There are all sorts of gadgets and toys to help with dealing with stress – stress caused by other people seems to be the focus. There are dashboard machine guns and missile launchers to blow the other drivers out of the way, punch bags to punch the aggression out, I even found a stress banana – which is as it says a stress ‘ball’ shaped and coloured to look like a banana. The internet is full of memes of witty slogans to deal with the stresses we find when relationships get strained or someone just irritates the life out of us. And if you say this never happens to you then I won’t believe you. People can be irritating; they can drive us completely up the wall and frustrate the life out of us. Actually we all can, which may be not a bad place to start.
Peter, in our Gospel reading (Matthew 18:21-35), is clearly having one of those days when someone has tried his patience just one too many times. In exasperation he asks just how many times he needs to forgive. I don’t know whether 7 times sounds a lot to you and you would have drawn the line long before, or if it sounds rather intolerant and bad tempered. Just be a bit more patient – Peter was quite impetuous after all. What Matthew calls 77 times and other gospel writers give as 70 x 7 times, that is 490 times, sounds very patient. Something is clearly awry with such a person or the relationship, or with us for expecting them to go through hoops they can’t get through.
The story that Jesus tells is of a merciful king who expects mercy shown by him to be passed on. This piece of trickledown social policy does not work. The one reprieved uses his newfound fortune to oppress those in debt to him. Not a nice person. It’s not a unique situation, not least with trickledown policies. It doesn’t address some fundamental problems, not least that the person begging forgiveness was actually scamming – he wasn’t really sorry for anything other than being found out and his impending doom. In the film Toy Story 3 – yes the one where Andy goes to college, apologies to parents facing that – Lotso, the big bear, is helped to escape from the shredder in the rubbish dump only to use his freedom to send his rescuers to their doom. They get out by the way, in case you are worried and haven’t seen the film. In The Archers one Grundy brother receives a legacy that sets him up with a house and the stability he needs to thrive only to forget that his prosperity rests on good fortune. He treats his less fortunate brother with contempt. So often we overlook the sheer luck that enables one person to thrive and its absence which condemns another. It is so easy to label those who struggle or have fallen off the edge of society.
But forgiveness is complicated. It comes with an expectation that we will use the new freedom, the restored state, to change and live differently. And when we don’t, we throw away the gift. Again complex reasons come into play why some use a hand-up to climb up and some just sit on the rung until they drop off again. The climb can seem too daunting; can be greater than they can manage… so many reasons. The mercy, the help may not be enough to actually achieve the end, which is a problem with social care, benefits and other provision. If we don’t do enough and we don’t actually help someone change what can be deep-seated challenges.
When dealing with safeguarding matters and the challenge of how do we accommodate or assist those who have offended come back into the community, indeed when they remain on the register of offenders, how we put in place the safeguards needed for them and others, is by no means straightforward. In the church we have some fairly sophisticate procedures to deal with this and they are linked in with police, probation and other agencies. We don’t ignore past offences. Risk assessments are carried out and agreements reached and monitored about what is appropriate to do, or attend, and what is not. We sell people short, and make life more risky for everyone else, if we just wipe the slate clean. Forgiveness means the offer of a new way forward, but the offender has to recognize that they have to prove it and be assessed as a lower risk. And we know that some can be very devious in how they present themselves, taking years to win trust only to use their new freedom to abuse again. Something deep down has not been addressed, and it may be they have to learn to live in a way that helps them manage what they otherwise can’t manage. Some are never trusted fully again. And they have to recognize that.
So forgiveness is a very difficult area. It sounds so easy on the page, but my how hard it is in practice, especially if we have been injured and are wary of making ourselves vulnerable again to risk being injured again and for good reason. It takes time to heal the injuries of past conflict or aggression. A new way has to be lived and become a new normality. And it won’t bed in all the while there is the hint that we are only a hair’s breath from a relapse. A woman posted a picture, which was shared on the internet, of her lying with her pet snake placidly across her. All seemed calm – unless like me you can’t stand snakes. She got a shock when an animal behavioural expert contacted her to say the snake was not her pet, it was merely sizing her up to be its next meal. There is a good reason I don’t like snakes, and why Jesus said to be as harmless as doves and wise as serpents.
So we are bidden by Jesus to be forgiving, to be open to the challenges behind another’s behaviour and our own expectations; behind the mercy shown and whether there is enough there to enable them to find a different way of being and living. There the grace of God is always open to us if we allow it and the help is there to show us, lead us, support us into the new life on offer. Forgiveness has to be lived by both the one offering it and the one receiving it.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 17th September 2017