In the Gospel reading today from the 18th chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew, one of the servants of the king is in trouble. He owes the king “ten thousand talents” which was worth more than 15 years of the servant’s wages. That’s a big debt; and a huge problem for this servant. It’s not a surprise to anyone when the king follows the accepted cultural practice of that time and tells the servant that he and all his family will be sent to prison until they can pay. They will not be able to earn such a huge sum of money in prison or be helped out by friends, so the servant’s debt appears to have brought him and his family into prison for the rest of their lives.
However, then there is a dramatic change in both the servant and the king. The servant “fell on his knees, imploring [the king],’Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’” This is certainly a surprise, because anyone who is in debt for more than 15 years of his wages has not been living a very sensible life. Yet now the servant asks to be forgiven by the king and promises to repay the big debt. What happens next is even more of a surprise—certainly to the servant and to everyone else who has gathered there: the king announces that he will forgive the servant the whole of his debt—not wait for payment, but forgive the huge debt.
This is great for the servant; and the king too will be even more respected because of his generosity! But this Gospel is full of further surprises: “That same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owned him a hundred denarii [that is, one day’s wages] and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe [me].’ The fellow servant pleaded, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’” However, the servant whose debt of 15 years of wages had just been forgiven by the king refused and put into prison someone who owed him one day’s wages.
It is no surprise then that when the other servants told the king what had happened, the king was angry and did put into prison the servant who owed him 15 years of wages. In the line before the Gospel reading today, the Lord tells Peter and us: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” It is helpful to see that the many servants of the king did not know precisely how much they owed the king. We are in the same position: we are often not aware of how much we owe the Lord, how he looks after us, how he guides and protects us.
In the fourth century St Cyril of Alexandria preached about this Biblical passage, and I quote: “The God of all releases us from the difficulties of our own faults. . . . This is what is signified by the ten thousand talents. But this happens on the [provision] that we ourselves release our fellow servants from the hundred denarii, that is, from the few minor faults that they have committed against us.”
The final line of the Gospel stresses how each of us must forgive others “from [our] hearts.” Forgiving someone is not easy to do. We might think: “That friend of mine did something very wrong.” We might question: “Do they deserve forgiveness?” That was precisely the question a few weeks ago at the World Athletic Championships in London when the popular Usain Bolt was beaten by the unpopular Justin Gatlin at 100 meters. The reason that Gatlin was unpopular was because he had twice been caught using illegal drugs. Each time he had been punished with a suspension of several years. Was he “clean” now at the age of 35? Was he being fair to others? Usain Bolt thought he had competed fairly and congratulated him warmly. Several tens of thousands of spectators were not at all sure and booed him loudly.
Who is right—Usain Bolt or all those spectators who booed Justin Gatlin? A sport journalist, Sean Ingle of The Guardian, and a security specialist, Chris Eaton of Interpol, have suggested “a radical idea to get to the truth.” They propose that after every athletic event there should be a three-month amnesty—a period of three months when athletes could confess to a Truth Commission that they had been using drugs. If they confessed, they would then be warned but not banned from competition. If, after three months, it was shown that they had been using illegal drugs and not admitted it, they would then be banned for life from all future athletic events. Chris Eaton commented that “dire problems need momentous solutions. Lost trust is only rebuilt from trust in solutions.” A truth commission [could work] in athletics as it worked in post-apartheid investigations in South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.
In the 18th chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew, in the lines just before today’s reading, Peter comes to the Lord and asks how often he should forgive someone who sins against him. “As many as seven times?” asks Peter. Jesus Christ says to him: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” As one Biblical commentator states, that means we should forgive someone who has sinned against us “as many times as is necessary.” So perhaps Usain Bolt is right: we should forgive Justin Gatlin who has only sinned twice. However, notice that in the first century and throughout all the centuries into the twenty-first century we have to admit to ourselves, to other people and to God, that we have sinned, and we have to ask for forgiveness. Justin Gatlin did that, expressing his great sorrow for his earlier sins and urging young people in college to remain clean of illegal drugs.
If you watched the end of that 100 meter competition at the World Athletic Championships, you would have seen Justin Gatlin fall on his knees and bow before Usain Bolt. At first, I thought, “That’s idolatry, worshiping another human being.” But you know, it was not idolatry, but simply a sign of respect. In 16th century Spain, Teresa of Avila prayed: “O my Lord, since it seems you are determined to save me, I ask that you may do so quickly. And since you have decided to dwell within me, I ask that you clean your house, wiping away all the grime of sin.” The house that Teresa wished to be cleaned then was her religious order, while the house that many of us would like to see cleaned now is athletics.
I close with a contemporary prayer about forgiveness whose author is unknown. I find this prayer speaks to me, and I hope to you: “May the Lord forgive us what we have been, sanctify [that is, make holy] what we are [now] and direct what we will be [in the future]. May the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be upon [all of] us and those whom we love, now and always. Amen.”