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Fair play

Trinity 22 BCP

04 November 2007 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

The British character is normally regarded as valuing fair play. On a personal level, things which I perceive as being unfair or unjust will certainly get me more overly worked up than almost anything else. The problem is, of course, that we place our own perspective at the heart of how we judge matters and always notice the injustices done by others – whether to ourselves or friends…and are rather slower to wake up to our own culpability in the same regard. Also how fair are any of us towards God? How fair to God, for example, my neglect of Him…my insensitivity towards the rest of his Creation – whether human, animal or mineral…how fair my heart too preoccupied even to notice the lack of fair play that results in poverty, disease, and environmental danger?
St. Paul writes his affectionate letter of thanks – a very personal epistle to the Christians in Philippi from within a prison in Rome, and the message complements that of the gospel. Paul reminds us that the love of Christ has no prison walls. It simply cannot be contained. Neither can God’s love be constrained.
The question St. Peter asks, and which prompts the telling of today’s parable shows that he had already picked up some of the radicalism regarding Jesus’ preaching the kingdom of God. ‘Shall I forgive my brother more than the 3 times required by Jewish Law in the book of Amos’? How about seven times – that number which represents completeness from as early as the book of Genesis where we read about six days of labour and one of rest?
‘No’ says Jesus, ‘not seven – but seventy times seven times’ – limitless forgiveness. Modern psychology would of course not disagree…the damage done by seething resentment and bitterness doesn’t hurt the object of those feelings, but remains within the hearts of the injured person who cannot forgive. ‘Leave things to God’ was a frequent comment I heard in my last parish – together with the observation that ‘what goes around comes around’. This doesn’t always appear to be the case, so if you are ever discouraged by the wicked who appear to flourish, you are in company with the psalmist. But do keep Psalm 73 always close to hand…they eventually come to a sticky end!
Today’s gospel is a very straightforward story – though no less hard-hitting and dramatic as a consequence of simplicity. It would be odd for any attentive listener not to be moved by the account of the unscrupulous servant whose debt to his master (millions at today’s exchange rate) was so much greater than the few pounds owed him by a colleague. Maybe the parable evokes a sense of guilt because the attitude of the servant has a familiar ring – reminding us of the way we treat others…possibly by joining in the unfair condemnation of them, or by harbouring or encouraging feelings of jealousy. This kind of mistreatment can often take the form of character assassination, or idle gossip out of earshot. Or it might be demanding the full pound of flesh from someone who has ignored or mistreated us at work. The lesson of the story is that no amount of apparent misuse by other people can equal the debt we each owe to God for our own misdeeds towards him.
We cannot avoid being sinners, and any Christian life is marred by mistakes, deficiencies, and perversions of various kinds. There are rivalries and personal vanities too…as there were with the Christians at Philippi. And these cause our own and others' sufferings.
Also, for those who wish to, there is always plenty to complain about. We can complain constantly about one another, about one another's stupidity, or insensitivity, or infuriating habits. We can complain about a Church that seems often confused and not very Christian. We can complain endlessly about ourselves, and our own failures and deficiencies. We can complain about how little progress we seem to be making. But today's lessons urge on us a different attitude. The seventy times seven we are told to forgive our fellows, is no less applicable to the constancy with which we need to forgive ourselves, by God’s grace. For you could say that God is not so much fair…as rather all loving and all merciful over and over again.
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