forgive? I am sure they can never forget what happened to their relatives and friends, but can they forgive the man responsible? Can they come to terms with what has happened and offer forgiveness? It will take an enormous effort and for some it will be impossible.
I have used one example of forgiveness before – and I make no apologies for using it again. It’s that of the actions of Colin Parry, the father of Tim Parry. Tim was the twelve year old boy killed in the bombing in Warrington, 27 years ago. After some time Colin Parry met and talked with Gerry Adams of the IRA and out of that step came the Peace Centre established in Warrington
Ahead of the meeting, Colin said:
“Meeting Mr Adams and sharing a public platform with him will be very challenging for me.
“However, it is a vital step on my own personal journey to reconciliation and a vital step too for the foundation in living up to its charter principles which include developing mutual understanding and respect between conflicting parties as the only sustainable way to build trust.”
That is some principle of forgiveness.
Today, Colin and Wendy Parry are supporting the families affected by the Manchester bombing. Forgiveness still bringing reconciliation.
Forgiveness involves action
Because forgiveness cannot simply be saying that’s OK when someone seeks our forgiveness. Forgiveness involves action. It involves moving into the future not being stuck in the past. It is not a one-off event, it is a way of living, a way of loving, thinking and seeing. Forgiveness does not mean we condone what has been done or that we excuse cruelty or injustice. It means that we face these things and work with the perpetrators and others to restore healthy relationships.
Last Sunday, in his Zoom sermon, Ian talked of the work of the people in the Repair shop – that wonderful programme on TV. Those people restore broken precious objects so that you can’t see the join. But restoration takes time. I suspect much more time than they show on TV. It takes skill and commitment and often teamwork. Often they have to go to plan B when the first approach does not work. Forgiveness is a similar process, restoring what was broken into something whole. It is not a passive activity. It takes courage, time, skill and commitment often working together and sometimes having to go to Plan B when the first approach does not seem to work. And, in our case, it demands prayer.
As Christians, we have the ultimate example of forgiveness set before us. Jesus bought our forgiveness with his life. Through his sacrifice we are restored to a wonderful relationship with God. And is it ongoing. For us there is always forgiveness no matter what we have done, how far we have strayed or how many times we have erred.
God forgives every time.
How often do we forgive? Seven times, seventy seven times – if we are counting we are not forgiving.
‘Forgiveness’ was a sermon given by Margery Spencer at Christ Church Walmersley and then St John with St Mark’s on Sunday 13th September 2020. It’s based on Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35.