Sermon preached by Rev Christopher Harrison
St Peter’s church, Nottingham, Sunday 22nd September 2013
The passage we’ve just heard must be one of the most puzzling in the whole of the Bible. What was really going on? It is the story of the manager, or steward, of a large estate. This man was under threat of losing his job because he’d been suspected of mismanagement. He reacts quickly to try to minimise the damage. He calls in those who are in debt to his master, and writes down the debt - reducing the amount owed - in an attempt to get at least some of the money back in. This suggests that he is making losses in his master’s financial affairs. How, then, can we understand the fact that his master commends this action - ‘the master commended the dishonest manager, because he had acted shrewdly’.
Let’s look at a possible explanation. In ancient Palestine, it was customary for some estate managers to abuse their position, and to try to earn money on the produce from their master’s estate, for their own personal benefit. They would lend - for example - 800 bushels of wheat - and agree that the borrower should pay back 1000. (A bushel is around 8 gallons, or almost 40 litres). This was a way of getting round the Jewish ban on lending for interest. So the effective profit on 800 bushels of wheat was 25 per cent, if 1000 were received in return. The profit on olive oil indicated in the parable would be 100 per cent. This may seem large, but this is probably because the price of olive oil was more uncertain, and it was possible that if the price went down the lender might lose out. And so 400 gallons were originally lent, but 800 gallons - double this - were expected to be repaid.
So in today’s parable, we see that the estate manager had been found out - the master had learned that his manager was lending out the produce of the estate for his own reward. The parable, therefore, tells how the manager acted promptly to find a way out of his predicament, without making his master incur any financial loss. He did this by simply asking the debtors to pay back the amount they had originally borrowed, without the interest. So he, of course – the manager – lost any possible profit he might have made for himself.
But what do we make of the moral of the parable? ‘Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings?’ and ‘The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind that the people of the light’. On the face of it, this is most confusing.
Let’s look more closely. We might call this the “parable of double forgiveness”. The estate manager has forgiven the debts of those who owed him money, and he in turn has been forgiven by his master. Jesus seems to be using an example from the secular world to show his followers - the people of light, as he puts it - how important it is to forgive. Even ‘unrighteous mammon’ - worldly wealth - can be used for spiritual purposes. The estate manager was foregoing the money he was owed - he was forgiving the debts owed to him by those to whom he had lent the olive oil and the wheat. By doing so he was commended by his master, and his original sharp practice was forgiven. So when Jesus concludes his explanation of the parable with the words, ‘you cannot serve both God and money’, he seems to have been saying that in the affairs of this world, we have a choice; we can either always put our own interests first, or we can, at times, be ready to forego our own interests so that others may benefit - even when this may involve personal sacrifice.
But how does this relate to forgiveness in everyday life? The parable seems to be more about forgiving things owed to us, which for whatever reason cannot be repaid to us. That’s only one aspect of forgiveness. We probably think about forgiveness more in the context of things that people do to us which are harmful or hurtful. Forgiveness is of course a very controversial principle. If you forgive someone for doing harm to you or your family, does it mean that you are in effect admitting that what they did was acceptable? If the people who were bereaved as a result of the murders in Nairobi over the weekend forgive those who carried out the murders, does it mean that they are condoning their actions? Will they just be encouraging more evil if they turn the other cheek?
Forgiveness, at its heart, is about ‘letting go’. That’s what the Greek word used in the Bible for forgiveness means (aphiemi). Letting go of the desire for revenge; letting go of resentment; letting go of the urge to seek recompense. It does not mean that someone who has done us harm should not be punished: but it does mean that if they truly and sincerely repent, admit their fault, promise to mend their ways, then we – like God – should give them a fresh start.
But there’s another aspect to forgiveness, which is captured very well by these words from Dag Hammarskjold, once Secretary-General of the United Nations: “Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who forgives you – out of love – takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done”. You, in other words, bear the cost, or pay the price, of what someone else has done. This kind of forgiveness is more than just a state of mind, a charitable feeling towards someone. It means that you are willing to do something, or accept something, or bear some pain, which is not in principle your responsibility – but you do this out of love for the other person. Your wife or husband might have made a mistake which causes you anger, frustration or pain – but you don’t take it out on them. Your child may break one of the family rules, causing you inconvenience or worse; you might punish them for it, but by bearing the consequences yourself you show that you have forgiven them.
And of course the ultimate act of forgiveness was that of Jesus on the cross. On the cross Jesus took upon himself the consequences of his arrest, trial and death sentence, while still being able to say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. In saying that, he did not mean that they had done nothing wrong; but that he was willing to bear the costs of their ignorance and selfishness. The world desperately needs to find ways of breaking the vicious circle of violence and revenge which seems to be becoming more and more dominant. The taking of revenge can so easily breed more revenge, whether this be within a family, in a neighbourhood, or between nations. In the same way, however, a willingness to bear the costs of the sins of those who disturb our well-being breeds a similar willingness on the part of others. To do this is not a sign of weakness; it is rather a sign of strength. And it thereby creates a virtuous instead of a vicious circle.
Let us pray, then, that the world can rediscover the ability to forgive which lies at the heart of the gospel – starting with each one of us, but also permeating all aspects of life – so that we and people throughout the world can mean what we say when we repeat those so familiar words of Jesus, when he taught the disciples what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”