Sunday 17 September 2023 Trinity 15, Twenty-fourth in Ordinary time, Proper 18
You have freely received, now freely give
Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Context: a Sunday eucharistic congregation, in a city parish with considerable social and cultural diversity
Aim: to help the congregation to a richer understanding of how we have been saved in Christ, and what this means for how we ‘deal’ with one another
Matthew’s parable of the unjust servant is a story of shocking ingratitude. But it is also about a man who is unable to make a connection, which to us is obvious, between the huge, impossible debt he has been forgiven, and the much smaller, even trivial sum owed to him by his fellow-servant.
Perhaps we can relate to this, as we try to connect up the Good News of our being saved with the facts of our normal lives. Sometimes the Good News can be grand news, it can overwhelm us. In a 1954 British comedy, The Million Pound Note, Gregory Peck played a penniless sailor, who comes into possession of a million-pound banknote. For a while, he prospers. He is able to obtain whatever he wants, simply by showing the note to shopkeepers and investors. But he runs into trouble when it eventually becomes clear that having so much wealth invested in a single, fragile piece of paper is not in fact very practical.
We have been made fabulously rich by God in Jesus Christ. This is sometimes pictured as Christ paying a debt which we ourselves are unable to settle, or the making good of something we have damaged but cannot repair. This ought to stir up in us an overwhelming feeling of gratitude, and a desire to return this love. If it is not reciprocated, however, it is as if an electric circuit has been broken, and the energising charge of God’s grace cannot take effect. Our immense wealth is inaccessible, like a high-denomination bank note which is of no practical use.
This idea of forgiveness as a kind of circuit is found at the heart of the prayer which Jesus taught us. It is the message of the parable of the Lost Son, who decides to ‘spend, spend, spend’, but whose inheritance scatters through his fingers. This is because he has insisted on it as his right, rather than receiving it as a gift, lovingly passed to him from his father.
It is hard for us to shake off the traditional understanding of religion: ‘to give in order to receive’. Ancient peoples made sacrifices, or offered devotions to the gods, in order to receive benefits, such as protection, health, or good fortune. The problem is that when we think and act in this way, it makes God into a kind of super-politician; someone who will look after us if we give him our vote, but who will ignore us or punish us if we don’t.
We could say that Jesus is inviting us to imagine a completely new way of living and interacting. Our attempt to bargain with God disappears, because there is nothing to bargain over. As the father of the Lost Son says to the elder brother: ‘all I have is yours’. That is why it was so important for the earliest Christians to try and live a kind of communistic lifestyle, where they pooled their resources and renounced personal property. In this wonderfully imagined world, the notion of anyone insisting on their rights of possession, or angrily reclaiming what is owed to them, simply has no place.
Saint Paul shares in this imagined world. In the Letter to the Romans, he appeals to a community whose members are totally respectful of one another, making room for the differences of belief and behaviour, allowing for each other’s weaknesses. What he says is weird: ‘none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.’ Even my death, my most personal and intimate experience, is something that does not belong to me, but is something to be shared with others.
The attitude which Paul calls for from this community, and which the earliest Christians tried to practise in their ‘communistic’ lifestyle, is strange to us. The Good News can be difficult news. But by these daily and persistent acts of selflessness, the ‘million-pound note’ is broken down into manageable, usable denominations, so that the immense good fortune of God’s grace can be a felt, effective force in our lives, and in the world.
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