September 17, 2023

Forgiveness and Salvation

Forgiveness and Salvation

Trinity 15

Readings: Genesis 50. 15-21; Romans 14. 1-12; Matthew 18. 21-35

Theme: Forgiveness and Salvation


Our readings today make clear the intrinsic connection between forgiveness and salvation. The story of Joseph and his brothers recounts the tale of the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers for the special affection that their father, Jacob, has for Joseph, and the forgiveness that Joseph shows his brothers in return.

St Paul’s Letter to the Romans reminds us that forgiveness is an antidote to the judgments that we can pass on one another because of our different orientations to life, and this reading neatly leads into our Gospel passage by reminding us that we will all be judged by God. That our salvation lies in God alone.

However, on closer reading, the Gospel for today is quite enigmatic. The amount that the slave owes the king is an amount which nobody would be able to pay back, so what is the point of the parable? Ten thousand talents would take an average slave 60 million days to pay back. In other words, it is a debt which is literally impossible to redeem. And that is the deeper point of the Gospel story on forgiveness. The parable is meant to communicate to us that our salvation, the forgiveness of our sin, is a debt which only God can forgive. We cannot work to pay this debt off; we cannot save ourselves.

This parable conveys the message that only God can save us; only Jesus can forgive our sins. We do not have the capacity to do this. And so, because of our need for God to forgive us, we should forgive one another when we are wronged.

This is why the behaviour of the slave to his fellow slave, who owes him 100 denarii, about 4 months’ work, is not only shocking, but displays a complete failure to understand the connection between forgiveness and salvation that Jesus is teaching Peter. The slave, just like Peter, does not understand what the King has done for him.

The parable is meant to teach Peter a lesson about the nature of forgiveness that is easy for all of us to miss, unless we understand the deeper meaning of this rather enigmatic passage. I say enigmatic, because at face value, the parable appears to be quite a simply story. A guilty slave is forgiven by the King and should have done the same to his fellow slave who owes him. Because he doesn’t, he is rightly punished. Easy!

Yet, when we dig a little deeper into this story, we realize that the two different debts are not equivalent. They are like comparing apples and oranges. The ungrateful slave, who represents Peter in the parable, is looking at the two debts as if they were both of the same kind. It is just that he, the slave, owes a lot more apples to the king than he is owed by his fellow slave. So, to jolt Peter out of his ‘seven times’ attitude, to forgiveness, Jesus uses the symbol of the ‘10,000 talents’ to convey the meaning that the two debts represent completely different things. The debt of 10,000 owed to the King, who stands for God in the parable, cannot be understood as just a lot more of the same kind of debt that we owe to one another.

Jesus hints at this at the start of the parable by saying to Peter, in answer to his question of how many times should I forgive, by replying, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’. In other words, forgiveness is not a quantifiable reality, it is a fundamental attitude that knows no limit, because it is based on the salvation of God for us.

This is not a human attitude. When we forgive, we do so in a conditional sense. We expect our generosity to be reciprocated, so that in some way, we get some payback.

However, this is not how God forgives our sins. God expects no payback, because like the King in the story, the debt is impossible to redeem, it is quite literally impossible to pay back. The redemption of our sin by Jesus is thus not simply a generous act. It is nothing less than a unique act. It is the redemption of a debt which only God could pay.

This mystery of our Salvation through Christ is the salvific act of God who has reached out to us and lifted us out of the realm of death and brought us to life.  Jesus redeems us from the realm of our mortal nature and brings us to the realm of everlasting grace. This is not simply a very kind act. It is an act that only God can do. If we fail to realize this, then we will have an instrumental attitude to forgiveness and salvation, as the ungrateful slave and Peter demonstrate. Neither Peter, nor the slave, realize that they need God for this redemption of debt. So, in the parable, the slave treats the generosity of the king towards him as simply a generous act, which he can either choose to emulate or not: this is equivalent to the ‘seven times’, of Peter.

The deeper truth of the parable is that the slave could not have emulated the act of the King, even if he had wanted to. It is not possible. Even ‘seven times’ is not possible for Peter.

The failure of the slave to understand this is the failure of the Jewish people, like Peter, to understand the mission of Jesus, as their saviour. They were looking for a political liberator and not the liberation from sin which Jesus’s mission was all about. So, like the ungrateful slave, the Jewish people were treating the forgiveness of God as conditional. Conditional upon all sorts of ritual acts that made us right with God: The Jewish law, in other words.

This parable teaches us that the law, our individual acts, do not save us, only God does this. This lesson invites us to a fundamental change of attitude. It is not as if we simply learn to become more generous, like a good version of the slave. Rather, we come to realize that God alone can save us. No act, no deed we can do, can do this. It is grace alone through faith in Christ which redeems us. When we appreciate this, we begin to realize that Jesus is our saviour; that he is God and not simply a very generous man. The generosity of God in Jesus is to be literally, a God for us, completely and utterly for us, so that a debt which is unpardonable can be forgiven.

Once we understand this, it becomes self-evident how many times we should forgive, and Peter’s ‘seven times’ is transformed into the Lord’s ‘seventy-seven times’.  Amen.