Homily – September 11th, 2011
FORGIVE ONE ANOTHER 24TH SUNDAY September 11, 2011 Matthew 18:21-35
In Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, Merchant of Venice, we see an example of one person forgiving another, although not, however, until mortal exaction requires forgiveness.
In the Shakespeare play, an owner of sailing ships in the port of Venice, Italy, has foolishly borrowed money from Shylock, a person who makes his fortune by requiring exorbitant interest. In the event that Antonio would not be able to repay the debt, then Antonio must pay the lender Shylock with a pound of flesh nearest his heart.
Alas, a report declares that Antonio’s ship has sunk. Antonio’s whole fortune has been involved with that ship. Antonio must now pay his pound of flesh nearest the heart. Payment of this sort Shylock now demands. In court, Shylock stands on his sworn rights; he requires payment of the pound of flesh.
Portia, camouflaged in a lawyer’s wig, asks Shylock to be merciful.
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It [mercy] is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
“Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power.
….. But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself. (IV, 1: 184-195)
According to the play, Shylock refuses to be merciful, but the court determines he must not shed a drop of blood in cutting off a pound of flesh. Shylock is thus defeated, and finally even Shylock needs the mercy that he has initially refused to give. As Shakespeare has poetically expressed, Mercy “is an attribute to God himself.”
Today’s gospel offers a parable that illustrates this very point. Our Lord’s story enshrines one of the most important of all Christ’s teachings. It is a striking story. God freely forgives people, even the outcasts and sinners; so we can have no more important privilege than to mediate to others the forgiveness which we ourselves experience. The person who forgives can expect to receive forgiveness.
In Matthew’s story, a king calls to his office an official who owes the king a huge debt—ten thousand talents. This fictitious number would be some overwhelming amount, perhaps like our saying “a hundred million dollars.” Perhaps this servant had expected to get tax money from a province, but he found such tax money impossible to raise during a famine or a war or during some calamity. The debt is unpayable. So the master commands that this servant with his wife and children be sold at the slave market. When the servant begs for time, the King mercifully forgives the debt.
In this story’s second scene, this servant hauls in a fellow servant who owes a microscopic amount to the first servant. Yet the first servant throttles his fellow servant demanding, shouting for his money. This first servant sends his fellow servant to debtors prison, perhaps requiring liquidation of his house and the enslavement of his children and wife.
In the third scene, the other servants report such unmerciful action to the King, and the King lashes the first servant: “I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” So the King sends this servant to the torturers.
The contrast, like that between midday and midnight, shows us the difference between God and our human smallness. Our sins offend the Almighty, and another human might offend us. Ought we not act as God does? Ought we not forgive the other as God forgives us?
We want to pray as Jesus has taught us. So we act and pray with our Lord. “Our Father,” we pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Such a prayer befits a Christian. Christ taught us to address God as “Father,” and in the same prayer Christ teaches us to forgive one another.
Psychologically, we realize that God cannot forgive us if we are not ourselves forgiving. How can God enter an unforgiving heart? If we experientially know not the manner of forgiving another, how can we ourselves experience forgiveness? To forgive another person is a religious act; if we will not act religiously, how are we religiously able to receive God’s graciousness?
A protestant clergyman was traveling one day in England when he realized a sudden thunder storm was upon him. The road ran near some cliffs, so he dashed into a cave for shelter. Augustus Montague Toplady jotted on a playing card a few lines that at the moment came to him, even as thunder and lightning illuminated the primitive, rock-hewn landscape of Somerset, England. Although he later finished the piece, at
this moment he wrote the initial lines”
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee. In the second stanza of the hymn, we have this assurance of God’s saving mercy.
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and thou alone.
In our Civil War, the Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart asked to hear this hymn on his deathbed. These lines suggest our need that God mercifully forgive our offenses. O Lord, we pray that you forgive our sins. The parable insists, however, that God’s forgiveness and human forgiveness are linked.
All too often, we show our worst side among family. Our apology needs acceptance; we should act with the Lord’s gracious forgiveness.