Absolute mercy

A sermon for Morning Prayer online from the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio

You have heard it said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But I say to you that grace redeems, and absolute grace redeems absolutely.

I wonder of whom Peter was thinking when he asked his strangely specific question about forgiveness. Was he thinking of his own brother and fellow apostle, Andrew? Or did they have another sibling left at home? Perhaps he meant Judas, his fellow disciples; maybe he had some premonition of an almost unforgiveable betrayal.

Joseph’s brothers, likewise, are afraid that there is a limit to Joseph’s magnanimity. They are keeping score: how many bags of grain has Joseph added to their debt of guilt for throwing him in the pit and selling him to strangers? How could they ever pay off the burden of his forgiveness?

Joseph was a prophet. He knew how to interpret dreams and messages from the heart of God. He had glimpsed the purposes of the Divine. He was overcome by God’s Spirit of mercy and grace. How else could he forgive all that his brothers had done to him, and all that they owed to him? Only by operating in a different economy than seven times seven, than the one that keeps score.

For mortals, as Jesus says elsewhere, it is impossible; but for God all things are possible.

Peter’s question to Jesus was personal, but Jesus’ answer was a parable. It’s a parable, a parody of what happens when we forget to factor grace into our everyday calculations, when we fail to forgive.

Torturing the deplorable debtor is not going to get any payback out of him. It doesn’t make anyone’s situation better. And that’s the point: this is the trap we fall into when grace is answered with accountancy, and forgiveness with comeuppance.

We still have, by the way, debtors’ prisons, where people remain incarcerated because they cannot afford the price of their freedom. They are still unjust, and still unhelpful. Many of those freedom funds that some of us contributed to during the protests earlier this summer following the killing of George Floyd were already set up and ready to assist those taken off the streets because of the pre-existing conditions that lead to people being imprisoned punitively for being unable to pay their way out of jail. There are still people waiting for the good news of the kingdom, and the release of the captives that Jesus and the prophets promised.

But back to the story. The threat that hangs over and hangs from this parable is not that God will send us to hell until we pay what we owe – where is the sense in that? How would that even work? Where is the God of mercy and steadfast faithfulness in that story, slow to anger and of great kindness? Where is the God who so loved the world?

No, the threat, the risk of the parable is that we, like the servant, who have known grace, like the servant, forget to live like it. That our sense of justice, like his, is based on fear; on no one being any more free, or any more forgiven, any more loved than we are.

Josephs’ brothers were afraid that his mercy was not real, because they could not imagine being that merciful themselves. The servant was afraid that his king would change his mind and call in his debt after all, and his mistrust of mercy, and his failure to multiply it, made him do terrible things, and led to his own downfall, and perpetuated the systems of injustice that surrounded him. He put his fellow slave in prison and he pulled his king back from the brink of forgiveness and a real awakening of compassionate justice.

Peter asked Jesus just how many times he must forgive his brother, and Jesus told him that instead of counting out grace like small change, he should, we should, remember the mercy we have experienced before the throne of God, and count our blessings. Because while our hearts are busy doing that, and running out of hands and fingers to count on, it is so much harder to hold a grudge.

But the biggest shift is in trusting that mercy itself is real; that even if we fail at it seven times seventy times, God’s capacity for forgiveness is immense.

Isn’t that what Jesus came to show us, in life, in death, in resurrection, and in parables? That God loves you, more even than you love yourself?

Absolute power. Absolute grace. Absolute mercy. Imagine what absolute love can do.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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