Saint Matthew xviii, verse 35 – So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

I was sent a very fine sermon once for the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi.  It contained a passage I would like to quote:

The world is like a shop into which someone has stolen and placed all the expensive price-tags on cheap items, and all the cheap price-tags on costly things. 

The preacher commented on this by simply saying, ‘The world’s priorities are upside-down.’  And so they are.  We usually accept the world’s false valuations.  We are impressed with the price-tags.

The someone who has stolen into the shop to mislead us is the someone summarized in our baptismal renunciations as ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil’.  The world is all human opinion and action and civilization apart from God.  The world is the pursuit of fashion, position, rank, esteem, popularity, office, and competition.  These things teach us to value what has little worth and to neglect what has great worth.  The flesh is our appetites apart from God:  our appetites for food and drink, for ease, for sexual pleasure, for physical comfort.  These things are good in themselves, and our appetites for them are reasonable.  It is good that our tummies grumble when they are really empty.  But when these appetites are divorced from God, they become disordered.  We then grasp for what has little worth, and so risk missing the hidden treasure.  The devil, of course, is the malevolent spiritual personality that has mixed up the price-tags and who parades the shoddy, expensive things before us as pearls of great price.

So again, the world’s priorities are upside-down.  With that in mind, let us consider the particular priority that today’s gospel brings to our urgent attention.  That priority is, in a word, forgiveness.  More particularly, it is forgiveness shown as mercy.  The duty to forgive is first stated in a positive way with a straightforward assertion:  we should forgive our enemies, not just seven times, but seventy times seven – which is to say, infinitely.  That is easily and quickly said, though of course not so easily done.

After this fairly straightforward, positive assertion, though, our Lord states the same lesson in a negative way.  He tells a story, whose point is the horrible consequences for us if we fail to forgive.  The positive duty to forgive includes very negative consequences for failures to forgive.  The unmerciful servant in the parable is punished terribly for his hardness of heart towards his colleague.  He is tossed into jail, and the key is thrown away:  ‘So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.’  The matter is serious.

The lesson begins with Saint Peter’s question, ‘Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?’  The question deals with forgiveness on what we might call the horizontal level, as a matter involving two people trying to cope with each other.  Peter at least recognizes that he is injured by a ‘brother’ – by someone with whom he has a relationship that should involve some care and concern and mutual obligation.  But Peter still is asking about a human duty to forgive other people in human dealings.  Peter is looking at forgiveness as bound and limited by the human world.

Our Lord takes Peter’s question about forgiving a brother, and concludes by demanding forgiveness of enemies.  Our Lord expands the duty, by extending the obligation to enemies as well as brothers by demanding forgiveness indefinitely.  Here Christ refuses to accept a limit to forgiveness on the human level.  But then he does something even more radical and challenging. He explains the duty to forgive each other by introducing another level entirely.  He raises Peter’s sights.  He says, in effect, that our dealings with each other are not just human affairs, whose horizon is in this world and whose parties are only human beings.  Our dealings with each other have another dimension entirely, a vertical dimension.  Our dealings with each other have another party to them, a King and Judge who stands above the human scene, who observes how we treat each other, and who then himself acts with authority and power.  The King’s action is proportioned to our actions.  His mercy reflects our mercy.  His hardness reflects our hardness.  His forgiveness is limited, though only by its proportion to our own forgiveness.  Heaven’s actions hum with the harmonics of our actions.  God gives to us what we give to others.  We get what we give.

In the world’s shop forgiveness has some limited value.  The price-tag set by the world and the flesh tells us that there is a prudent amount of forgiveness and patience.  We might want to forgive seven times, for instance, because that forgiveness coming from us will increase admiration and esteem from others.  We might even want to be moderately forgiving because that will increase our self-esteem.  If desire for esteem is the world at work, then self-esteem is the devil at work.  The world, the flesh, and the devil are not always a united army.  The flesh’s desire for revenge may be countered by worldly concerns.  But these prudent calculations and limits are Peter’s idea of forgiveness, not Christ’s.  The upside-down pricing system gives forgiveness a little value.  Christ gives it nearly infinite value.

Now there are real differences on the human level between servants.  Some servants really do better than others.  But our Lord cuts through such fine calculations – seven times? or seventy? or 490? – by introducing God’s claims and God’s values.

The parable tells us that whatever the world’s price-tag on forgiveness may be, its real value is so great that no other item in the store can equal it.  Nothing – absolutely nothing – that has ever been done or said to you or me is unforgivable.  Some things may be pretty darned unforgettable, and so we have to struggle to pick our way through resentments, difficult memories, and reasonable caution concerning future dealings with difficult folk.  But if we let ourselves dwell on the false price-tags and the tinsel they represent, then we will lose the hidden treasure, the true pearl, the life-giving fountain of forgiveness, the well of mercy that brings us mercy.

Jesus does not hesitate to tell us our duty with a very, very rough threat attached.  He delivers the servant who had no compassion ‘to the tormentors till he should pay all that was due.’  And so likewise shall he do to us if we fail in mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.  Our duty is clear. Forgive or be damned.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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