Learning to Let Go

Sirach 27.30-28.7, Rom 14.7-9 and Matt 18.21-35

Rev'd Daniel Irvine

There have been many caricatures about forgiveness over the years, especially its central place within our faith.

One classic example was the young boy who, having learnt his Sunday School lessons well said that he’d decided to stop praying to God for a new bike...that he was just going to steal one and pray for forgiveness instead!

But forgiveness is truly central to our faith, as it is to this parable, but not only our faith but for our individual well being and indeed the well being of all humanity, as Jesus responds to Peter’s question with the classic “seventy times seven” symbolising that we should forgive without limit.

While the parable that follows doesn’t quite deal with the question of repeated forgiveness it is certainly used by Matthew to highlight the great importance of forgiveness.

And it does this in the amounts of debt that each of the characters owed their respective debtors. In the first case 10,000 talents is a vast sum – more money than could be earnt in a lifetime. And it highlights the vast scope of forgiveness that is offered since despite the pleas of the servant it could never be repaid, and so it was forgiven.

The smaller amount, the 100 denarii was much smaller. A denarius was roughly a day’s work. So theoretically it was a realistically repayable debt, which the servant who had experienced such generosity was unwilling to forgive, or even give extra time to repay.

The image conjured is the absurdity of the Christian who has received the great gift of forgiveness from God yet who refused to forgive the relatively minor offences that other individuals forgive against them.

But the difficult part of the image, where the parable breaks down and where Matthew wasn’t quite able to stretch is in the idea that the Father’s forgiveness, already given will be “withdrawn” at the final judgement if we don’t forgive.

I suppose it is much easier to think in simple terms of God “doing”. That if we don’t do something right then God will “punish” us in some way, or at least withhold the forgiveness that Jesus freely offered.

But I am not sure that it is quite that simple.

What I am in no doubt about is that scriptures like this one (and the one last week), contain dire warnings for us about how we live and grow in the faith and with one another.

The warning here is that bitterness and vengeance are terrible terrible things that can very literally eat away at the human soul.

I think Matthew, building on the teaching and wisdom of Jesus, certainly perceived that fact and was aware that if we are holding on to these negative emotions then it will put our relationship with God at risk.

If we won’t truly forgive then when the time comes, we will be less willing within ourselves to fully accept forgiveness.

It is not that it still won’t be offered but that we would be subconsciously incapable of receiving it and so would condemn ourselves to endless misery and torment stewing over past hurts that we just can’t let go of.

Now I am not pretending that forgiving and letting go of past hurts is in any way easy and we all certainly need God’s help to get close to giving real forgiveness.

But there are some great examples of human beings who have, in the footsteps of Jesus, offered the sort of forgiveness that we simply cannot really fathom.

And with their inspiration and the help of the Holy Spirit we can, little by little, let go of those feelings and emotions that weigh down our spirit and destroy our souls and separates us from the love of God.

Like this story about Nelson Mandela, which could teach us all a lot about the freedom that comes from true forgiveness.[1]

Once after he was elected as the President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela was having lunch along with his security guards at a restaurant. Everyone placed their orders and was chatting while waiting for their food.

At that moment, he spotted a man sitting right across his table, also waiting for his food. He told his guards to ask that man to join them for lunch. The person agreed and joined them but sat quietly the whole time. After some waiting, their food arrived, and everyone relished on the delicious meal. The man too starting eating, but his hands were trembling.

Without uttering a word, he quietly ate his food and left. Everyone could sense something fishy, so after he left, his guards guessed that he might have been ill because he was trembling so bad.

To this, Nelson Mandela shook his head and said that he knew that man. He was the gaoler of the prison where Mandela was imprisoned. And that he gave him a very tough time while he was in the prison, subjugating him to all kinds of torture.

But then, things were different, as Nelson Mandela had become the President. So, when he invited him over to join them for lunch, the man thought that Mandela might seek revenge and behave the same way he did.

But Mandela did no such thing. Because he believed that no matter what that person did to him, it is not in his character to harm others. He believes that the burning feeling of revenge and angst will only cause destruction, whereas, patience and tolerance, are the tools that can help develop compassion and humanity amongst us.

He says, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

In this act of love, compassion and forgiveness Mandela lived out the lesson from the Gospel, he put into practice the faith that we all profess.

But he did so not because he was worried that if he didn’t then God might punish him, I think that even God would understanding him holding on to some resent to his former gaolers.

But rather he acted from the same deeper understanding that Matthew was trying to convey. That true freedom comes from forgiveness.

For Mandela also once said that, “As I was walking out the door toward my freedom, I knew that if I did not leave all the anger, hatred and bitterness behind that I would still be in prison.”

If we ever needed a gospel parable to be modernised so that we might better understand it we would do well to look at the life of this man, who knew the gospel truth that forgiveness liberates the soul and removes fear.

This is the truth that Jesus tried to impart to those who would listen, and which eventually got him killed by those who would rather keep others in bondage than see them go free.

It is that Matthew tried to capture in the use of today’s parable, that Mandela lived throughout his life.

Let us pray that, inspired by the example of those who were truly able to forgive that we might experience the joy and peace of God in our lives that comes from the liberation we receive when we are truly able to forgive and to be forgiven.

In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

[1] Source https://www.thinkright.me/en/think-right/a-life-altering-lesson-by-nelson-mandela/

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