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14th Sunday after Trinity

03 September 2020

Proper 19: Genesis 50.15-21; Psalm 103.1-13; Romans 14.1-12; Matthew 18.21-35


WHEN Peter asks how often he should forgive a member of the Church who sins against him, he no doubt imagines “seven times” to be a generous answer. Jesus responds “not seven times . . . but seventy times seven”. This is a number so great as to make score-keeping impossible. As St Hilary explains, his reply means “We should not think how many times we forgive . . . since God has forgiven us without measure.”

Jesus expands on his reply by telling a parable about the nature of forgiveness. The king’s forgiveness of his servant’s debt is withdrawn when the servant does not show the same mercy to those indebted to him. It is one of many occasions when Jesus teaches that forgiving and being forgiven — showing mercy and receiving mercy — are inextricably related.

Our forgiveness of others is not a matter of obedience to an external command, but an expression of the divine life within us. In such acts of forgiveness, “God’s mercy for our neighbour becomes concretely realised” (Walter Kasper, Mercy: The essence of the gospel and the key to the Christian life). Our acts of forgiveness flow from our reconciliation through Christ with the Father, and our consequent participation in the life of God.

The forgiveness shown by Joseph in our Old Testament reading is also the fruit of God’s activity, not simply a human work. Jacob’s other sons are understandably fearful that, after his father’s death, Joseph will unleash some long-restrained resentment on them.

Joseph reassures them of his good intentions: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” Joseph’s forgiveness flows from his recognition of the providence that has been at work throughout the story, in the midst of human arrogance, betrayal, and deceit.

As Walter Brueggemann explains, through Joseph, the Lord is inviting his repentant brothers to move beyond “the guilt which restricts” and to embrace instead “the dreams which liberate”. The dream in this narrative is a gift from God, but it does not leave the humans in the story purely passive. “Joseph’s recognition of God’s sure plan for Israel . . . leads to a vocation. There is a perfect correlation between God’s will for life and Joseph’s work of providing” (Interpretation Bible Commentary: Genesis).

This is the movement that the unforgiving servant in our Gospel reading has not made. To be saved, he must embrace the “dream” of a world in which mercy and self-giving love rather than vengeance and self-preservation have the final word. Jesus’s invitation to each sinner is to receive his forgiveness, and in that very act to embrace the vocation of manifesting his mercy in their lives.

A central theme of the Epistle to the Romans (which we finish reading this week) is that we are saved by God’s grace and mercy, not by our adherence to a set of rules. Beverly Roberts Gaventa reflects on how different Paul’s starting-point is from the demand for an ethic that simply tells us “what to do and not do” (When in Romans: An invitation to linger with the Gospel according to Paul).

His instructions flow from the reality of what God has done in Christ — reconciling members of the community to the Father, and to each other, through the blood of the Cross. Therefore, when he considers what food should be eaten in community, his focus is not on what Christians are or are not entitled to eat, but on what will build them up as one body in Christ.

Because we do not stand before God on our own merits, “we do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.” The actions of the Roman Christians, as of Paul’s readers today, should not be driven by personal gratification: eating what they like, regardless of the effect on “those who are weak in faith”. But nor should they be driven by a desire for moral vindication, whether “despising those who abstain” or “passing judgment on those who eat”.

Paul’s appeal to the contending parties is to recognise that their worth has a different origin: in the welcome that they have received from God, who feeds them with his very self. It is God’s life in each of us that “is able to make [us] stand”.

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