Sermon: 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
A great friend of mine at Mirfield had come to study all the way from the Melanesian Islands in the South Pacific. His name was Brother George and he was a Priest and a member (indeed the Novice Master) of the Melanesian Brotherhood, a monastic order on the Solomon Islands. He told us of a tribe on one of the many islands which has only 3 numbers: 1, 2 & many – beyond that the numbers are irrelevant: one pig, two pigs, many pigs.
Much in the same way, as we encounter in this morning’s Gospel, in terms of the amount owed, the numbers are irrelevant, in terms of forgiveness, the numbers are irrelevant.
For the benefit of simple and barely literate fishermen, Seventy times Seven is probably about the biggest number Peter could possibly conceive. The number itself is irrelevant, it is the action of forgiveness that we should concentrate on.
I don’t know how many times… in fact I have lost count of the number of times that I have fallen into sin, and that is just this morning! Seriously, as the Psalmist says in Psalm 51: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” – Time & again we sin, almost without realising it: one sin, two sins, many sins, just like the Melanesians and yet, time & again we are forgiven. And this forgiveness is demonstrated nowhere more fully than with the core symbol of the Christian faith – paraded as we entered this morning, glorious above the altar and seen everywhere you look in this building: the Cross.
On Wednesday of this week, we celebrated the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, and it is with today’s theme of forgiveness that we can properly place into context the true significance of that triumph. At the time it occurred, of course, the death of Christ at the hands of evil men appeared to be a disaster, a humiliation, a death in the manner of a common criminal and in the words which seep through the humiliation of the psalms, a sign of reproach for all. And yet, from those depths, comes victory, comes the overcoming of death and the symbol of our hope in Christ. In the topsy-turvy world that is the Christian faith, what appeared like folly to the learned Greeks, was revealed to be more than wisdom, as St. Paul wrote.
The meaning of the Cross, therefore, was not humiliation, but victory, a genuine triumph, and the cry from the cross of Our Lord – “it is completed” is a statement of fact, not a personal admission of defeat – not “I am finished”, but “It is completed”. It was not a transaction or a barter with a jealous God, but a demonstration of his love, a witness to his preparedness to give to us.
The triumph of the cross is an outpouring of love: that forgiveness for our sins, far beyond seventy times seven is what enables us to meet with Christ in this Mass and at every other Mass celebrated in this church.
A Chinese Prime Minister was once asked what he thought the historical consequences of the French Revolution were. He paused for a moment and replied “Hmmm. Too soon to tell, I think”. We have yet to see the full historical and theological impact of the incarnation of Jesus Christ Our Lord and Saviour on this earth, although it was an event of more than two thousand years ago, its repercussions are still being felt. And we are part of that. We are the ones who continue to be the reverberation of faith across the centuries, we are the ones called to love and to forgive. The triumph of the cross was not a historical act of the past, but a living reality of the present; at the heart of which is the forgiveness God shows to us.
Forgiveness does not negate justice, and Christian forgiveness between us does not mean that one has carte blanche to do what one wants, but it does mean that retribution has no place in the Christian vocabulary.
Those who claim that the invasion of Iraq was a natural response to the attack on the twin towers, which was 4 years ago today are seeking retribution, not justice: the removal of a dictator they themselves propped up; there are those who demand mob justice for paedophiles or terrorists, but forget that it was a lynchmob which handed Our Lord over…
How many times should I forgive my brother? Seven, Seventy-Times Seven, One, Two, Many? Let God in his majesty, on his throne of glory sit in judgement on all of us who sin, and leave it up to him.