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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 24, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
September 11, 2011

Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35


When Peter imagines forgiving another seven times, he alludes to perfection – seven being a biblical symbol of perfection (the Creator rests on the Seventh Day, the Sabbath, and contemplates the goodness of all that exists). Peter, probably, expects that Jesus will affirm his willingness to forgive another seven times, Peter’s perfectly theological allusion.

Jesus’ response calls for the abandonment of calculation altogether – not because he calls us to be super-forgiving humans or super-humans, but because he calls us to live out, humanly and humanely, the forgiveness we receive (which is the meaning of the parable).

All forgiveness is a gift (it is grace) – we love freely because God forgives and loves.

There’s a way to rethink forgiveness in terms broader than the morality of Peter. We may think of living in the Spirit of Love – Karen Armstrong refers to fostering “an attitude of principled, consistent altruism” [Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life]. As much as I desire and seek mutually enriching relationships, I agree with those thinkers (like Armstrong, Kierkegaard and Derrida) who argue for love’s asymmetry – in other words, the truth of a love that gives first. Love doesn’t count the cost, love doesn’t weigh the risk of rejection before committing to another (a parent’s commitment to a child is emblematic); love is unconditional. Love gives first. Love for-gives.

It’s true, then, to say that love is difficult; love hurts, sometimes; love bears the weight of rejection. Thus, the Gospel of a Christ crucified and risen; a God-human for others; a grace that prefigures and transfigures the world.

Crucially, all this turns on a faithful (a healthy, robust, divinely inspired) notion of love. Often, I confess, I have set out “in love” mostly to impress or manipulate another, or I have been all-too willing to deny my own identity in hope of coercing another.

It almost sounds like the Gospel, doesn’t it? Denying oneself for another. Giving until it hurts. Wisdom, however, is about fine distinctions, careful distinctions. I’d suggest that the crucial question, most times, is this: Is it really love? The person of Jesus (as Wisdom incarnate) is key: Reading widely and deeply, we might ask, Is Jesus meek and mild? Is Jesus about denying his own identity and ministry in hope of coercing others? Is Jesus not demanding of others – rich and poor, insiders and outsiders? Is Jesus not critical of systems that belittle and diminish? Is Jesus not angry, sometimes; passionate, courageous, humble, confident, hospitable, self-aware, insightful? All this, then, constitutes a “giving first”. Any of this, at any time, may constitute a “giving first”; a for-giving. All this is love. It is vulnerable and joyful. It’s vulnerable and life-affirming. It’s vulnerable and dignifying.

One commentator writes of this for-giving that “it cannot be calculated and … allows for no feelings of superiority over” others (John Queripel). We might add that it allows for no feelings of inferiority in respect of others either. It loves first and in a way that remains open to grace.

The parable of Jesus points beyond the inter-personal. We are all somewhat familiar with the issue of third world debt and calls for debt-forgiveness. Often these huge debts are incurred by corrupt governments either as means of self-enrichment or for military defence – a defence, sometimes, to safeguard them against their own people. The repayment of these debts, often enforced on legitimate successor governments, comes at the expense of social services for their own people, services such as sanitation, health, education and housing. Our near neighbour Indonesia is a case in point. It has a foreign debt, largely incurred under the Suharto regime, strongly supported by governments of this country for so long, of $US141 billion, representing one third of its annual Gross Domestic Production. Indonesia is forced to repay $US20 billion each year in servicing the debt. In comparison only $1.5 billion is spent on health. This debt-repayment is forced on a country with the third highest level of tuberculosis in the world, and where 100 million people live on less than $2 per day. The Jubilee movement, the name coming from a biblical principle of debt-forgiveness (seven times seven years, plus one), has been working, often successfully, to have governments implement fairer policies in respect of debt. Economically, then, we might learn something more of forgiveness and love.

And economic devastation, often accompanied by violence, forces people on the road. Today, some 35 million refugees have been forced to flee their homelands, while as many again are “displaced” in their own lands. We know of the “xenophobic”and “irresponsible/illegal”policies of present and past governments in respect of refugees; “boat people” in particular; and to our shame, distressed children. In such policies and the widespread support of them, we have become a less gracious nation, a more calculating and suspicious people; we have excluded ourselves from a Spirit of Love – the humane and humanising flow of trust, hospitality and good will. Of the 71 countries that take refugees, Australia ranks 38th on a per head basis – behind Kazakhstan, Guinea, Djibouti and Syria. Being a signatory to the UNHCR’s Refugee Convention (1951) commits us, not without risk, to a kind of “for-giving”; to a giving first. To rediscover our own humanity we must, like Peter, learn again what this means.

If forgiveness is about living in the Spirit of a love that gives first, how are you, in the words of the psalmist,“set free”? For what or for whom are you “set free”?Amen.