Sermon for Lent 3 given in St Crispin's Colwall

What’s with the numbers? 7 & 77? Why not 288? Or would that be too gross?

Listen to this and see if you can place it:

Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.”

Genesis 4. 23 & 24. Who was Lamech? He was, according to the bible, an eighth-generation descendant of Adam; and the reference to Cain, what was that? Well, it concerned the promise God made to Cain when he punished him for killing his brother but at the same time put a mark on him – the mark of Cain, so that no one who found him would kill him. Anyone who killed Cain would suffer vengeance seven times over, said God.

All good bloodthirsty stuff but of course it’s the numbers which really catch our attention here. Lamech thought vengeance seven times over was pretty tame, preferring seventy-seven acts of retribution before he was satisfied that revenge was complete.

In echoing these numbers, Jesus was inviting his hearers to recall the curse of Cain and Lamech. And to reflect on the way their way of envy, hatred and violent retribution has spilt down the generations and continues to beset the world to this day. But above all he was calling on them, and us, to participate in a new way of behaving - the way of unlimited forgiveness.

My brief for this sermon was to address why we need to forgive. Well there’s reason number one – because we are called to forgive by our Lord, not in a limited sevenfold fashion but in an effectively unlimited seventy-seven-fold fashion. That call is made even more explicit in the Lord’s Prayer is it not? Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, we regularly pray. We are called on by God to practise forgiveness and to work for reconciliation – it’s the way of God’s kingdom.

There are also of course, good practical reasons to forgive – it’s a commonplace that bearing a grudge harms the grudge-bearer more than anyone else. Dwelling on slights, real or imagined is not good for your mental health, any self-help book will tell you that. Moving on is the way to go.

But it isn’t always that easy is it? Let’s get to this parable and the unforgiving servant, shall we? I don’t think we need to over-interpret it, though if you wanted to be picky, you could point out that after all this talk of 7 and 77, the king lost patience with his servant after only two offences and proceeded to treat him in a most unforgiving fashion. But he had it coming didn’t he, this strangely blinkered servant? What on earth was he thinking of? How could he not see that the king’s extraordinary generosity compelled him to share the joy and spread the goodies, so to speak. Was he so bound up with the system he’d grown up with? A system of debts and extortion. Was he so immersed in that system of threats and “repay or take the consequences” that he couldn’t recognise a different, more loving and life enhancing way when it was staring him in the face?

Could it be that his behaviour invites us to reflect on whether we are sometimes so bound up with the ways of our world that we fail to recognise the enormous blessings we enjoy and neglect to share our good fortune as we should? It’s certainly one thought arising from this parable.

But as so often with parables, there is no one way of thinking about them. This one hinges on the great contrast between the two respective debts. And while we’ve been pondering the stories of forgiveness featured in the f-word exhibition it’s struck me that the wrongs that have been done in them have varied from great to absolutely horrifically enormous. Way beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, for sure. So apart from leaving me thinking I have very little right to speak of any of these things and no right at all to encourage victims to forgive if they don’t want to, I’m left full of admiration for these folk who can move on when they have been grievously wronged. And also, on a personal level, I’m humbled when I reflect somewhat sheepishly on how I still sometimes bridle at things which barely deserve to be called wrongs – mere irritants may be a better description.

So, forgive me if I’m wrong but I imagine that in our day to day lives, few of us have great wrongs to forgive, and for that let’s be thankful. How perverse it would be then to bear grudges and fail to forgive the minor niggles and irritants that may come our way. Let us seek God’s help in following the way of unlimited forgiveness beyond sevenfold, or even seventy sevenfold for that is the way of his kingdom.