17 September 2017
Revd Jonathan Cain
Romans 14 1-12, Matthew 18: 21-35
The Hebrew words for Spirit and breath have the same root – ruach. I love this because it suggests that the Spirit, the divine action of God in the world is tied up with breathing, our breathing. Those of you who practice any form of meditation will know how important it is to focus on your breath, and one breathing exercise uses the Hebrew word for the divine name ‘I am’. Yahweh. Yahweh. Yahweh.
There once was a king. Like all kings his position was dependent on the collection of taxes from the provinces under his control; he needed the taxes to build his palaces and defences, raise an army, build roads and basic infrastructure. Successful collection of the money was essential to the king’s authority. There was a famine in the land and the king went on a long journey around the provinces. He witnessed his bureaucrats going about their business, his business, collecting tribute. The bureaucrats were well fed. The peasants were starving. The injustice, the fear, the anguish, the suffering; the king couldn’t breathe properly.
There was a man, an accountant, chief bureaucrat in the largest of the king’s provinces; responsible for collecting the king’s tribute, less commission of course. A job with certain privileges, certain opportunities, a job with status and power. During the famine his work had become more difficult, money flows less reliable. He’d been forced to employ more unsavoury tactics, and an investment he’d made with the king’s money had gone bad. He was in hock, and the king was coming to collect. The accountant couldn’t breathe properly.
The king understood the problems in the provinces. He knew the bureaucrats were taking more than their share. He knew the people were starving. He knew that the biggest threat to his kingdom came from within – rebellion was in the air – and he knew that he needed to show mercy. He also knew that he needed to maintain his authority. The king travelled to his largest province and summoned the chief bureaucrat, the accountant. The money owed to the King’s treasury was an impossibly large sum, 10,000 talents – about three trillion pounds in our money. The court held its breath …
“Sell him into slavery,” the king said. “Sell him, and his wife, and his children, and all his possessions.” The chief bureaucrat, the accountant, couldn’t breathe. He knew that he and his family would not survive outside the comfort of the city walls. They had no skills in agriculture, they were past their physical prime, they had no friends … and so he begged, begged for mercy. This was enough for the king. He just needed a sign that the man at the head of this corrupt system of collecting taxes was aware of his total dependence on the king … and so he released him and forgave him the entire debt, an amount so large that he could never have paid it off. With this act the king ushered in a new dispensation. The harsh system of law and tax softened with mercy and forgiveness. The king breathed, the court breathed, the chief accountant breathed.
And then it went wrong.
The chief bureaucrat did not follow the forgiving example of his king. At the first opportunity he has to show mercy and forgiveness to one of his own servants, another cog in the wheel of the corrupt hierarchy responsible for collecting taxes, he is instead harsh and unforgiving. The court holds its breath again. The king asks a simple and direct question. “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?”
When Peter asks Jesus the question, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Jesus’ response “seventy-seven times” is not intended to be a literal instruction. Keeping count to seventy-seven and then withholding forgiveness on the seventy-eighth wrong would suggest that there was no forgiveness at all. Jesus’ response indicates that forgiveness should be limitless. God’s new dispensation, taught by Jesus in story and action, by Jesus’ last breath on the cross – “Father forgive them,” by the exuberant shout at his resurrection, “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!” – God’s new dispensation is one of limitless divine mercy and forgiveness. Mercy and forgiveness that is for us, for me and for you; for all people. As followers of Jesus we pray …
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
We breathe in the love and forgiveness of God, and we breathe out love and forgiveness …
… of course some things are easier to forgive than others. In his book Healing Agony, Stephen Cherry examines the dynamic of forgiveness and healing in extreme circumstances: Eric Lomax, otherwise known as the Railway Man, victims of the IRA, of Fred and Rosemary West, of Apartheid. What emerges from these harrowing examples is forgiveness as a process, not an event; moving and humbling stories of individuals subjected to the most grievous hurt engaging with the complex venture of forgiving. A venture that is essential if they are to be released from the torture of their own loss; a venture that is essential to their own healing.
Breathing is if course natural, although we do not always breathe well. Forgiving sometimes feels unnatural, but it is the response we pray for to God who forgives us … naturally …
Yah-weh, Yah-weh, Yah-weh.