Almighty God, whose only Son has opened for us a new and living way into your presence: give us pure hearts and steadfast wills to worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
As far as the east is from the west
So far has he set our sins from us.
THIS is the psalmist as poet, reaching for an image able to convey the immeasurable mercy and consolation of a forgiving God who, against all expectation, does not deal with us “according to our sins” or reward us “according to our wickedness” (Psalm 103.10).
It will always be difficult to imagine the scope of divine forgiveness if the scale we apply is that of the strictly quantified gestures of much human practice. Peter, in Matthew’s account of his discussion with Jesus on the subject of wrongs sustained at the hands of those he considers as brothers and sisters (Matthew 18.21), must learn the vast difference between his idea of justice and that of God.
The story that Jesus tells in order to show how meagre Peter’s idea of generous forbearance really is emphasises the gulf between the two approaches by introducing a ridiculous number. The indebted slave owes his master the equivalent of the combined annual product of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, by Brendan Byrne’s calculation (Lifting the Burden, Liturgical Press, 2004).
Several life sentences could not make reparation. The master’s magnanimity in wiping the debt from his account books lies outside the experience of the story’s audiences across generations. Yet instead of learning from this handsome release in his dealings with others, the slave immediately applies the strictest rules to a fellow slave to extract a comparatively negligible sum (Matthew 18.28-30). The master’s anger makes no distinction between amounts. It is directed at the appalling failure of mercy on the part of one who had received great mercy (Matthew 18.32-34).
Jesus has a particular point to make: forgiveness is a matter of the heart, not of the ledger or spreadsheet. When it is offered sincerely, it restores a relationship to wholeness. The NRSV’s gender-inclusive choice of “member of the church” for the Greek “one of my brothers” (Matthew 18.15, 21) obscures the fact that what is at stake is a familial bond.
If the same love and trust is to endure among members of the community of believers as exists between brothers and sisters, however imperfect it may be, then no scores can be kept, either administratively or emotionally. Once that has been learned, the community will have made important progress in living the life of the Kingdom.
For Joseph, forgiving the brothers who tried to kill him out of envy and resentment again balances two sets of considerations. On the one hand, there is the personal element. He could have withheld forgiveness, although in the light of the kindness he has already shown his brothers, without revealing his identity, that would have been surprising (Genesis 42-44, 50.15-21).
On the other hand, there is the matter of the destiny of a people who will be built and united out of the flawed and fractured family that seeks its fortune in Egypt. Joseph will not obstruct the purposes of God, who used the brothers’ treachery “for good, in order to preserve a numerous people” (Genesis 50.20).
For the brothers themselves, who do not see the bigger picture, forgiveness has a strong aspect of self-preservation. If Joseph has assisted them only out of devotion to their father, Jacob’s death puts them in a precarious position once more.
This limited calculation is what causes Joseph to weep: his brothers have understood everything about bags of grain, and nothing about the love that chooses to write off past injury. It takes his weeping to open their eyes (Genesis 50.15-18). They are not just a reconciled family, but partners in a future in which their stature will be as tribes in a unified nation, chosen by God.
How communities of faith and their individual members work out their relationships practically is the concern of Paul as he advises the Roman Christians how to welcome those who are “weak in faith” (Romans 14.1). He is not as specific here as he is in 1 Corinthians 8, where matters such as food sacrificed to idols are clearly a local concern. But there are some general points to resolve.
Paul encourages his audience not to judge each other over small matters in the Christian economy, such as meat-eating and sabbath observances (Romans 14.2-3,5). They are to fix their gaze on the much more significant fact that Christ died and lives for them (Romans 14.9).
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews takes this further, showing that Christ’s sacrifice is the once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10.11-18). It is also the ultimate assurance of forgiveness that opens the “new and living way” into the presence of God (Collect of the Day).
Dr Bridget Nichols is a lecturer in Anglicanism and liturgy at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.