Our choosing to be saved is significant and important.
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Precentor
Sunday, 13th September 2020 at 11.15 AM
A few weeks ago, in this very pulpit, I waded into the somewhat controversial waters of universalism—the question of whether, ultimately, everyone will be saved, or whether salvation will be limited to the elect, while others suffer eternal torment. I hedged a bit, because while I wouldn’t want to suggest any limit to God’s saving power, it seems important to me that our choosing to be saved is significant and important. While salvation is primarily something done to us, for us, in Christ; salvation is all gift—nevertheless our receiving or refusal of the gift is not nothing; at least not to us.
I received some very helpful feedback in the wake of that sermon. Some expressed their understandable concerns about spending eternity with Fred West, or Adolf Hitler—just name your villain—and while it is hard for us to imagine how the most unspeakable wickedness could ever be forgiven—and how that could ever be just—it seems important that we don’t confine God to the limits of our imagination or of our conception of justice. The gospel reading today seems to be nudging us towards a kind of justice that completely ignores notions of restitution let alone retribution—a justice that is all about the mercy of the one who forgives, rather than the ‘just-deserts’ of the one in need of forgiveness. More later.
My attention was also helpfully drawn to the writings of Maximus the Confessor, a 7th-century monk and theologian based in Constantinople, who talked about a restoration of human free-will, at the final restoration of the whole creation, such that Christ would be freely chosen by all. However, Maximus is also thought to have said that new believers shouldn’t be told about this, just in case it made them lazy!
And that potential for laziness is what concerns me most. If everyone is saved in the end, why bother? Why bother with God? Why bother with faith, or with Church?
While we can express lofty ideals about being motivated entirely by love; by sheer gratitude to God for the gift of life, for all the gifts of creation, and for the redemption of that creation through our Lord Jesus Christ, we know that, day by day, we are motivated by all sorts of other things—by fear for our health or reputation, or livelihood; by the seeking after pleasure and the avoidance of pain; by powerful, primal longings that can seem quite irresistible; and, of course, we can be motivated by a desire not to be disturbed—by laziness.
Christian evangelism and discipleship have long depended upon a good dose of fear as a form of motivation—the ‘fear of the Lord’ spoken of in the scriptures, with an associated fear of hellfire. Some commentators have blamed the creeping secularisation of this and many nations on the increasingly lily-livered preaching from our pulpits. If we’re not threatening people with hell, then no wonder nobody bothers with church—so the argument goes.
Jesus, it is often pointed-out, didn’t seem to have much problem with the language of hell. In the parable today, of the king settling accounts with his slaves, when the unforgiving slave is handed over to be tortured until his debt is paid, Jesus tells his disciples—So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
There it is, a bold threat, and a horrifying one. While the unforgiving slave, in the parable, throws his fellow slave into prison (phulakei in Greek), the king throws the unforgiving slave to the basanistais—not just gaolers, but tormentors, torturers. This is what Jesus threatens—so my heavenly Father will also do to you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
Now it could be argued that Jesus isn’t talking about forgiving the likes of Fred West at this point—Peter’s original question to Jesus was about forgiving other members of the church—but even if we wanted to make a clear distinction between who is and who isn’t our brother and sister (and other parts of scripture would suggest that such distinctions are inadmissible), I suspect that would still leave us with plenty of people whom we find hard, or nigh-on impossible, to forgive. This threat still falls on us.
But, before we turn into the Chapel of the Quivering Brethren (for any of you who know Stella Gibbons’ ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, and if not, at least watch the film!) it is reasonable to suggest that Jesus could be dealing in hyperbole here—deliberately and dramatically overstating the case to provide special emphasis.
In Matthew’s gospel there is another significant emphasis on the need to be forgiving. In chapter 6, after the giving of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus adds a rather threatening gloss to the clause ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. He adds, for clarity and emphasis—‘if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’
Many have pointed out that, although Jesus does use threatening, hell-fire language, he doesn’t use it routinely. So rather than getting hung up on the precise nature of the threat, perhaps we should look at what it is that has caused him to speak in this unusually threatening way.
The parable in today’s gospel is about forgiveness—about forgiving and about failing to forgive.
The first slave, who comes before the king for the settling of accounts, owes an eye-watering amount of money. It is hard to imagine what that slave would have been doing to amass such an extraordinary debt. It is completely unpayable, despite the slave’s pathetic protestations.
What ‘the’ king then does is completely extraordinary, though it is expressed in the most undramatic terms. He simply forgives the debt. He bears the loss entirely and sets the slave free. There is no restitution to be made, and certainly no retribution. Whatever unimaginable thing that slave has done to incur such a debt, he gets away with it completely. Justice would surely demand that he at least works off some of the debt, but the king, in the parable chooses utter mercy—he bears the injustice; swallows it, forgives it. This should make us gasp, and wonder whether we have heard it right, (this is, in truth, the most startling part of the whole parable) but the story just barrels along, and gets steadily darker and darker.
First, that slave goes and refuses even to allow his fellow slave time to work off his debt, which, although substantial (100 denarii), is a tiny fraction of the first. He throws his fellow slave straight into prison—no patience, no mercy. And then, corresponding to his own lack of mercy, the king is transformed into a pitiless Lord, demanding that the original debt be paid, not just by restitution, but by retributive punishment, by torment, by torture. And remember, this debt is astronomical—he will be tormented for a long, long time.
The first slave makes a choice here. Presented with a miracle of utter mercy, patience and forgiveness, he nevertheless chooses retributive justice, and his choosing brings horrible retribution on himself.
The urgency of the message is unmistakable. We simply have to forgive others, as we ourselves have been forgiven. Our lives depend on it—the lives of others depend on it—without forgiveness we all live in hell.
It is difficult teaching, for sure—and it asks more than most of us are able to manage. I’m reminded of the priest whose daughter was killed in the 7th July 2005 London bombings, and who has spoken very courageously about her inability to forgive those who did it—not an easy thing for a priest to admit. But this teaching of Jesus is not about faking forgiveness, or being cheap about it. It is a call to engage in the most difficult, most vital, most essential struggle—to keep our eyes focused on the sheer grace, mercy, patience, and pity we see in the crucified Christ—where our utterly unpayable debt is utterly forgiven by our heavenly king—and to let that forgiveness flow out, through us, into everything.
This choice matters—this willingness to engage, to learn, even when forgiveness feels impossible, when justice seems to demand retribution—this choice matters—and it will be impossible for us without the help of God, the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the nourishing and strengthening of our humanity through the sacraments of Christ’s body and blood. We cannot do it without the Church.
This parable is an urgent reminder of our human potential and calling—to become Christlike, like the king at the beginning of the parable—all mercy, patience, and forgiveness. But this parable also sets before us the potential tragedy of our refusal—our refusal to engage in this admittedly superhuman effort—to fulfil the divine calling we have in Christ.
We don’t need to preach hellfire to terrify people into religious compliance, but we do need to preach the urgency of forgiveness, without which we consign ourselves and one another into a living hell of endless legal wrangling and competing demands for justice, let alone the psychological and physical damage we might inflict on one another. We should know, from our own experience, that such forgiveness is, very often, completely beyond our comprehension, let alone our ability, and yet it is what we see in Christ our king—it is what we are made to reflect; the image we bear.
Only with God, by grace, by his Spirit, can we begin, let alone persist in this vital work, this essential struggle; but we do it with the reassurance of the risen Christ, who shows us the wounds in which we are all forgiven, and beckons us towards that final restoration of all things in him, and where, in the final triumph of Divine love, all shall be saved.