14th Sunday after Trinity Gospel Matthew 18:21-35
One November evening, Bill, aged seventy-nine, was leaving his local pub after an evening with friends. In the darkness of the car park, a car reversed into him. Bill was knocked over, hit his head and died in hospital two weeks later. The driver of the car had a previous conviction for drink-driving. He pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving, and stood in court awaiting the inevitable prison sentence. Then something extraordinary happened.
Bill’s widow was in court. She asked to speak to the judge. She said that the driver’s guilt was punishment enough for her husband’s death. She asked the judge not to send him to prison. The judge listened. As the driver left the dock, Bill’s widow hugged him.
Often we hear the families of victims saying that they find peace when perpetrators are punished. Sometimes they are left dissatisfied when a sentence does not feel severe enough. All cases are different, of course, and deliberate acts of violence are harder to forgive. But Bill’s widow did not want there to be any more punishment. She knew that there was more goodness in forgiveness than in condemnation.
In our Gospel reading today, Peter asks Jesus a perfectly sensible question. He has grasped the concept of forgiveness, but he wonders what the limits are. The fact that the question refers to “another member of the church” suggests that this might have been an issue for the early Church. We can imagine that early Christians quarrelled with one another, just as Christians do today. Of course there should be forgiveness for wrongs, Peter knows that, but should it be limitless? After seven offences and seven acts of forgiveness, would a little punishment be in order, he wonders?
He should have known better. Jesus is never in the business of setting limits. Seventy-seven times is more like it, he says. And he tells a story to show why. The slave whose debts have been remitted by his master needs to respond by forgiving what is owed to him. Of course he wants his money back from his fellow slave. It is a small amount, which should be easy to pay. It is in a different category from the vast amount that he has been let off. But the principle is the same, according to Jesus. Those who have been forgiven will also forgive. And they must forgive from the heart, Jesus says. In biblical thinking the heart is the source, not of the emotions, but of the will. Forgiveness is a matter, not of feeling, but of conscious action. It is a mark of the followers of Jesus, and it needs deliberate intent.
An ordered human society needs a system of justice to make it work. Rule breaking must be dealt with, and dangerous people must be removed from society. We human beings instinctively feel that wrongdoing should be punished. There is a complex philosophical and practical debate about the function of prison and other legal responses to crime.
But the Church is different, the Gospel discussion suggests – a different standard applies. The reason is simple. We have all been forgiven everything. Our debt was as massive as that which the slave owed the king, but God does not ask for it to be paid. God has a solid case against us, and chooses not to condemn us. So in the Church there is no place for condemnation of anyone. There is no place for judgements against our brothers and sisters.
It is easy to say and much harder to do. Our human nature usually gets in the way, and God understands and forgives that too. But an effort is required. We need to forgive from the heart – not with our emotions, but by an act of will. Only then will we learn, as Bill’s widow did, how much goodness comes from forgiveness. Only then can the Church become a place where people see God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom abounding in grace where all are welcome and all are forgiven.