The Daily Offices

The Daily Offices from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, (Canada 1962), including daily Bible readings and occasional sermons from the Cathedral of the Annunication of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa

Monday, October 24, 2005


Have you ever considered just how much we owe to St. Peter for being so brash, and impulsive, and even thick-headed and impetuous? How often these characteristics in this fisherman gave Jesus the opportunity to expound more clearly the Good News.

Today's Gospel reading falls into the category of one of those timeless messages of our Lord that really don't need any kind of interpretation in terms of being able to understand the essential message; that message being that God's forgiveness is limitless, and He expects us to exhibit the same to our fellow men. However, there are some interesting aspects to this passage that may help us to understand better, and that's where our impetuous friend St. Peter comes in. It would appear that St. Peter had at least done a little bit of thinking before he blurted out his question to Jesus, "Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?" Indeed Peter may have thought that he was asking Jesus a rhetorical question, perhaps even with two defences for his own answer of "seven".

First, there was a rabbinical teaching that a man must forgive his brother "three times". "He who begs forgiveness from his brother must not do so more than three times. If a man commit an offence, then forgive him; if he commits an offence a second time, then forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, then forgive him; the fourth time, do not forgive him." This teaching may have been derived from the Book of the Prophet Amos. In Chapter 1 we read three times, first in verse 3, "Thus saith the Lord; For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof..." And in verse 6, "For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof..." And again in verse 9, "For three transgressions of Tyrus, and for four..." So perhaps Peter thought that he could go a step further, for he takes the three times mentioned by the Rabbis, multiplies it by two, adds one, and suggests with eager satisfaction, that it will be enough if he forgives seven times.

Secondly, perhaps he was also thinking that seven, being the ancient number of perfection (if you will recall the series of sermons a few years back on symbolism), was the obvious number in terms of forgiveness. Regardless of whether he was thinking of either or both of these, imagine his surprise when Jesus responded "I say not unto thee, until seven times; but until seventy times seven." By that which follows, the story of the man in debt, clearly Jesus' response of 490 is not to be taken literally. In reference to the number 490, some Biblical scholars comment that Peter presented the number of perfection, seven, and Jesus responded with the number of eternity, seventy times seven. Perhaps also Jesus was recalling a passage from Genesis Ch.4. In that chapter, we read of God's pronouncement on Cain after that he had murdered his brother, and then we are presented with five generations of Cain's offspring. Lamech, his great, great, great grandson, apparently commenting on another murder, says, "If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold."

But the proof that the number 490 is not to be taken literally follows immediately when Jesus compares the debt of 10,000 talents with one of an hundred pence. Someone calculated a few years back that the 10,000 talents was the equivalent of over $400 million, whereas the 100 pence, or denarii, was about $17. Others have calculated a difference of $5 million versus $25. Either way the 10,000 talents was much more than 70 times the 100 denarii. There must be no limit to forgiveness. Think also of the Lord's Prayer, "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us." There is no limit placed there.

Now I suppose that we could go on about the fact that each of us represents the servant who owed over $400 million, and that that servant, like each of us, turns out to be not worthy of the master's forgiveness. And I could go off into an aside about the message in this parable being so very clear, and yet so very poorly practised by very many Christians, even in our own little Parish by some who carry around grudges against other people, including other Christians of this very family. And I could go on about how the source of our frequent inability to practise the message stems from our own self-centredness and the desire for the approval of other people rather than God's approval. And how that we would rather be friends with the world than with God. But that approaches the whole theme from the negative side.

The happy news is that, though we are infinitely in debt to God, His infinite mercy is boundless. There is no limit to His forgiveness; and for that, we should be infinitely thankful.

St. Paul's Epistle today literally drips with the joyfulness of one who lives in the realization of God's mercy. Here was St. Paul, in a Roman prison, and writing as though he had just experienced the most wonderful thing. Let us read it again, savouring his frame of mind. << Philippians 1:3-11 >>. How could any of his readers go away with feelings of resentment or unforgiving hearts after hearing him speak of fellowship, joy, God's good work in us, partakers of grace, our love abounding more and more, being sincere and without offence. What an amazing bit of writing from a condemned man! He was clearly full of God's Spirit, and his heartfelt desire was for his readers to be the same.

That which I have just read is verbatim from a sermon that I preached on this particular Sunday in the mid 1990’s. Back then, just as now, we had experienced some years of happy growth, but then, as often happens in any group of people, things began to run a little less smoothly. Christians who have studied carefully this cycle in parish life – and it happens across denominations – will often comment that the cause of the disruption in many of these cases is none other than Satan. C. S. Lewis makes this point at an individual level in his classic short book, “The Screwtape Letters.” The book takes the form of a series of letters between two devils, Screwtape and Wormwood, discussing the issue of a particular churchgoer who was their centre of attention. It’s been many years since I read it, but as I recall, as long as said churchgoer was either in a holding pattern, or under the normal impression of self-centred satisfaction for his own life and achievements, the two devils did little to interfere – he was firmly in their grasp. But, as soon as the churchgoer would turn away from creaturely pride and put his faith in God, which is to say, undergo some positive, Christ-like spiritual growth, then the attention level of the two devils would be considerably heightened in terms of attacks against him.

I was further reminded of another C. S. Lewis classic this past week or so when considering the life of Dorothy Sokolyk, who died this past Monday. Apologies to those who may have heard some of the following musings at my short homily at her Requiem, but the points surely beg to be repeated. In “The Great Divorce” Lewis muses, in an apparent dreamlike state having fallen asleep at his desk, about life after death. The premise of the whole book is that of the divorce between heaven and hell, which divorce is absolute and complete, and that for any individual soul, there must be a complete abandonment of worldliness, or the beatific vision will not be ours. In his preface, he concludes by emphasizing that his book is a fantasy, even beyond speculation, stating, “The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.” On the cover page, Lewis quotes George Macdonald, “No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of hell in it – no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather.”

As an aside, that which made me think of Dorothy in the book is that, near the end, Lewis and the Teacher, as he refers to his Spirit guide, see a procession with many children singing with unsurpassed beauty, accompanied by musicians and much fanfare, leading a woman from whom emanated an indescribable type of beauty that transcended the physical. Lewis stutters, in anticipation that this surely must be the Mother of Jesus, “Is it?… Is it?” To which his guide responds, “Not at all. It’s Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.” Lewis’ guide then goes on to explain that her greatness in heaven is to a large extent a reflection of how she lived on earth, full of the Christian type of love, called in the Greek agape, love that gives, that made all around her, especially young children, more loving themselves. Dorothy’s family had affirmed to me that, in spite of having five sons and one daughter, Dorothy was the same sweetness and light when they were growing up as that which we saw in her for these past 14 months. “Is it?… Is it?” “Not at all. It’s Dorothy Sokolyk and she lived on Cartier Street in Centretown.”

But it is some profound thoughts that Lewis presents that are appropriate to today’s theme of forgiveness. As mentioned, the premise of the whole book is that of the divorce between heaven and hell, which divorce must be absolute and complete for any individual soul. Lewis paints several character portraits of how any of us might wish to cling to things that had become precious to us in this life; of how our intellects, by using the example of a bishop, may reach a pseudo-heightened level of sophistication that prevents our embracing the elegantly simple fact of God; of how self-righteousness over episodes in our earthly life, not necessarily misplaced, but nonetheless obstacles to eternal bliss, will cloud our vision; and perhaps most tellingly, how our earth-bound idea of a loving God has become so twisted that we can’t see beyond the selfishness of our current understanding; – and so on. All must be forgiven – no grudges will be permitted; God must be the first object of our love – only then will we understand what love truly is; transient, earthly pleasures and distractions, in whatever form, must be left behind completely.

Lewis paints an image of a bus, taking souls, apparently unaware that they are dead, to the heavenly realm where each of these souls takes on a ghostly vagueness. Each ghost is then met by a much more substantial Spirit, a dead family member or acquaintance, full of light and love, who attempts to guide his or her ghost to the putting off of earthly desires and to leave behind worldly distractions including lack of forgiveness, to become a more solid Spirit themselves before they might see God. A sad eventuality in Lewis’ portrayal is that many of the ghosts are not prepared to leave behind every “hair and feather,” and so, one by one, they trudge back to the bus, to be returned to a far less happy place.

Attempting to end this homily in an upbeat fashion has been a genuine struggle for me. Two texts from our Lord kept popping into my head. The first is that which ends today’s Gospel reading, “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.” Against that in His Great Discourse at the Last Supper as recorded in John, Jesus says, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

I pray to God that most of us here believe these words with all of our hearts; after all, none of us would want to be getting back on the bus at the Great Divorce; none of us would want to be permanently under the control of Screwtape and Wormwood. There will indeed be bumps in the road; but, for example, please, if you are doing anything about the church, and someone elbows in, as it were, virtually demanding that you do it differently, don’t take offence. Turn the whole situation into something that you can both laugh about – “You say potato, I say hamburger.” Then thank God for your fellowship; and Screwtape and Wormwood won’t be laughing quite so gleefully. As we just read this past Wednesday at Evensong, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you.”

Is there any of us here who is carrying grudges around against certain others, for hurts either real or maybe even just perceived? Once again, playing right into the hands of Screwtape and Wormwood. Very, very often such sentiments end up being based on something that was misheard, misunderstood, misinterpreted – and the person against whom we might be holding a grudge is blissfully unaware of having done or said anything wrong – and in actual fact, if something was misheard, misunderstood or misinterpreted, they may not have. If I am carrying a grudge, I am the one who needs to do some soul searching, to find it within myself to seek reconciliation, to go to that person and clear the air, and, in “drawing nigh to God ”, to forgive, else I shall be the one getting back on to the bus at the Great Divorce. Also, how difficult, how hypocritical is it if I am carrying a grudge around against someone, and yet I pretend to pray, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us?”

We have heard the condemned St. Paul's joyous message; we have touched on Lewis’ points of leaving all that distracts us from God behind, especially an unforgiving heart, after recognizing that Screwtape and Wormwood are always lurking in the background, happily pushing us in directions that will disrupt individual spiritual growth and collective co-operation, attempting to ensure that we will be getting back on to the bus; we heard in today’s Gospel Jesus speak of God's desire to forgive even the unforgivable; we are about to receive the Blessed Body and Blood of our Lord in remembrance of His unparalleled act, His unimaginable act, His utterly incomprehensible act of forgiveness on the Cross.

Forgiveness is a central message of the New Testament, not just in terms of what Jesus did on the Cross; it applies equally to all who would take up their crosses and follow Him. “Resist the devil…draw nigh to God.”