Our reading from the Gospel of Matthew (18:21-25) today is a lesson in forgiveness. Most importantly the story highlights our responsibility to be humble in receiving and giving forgiveness. If God is merciful with us, so should we too be merciful with one another.
Perhaps you would like to cast your mind to the last time you said sorry to someone, or to the last time somebody said sorry to you. How hard was it to say sorry and how hard was it to put aside the hurt that somebody had caused you? An assembly I remember from Primary School was one in which the teacher spoke about the hardest word there was to say in the world; the word he was talking about of course, was the word ‘sorry’.
Putting aside hurt is one thing when somebody has said something out of turn, or snubbed us in some way, but the work of forgiveness and repentance only gets harder when the hurt escalates; the nature of human failing means that the level of hurt and damage we can do to one another is almost without limit. When conflict escalates to armed conflict, where millions die, the challenge is ever the greater.
How can reconciliation truly be built in our complex world where hurt and counter-hurt, injustice and betrayal pervade our human societies? Forgiveness and reconciliation are perhaps the weightiest tasks that any of us are asked to bare. The need for reconciliation at all levels of our experience is deeply necessary.
But what is reconciliation? One definition of it I’ve heard is that reconciliation is the ability to tell the story of our enemy in a way that they recognize and understand. So, imagine someone you find deeply difficult, offensive even, or perhaps an enemy of yours, personal, political or other. Can you learn to understand and see the world the way that they see it; and to such an extent that you can tell their story? Being able to tell their story doesn’t mean you forgive them or agree with them, but at least it may help you on one level to understand them better. This is part of the work of reconciliation.
When I was at school we read alongside the WW1 poets, the work of a German author: ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. The book describes German soldiers' extreme physical and mental stress during the first world war, and the detachment from civilian life felt by many of these soldiers upon returning home from the front. In reading that novel alongside the WW1 poets, we were being schooled in that important task of learning to tell the story of ‘the other’, even when that other is our enemy.
Learning to understand the world from the perspective of ‘the other’ is so vital to being a compassionate and merciful person. Can we listen enough to understand what it’s like to be a refugee, a child solider, a perpetrator of a violent crime, a terrorist? Can we begin to tell their story? What becomes apparent through such an exercise is the complexity of morality; of how difficult it can be to know where to place culpability and blame.
Did anyone use to watch the Sopranos? The story of the fictional mobster, Tony Soprano? What is masterful about the series is the way in which it interweaves Mr. Soprano’s violent and ruthless mob-world with that of his domestic world. Like billions of others, Mr. Soprano is a father and husband; in showing his domestic side the viewer is left with the peculiar and discomforting feeling of having some sympathy for him.
This week I met with a friend who volunteers at a local prison. She told me about a programme there in which prisoners are enabled to encounter the stories of victims of crime. In so doing they are able to hear about the effects of their actions; to understand the pain they’ve caused. They are also encouraged to tell their story which might entail them saying ‘sorry’. This sort of work is fantastic; it is reconciliation work that brings healing, forgiveness and restoration in our communities.
Rugby is part of the diocese of Coventry which has an historic commitment to reconciliation and peace work borne from its experiences of the 2nd world ward. Coventry Cathedral was of course destroyed in 1940 and the then Provost, Howard made a commitment not to revenge but to reconciliation with those responsible.
Using a national radio broadcast from the cathedral ruins on Christmas Day 1940, Provost Howard declared that when the war was over he would work with those who had been enemies “to build a kinder, more Christ-child-like world.”
From this genuine commitment to peace and reconciliation the Community of the Cross of Nails was borne, based at Coventry Cathedral, and today it continues its world-wide work. The Cross of Nails name came from the fact that crosses were literally formed from the old medieval nails that were found in the rubble and ruin of the charred cathedral. Provost Howard had the words ‘Father Forgive’, the words of Jesus when he was being crucified on the cross, inscribed on the wall behind the ruined altar of the old building.
The Coventry Litany, Father Forgive, is prayed every day in the ruins.
The work of reconciliation is truly demanding and it is never finished; it requires courage, honesty and most of all a commitment to listening. For some it is an outrage. But it is essential work in our communities, local, national and international, if we are to seek renewal, healing and a better vision for our world.
Matthew 18: 21-35
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’