DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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TRINITY
16
Forgiving Millions

Matthew 18.24   ... one of them was brought in who owed him millions ... he forgave him the debt and let him go.

One of the great themes of the Old Testament is God's merciful nature. In a sense it's not really surprising that this should be. Yahweh is often portrayed as vengeful - so mercy balances the required punishment of evildoers.

The story of the Unforgiving Servant turns on its head the Old Testament idea of how God does things. 

Jesus (or it could be the author of Matthew's Gospel) refers in today's Gospel to Genesis 4.15. Cain has just been condemned by God to be a rootless nomad for murdering Abel. He complains to Yahweh that "as a homeless person wandering the earth, anyone who finds me will kill me!" 

God replies,

 If anyone kills you, seven lives will be taken in revenge.

The consequences of messing around with Cain will be far more severe than the original murder of Abel.

A few verses later, Lamech, a great-grandson of Cain explains to his wives,

I have killed a young man because he struck me. If seven lives were to be taken for killing Cain, seventy-seven will be taken if anyone kills me.

The penalty for wicked behaviour has just been ratcheted up a notch or two.

The author of Matthew maintains that the way God does things is radically different. He reports that Jesus advises forgiveness to the same degree as revenge was previously proposed in the old order. It's right to forgive offences against one not only seven times (Cain could take seven lives in revenge) but seventy-seven times (Lamech could take seventy-seven lives).

But the main point tends to be obscured by Matthew's add-ons (verses 21-22 and 35). Is the story really about our loving duty to forgive relatively petty wrongs done to us? 

Let me put it this way. What if the central story is not about forgiving wrongs but about forgiving what can't be forgiven?

If anyone is remarkable in this story, it isn't the servant but the king - what we would call today the chief executive or president of a multinational company, someone accountable in law for millions or even billions of shareholder investments.

Ask yourself what would you do if, like the king, you were owed a huge sum of money by someone who would not or could not pay? What would be your reaction if you had to give up a right and just claim to millions you were owed? 

This degree of demand forgiveness isn't in the same class as being fired unjustly, or having your car stolen, or being insulted - all of which you might by some stretch of the imagination be expected to pass over in the normal course of events. 

Jesus wasn't talking theoretically. In his day, the gap between rich and poor in Palestine was astronomical. Jesus lived in a society in which ruthless exploitation of the weak was normal. The poor quite literally laboured for the rich. Under Roman rule most peasants worked land owned by absentee landlords. Taxes were heavy. 

Even top Jewish priests lived lives of great wealth and opulence in collaboration with the Roman oppressors. The Jewish-Roman historian, Josephus, tells us in his Jewish Antiquities that ...

Ananias [the High Priest] had servants who were utter rascals and who, combining operations with extremely reckless men, would go to the threshing floors and take by force the tithes of the [ordinary] priests. Nor did they refrain from beating up those who refused to hand over. The other High Priests were guilty of the same practices as his servants, and no one could stop them ... those of the priests who in the olden days had been maintained by the tithes now starved to death.

Being gentle with others about money matters wasn't a norm in first-century Palestine! Those who heard this story would have thought it impossible for anyone in power to behave as the king did.

So you see that Jesus in this parable isn't only talking about forgiveness of ordinary offences - though he's talking about those too. He's addressing the kind of situation you or I might face if owed a huge sum. He's talking about forgiving a stupendous debt of real money - lots of it. The only thing worth more than many millions is life itself.

Could we do what the king did?

Well, says Jesus, that's the way God does things. The attitude of mind which pervades God's kingdom is shockingly open and generous. That's good news for us all.

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