As Christian leaders we are faced with questions every day. Questions tell us what is of most significance to the people that we are ministering to, and the answers that we give tell them what is most important to us as we seek to help people to find meaning and purpose from the riches of our tradition and from the experiences of their every day lives. The question that Peter asks Jesus is typical of the kinds of enquiry that are both deeply practical and at the same time deeply theological.
As ever with our lectionary, the Gospel that we heard this evening is half way through the encounter. Its one of the tyrannies of having short Gospel readings at every Eucharist. In the section before the passage that we have just heard, Jesus has been teaching about what to do if a brother or a sister sins against you. Jesus takes the teaching of the Old Testament rabbis that people can basically have three chances to sort themselves out, and he applies that practically. If someone sins against you, approach them personally, and if that doesn’t work then approach them with others, and if that doesn’t work then take it to the whole congregation – and if even after that the person is not penitent (the person who has done wrong is not seeking forgiveness) then you throw them out. That’s what Jesus is teaching.
Well, that is the context for the passage that we have just heard together from Matthew’s Gospel. Having heard this teaching Peter comes to Jesus and asks about forgiveness. And unless you hear both passages together they don’t make sense. Or at least the sense that you make of them can be quite altered. Jesus has just taught that people should be given three opportunities to be penitent, that is to ask for forgiveness. So the question that follows from Peter is really significant and practical. He is not asking Jesus how many times people should be given the opportunity to be penitent – Jesus has already answered that question – he is asking how many times the person who has been wronged should forgive someone who shows remorse.
In other words, if a member of the community does something that affects someone else, and when he or she is challenged about this and (either at the first or the second or the third stage) acknowledges his or her wrong doing and seeks forgiveness; and is then forgiven; but the following week does exactly the same thing again and then seeks forgiveness again – Peter’s question is how many times can this go on. And Peter takes a stab in the dark and comes up with what he thinks is a fantastically generous possibility.
In his questioning to Jesus he asks whether instead of just three times, as was the way in the Old Testament, perhaps the religious number seven (a more complete number) might be the appropriate number of times that someone can be forgiven for the same thing when it happens over and over again. So someone can do something, and then repent, and then be forgiven, and then do it again… and that cycle can continue seven times.
But Jesus’ response is that even that number is too small. It should be more like seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven (the words can be translated either way). The number “seventy seven” (or seventy times seven) is a very precise and deliberate number. It comes from the story of Cain (who murdered his brother) and Lamech, in the fourth chapter of the book Genesis. Cain gets revenge seven times and Lamech gets revenge “seventy-seven times.” After the fall of Adam and Eve, the world had become a violent and murderous place, so violent and murderous that God would shortly destroy the world by flood. The story of Lamech symbolises the cycle of hate, revenge and murder that all human beings are capable of. And Jesus breaks that cycle of hate and revenge. The Old Testament question of how many times revenge should be possible is Seventy-seven times.
Jesus uses the same number to point not to revenge, but to forgiveness. And to illustrate the point he makes up a story. It’s a story about a king who comes to settle his debts, but when the slave pleads for the debt to be forgiven – in response to the plea for penitence – the king offers for the debt to be wiped away. This slave owed him ten thousand talents. And given that that slaves would have earned one talent for fifteen years work the original listeners would have understood that was a ridiculously exaggerated story in order to make the point. The man (and his wife and children), after pleading for forgiveness are forgiven the payment that would normally be earned through 150,000 years of work – an amount so large that it is akin to eternity – thousands of life times of work.
That same slave, having been forgiven an amount so large that it is unfathomable (imagine having a mortage that would take 150,000 years to pay off) then goes to find one of his colleagues who owes him 100 denarii – about 100 days work. And even though in exactly the same way this slave begs for forgiveness – for his debt to be forgiven, the slave who has already had his debts wiped away is unwilling to forgive his fellow slave and so orders that he be thrown into prison.
Well, when the king finds out about all of this all hell breaks loose – literally. The man who was forgiven so much but was unwilling to forgive so little is sent to the place of torture. And Jesus’ words as we find them in the Gospel point to the reality that that will be the fate of any of his hearers who do the same thing. The story certainly brings alive the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples in Chapter 6 of the same Gospel: “forgive us our debts, as we also have [that is in the past tense, so we can say ‘as we also already have’] forgiven our debtors.”
Now, I realise that this story is not new for you, but I do want to try to make two points that connect with our developing practice of ministry as pastors and teachers, that for me flow out of this story.
Firstly, I want to commend to you as strongly as I can the basic principle that we not only read scripture cognisant of the culture and intention of the writers, and (across a huge divide) the culture and intentions that we bring to the text as readers – but just as significantly the relationship between, and the interconnection of different sections of the same text. We have to find ways to help people to bridge the gap created by our lectionary, so that they are able to read this week’s text in the light of the sections before it and the sections after it, within the framework of the Gospel (or the book) as a whole.
The first time that I preached on this passage, some years ago, I had not taken the trouble to read it within the context of the wider movement of how Matthew’s Gospel was developing. So I started my sermon preparation with the first words that were read this evening. When I preached on this passage I therefore tried to persuade people that Jesus was saying that we need to forgive people infinitely, generously, unconditionally… without any recourse to the fact that this is the second part of a teaching. As we have already seen an elementary reading of the first section would have told me that the condition on which this infinite forgiveness is offered is that the person who has done wrong seeks forgiveness and intends, with the help of others to seek change. That’s what the three opportunities are about in the preceding section.
A woman came to see me some months later to explain to me that I had helped her live with her abusive husband, who attacked her on an almost daily basis, because she had come to learn from me (from that sermon) that God’s will for her was that whatever her husband did, she should simply forgiven him, without question, over and over again. I had given her only one half of the teaching. Well the point is a simple one, and yet a painful one. We spend a lot of time in biblical studies these days building up a canvass of the context and intentions of the original writers, and that is all well and good (as is our coming to see the impact of our own context as readers on the way that we see the text). But if we are serious about the text then we must respect it by reading the flow of it and not just the individual section that we have been entrusted with for a particular sermon.
Secondly, As Anglicans we are committed in theory to a way of ‘doing theology’ which is best described as a three-legged stool, bringing together both scripture, and tradition and reason.
This Anglican distinctive is attributed to Richard Hooker, one of the great Anglican spiritual thinkers from our past, but it has certainly been developed in our contemporary understandings far beyond his original reflections.
We do not read scripture alone as if it has never been read by anyone else before us. We need, instead, to read scripture within the light of the wisdom of our tradition, and we need to allow scripture and our tradition (both from the past) to interrogate our contemporary reason and experience, and indeed to allow out contemporary understandings of the world to interrogate the scripture and tradition from the past as well. This way of doing theology necessarily seeks the critical engagement of the wisdom from the past with the experience of the present. And I labour this distinctive of our way of ‘doing theology’ because I think that although we talk about it in theory we don’t often live it out in practice.
In the main I think that what Anglicans actually do is either focus entirely on the scripture of the past, or entirely on their own experience in the present when doing their theology. So by and large – on the one hand – what happens is we try to interpret the world, by using the tradition as if it were somehow divinely dictated. So instead of the experiences of the past (as we find them in scripture and in the tradition) being brought into a creative interplay with our experiences of the present, the reflections of people from former generations are always more important than ours. Or on the other hand we quietly leave all of the wisdom and reaches from people’s reflection from the past on one side and rely only on what we can know from our experiences today. The obvious problem with this is that when our experiences don’t fit into the ready-made mould that we are given we either have to manipulate our experiences, or reject them, or pretend that we are not having them.
And the point is that that isn’t the way that Jesus did things. He takes a formula from the tradition (seventy times seven) which is about revenge and having seen what that revenge has done to the world (that’s his experience) he turns it on its head and makes it a formula for forgiveness.
In other words Jesus’ reading of the tradition (and this passage is not a single example of this, there are many others) – his reading of the tradition is always a creative interplay with what he knows from his experience of the world around him. The tradition of the past is read in the light of and with the critique of the experience of the present; the experience of the present is interpreted with the riches of the tradition of the past. If we are able as teachers and pastors to give our people the tools to do that kind of theological reflection, we will do them a great service. Peter’s question is a practical one, Jesus’ response both takes the tradition, transforms it, and gives hope to his hearers and to the whole world.
May we who are preparing to be entrusted with this message of hope for others, be nurtured first ourselves in the grace that it offers to us.