Readings: Ezekiel 12:1-12; Matthew 18:21-19:1
Ezekiel would have felt quite at home with us last night, enacting a parable in mime. Perhaps he had already spoken to the people and they hadn’t listened, so he feels he must convince them using some other form of communication. He packs his bags, breaks a hole in the wall, goes away from the city, then comes back and asks them if they understand what he is on about. Some of them probably thought he was mad. Reading it carefully seems to indicate that God too is curious to see what effect Ezekiel’s action has had.
The parables of Jesus are another alternative way of teaching and so many of them are wonderful traps. We begin as spectators but are slowly drawn into the story, begin to identify with the characters in it, to take sides and make judgments, and before we realize what is happening the trap closes on us and we find the spotlight turned on ourselves. Today’s parable is a classic example of this. I imagine most of us will be feeling by the end of it that the unjust steward is getting what he deserves: ‘good enough for him’, we may find ourselves thinking, as he is led away to be tortured. I imagine him then turning towards me and opening one eye and saying ‘so you think you are better than me? I am only a character in a fictional story forgiven an imaginary debt while you are a real sinner who has had his sins forgiven by a merciful God. And how do you treat your brothers and sisters in this matter of showing forgiveness?’
Forgiveness is one of the most difficult things for us to understand and to practice. We know it is at the heart of the gospel. The parables of Jesus are all about mercy, as Timothy reminded us, ways of shocking us into realizing that God’s mercy escapes our attempts to understand it. Peter tries to establish the mathematics of forgiveness – how many times? – and sometimes we try to explain its logic. Matthew 18 itself shows how difficult it all is because this teaching about forgiving others endlessly comes immediately after yesterday’s passage which accepts that there might be circumstances in which a brother or sister will be excommunicated.
Forgiveness, it seems to me, means that we do not accept ‘closure’ in our relationships. I know that that’s a popular word these days and I understand there are contexts in which it makes sense. But there are some things for which we cannot have closure in this world. For some kinds of healing, some kinds of reconciliation, and some kinds of unity we must look to a world that is to come. To forgive cannot mean saying to someone ‘I don’t mind what you did’, ‘what you did is not important’. It must mean saying something like ‘in spite of what you did, in spite of the hurt that has come between us, I do not regard it as the defining moment in our relationship, I want our story to continue in spite of it’. It means accepting the truth of wrongdoing, of hurt and of misunderstanding, but at the same time wanting your story with that person to continue, integrating what has happened into a story that is not yet over.