This is the third time that I have read these words from this lectern in the past month, I don’t quite know what that means except that I, at least, am familiar with this very Dickensian text, Dickensian because Dickens wrote so much about the poor and afflicted alongside the affluence so abundant among the rest. It begins with a simple and commonplace situation, not just in the time of Jesus but now, and I guess always, will be with us, of the exploitation of the poor by the rich. The king, in the parable, wanted to ensure his own wealth was intact and so went for the defaulter, he listened to the man’s tale and believed it and ceased his demand for repayment, only for the redeemed man to come down heavily on a man a bit lower than he was and demanded his loan and ignored the plea of the poor man. In the parable, the wicked man is tortured until he paid up, not I fear what happens in real life. For this situation is still with us. Small firms are asked to perform a particular work for the larger, let us say, repairing leaded windows as a part of a large reconditioning scheme, the work is done and the bill submitted, normally the time is three weeks, but so very often, and the bigger the main firm the longer the time, before payment is grudgingly paid with the result that sometimes the small firm is forced out of existence because it has been bankrupted. Or, a further instance, my paternal grandfather, whom I never knew, in 1918 was the owner of a successful grocer’s shop in Southampton, almost as soon as peace was declared the ships were laid up and the repair works closed down meaning a lot of men were without jobs and therefore had no money. My grandfather being a serious Christian allowed the customers credit lest the children were to starve. He was thinking that the grand people who live in lovely houses between Southampton and Romsey would pay their bills as they always had, so they continued to run up their considerable bills, but they also were feeling the draught and didn’t pay small shopkeepers, so my grandfather had to sell the shop and spent the rest of his thankfully quite short life on the grocery counter of a big store in the town. Bullying and extortion of the poor by the rich, and now it time for Mr Bumble and Wackford Squeers. Mr Bumble was the master of the workhouse when Oliver Twist asked for more, I very much doubt that he was an exaggeration for he was expected to run the workhouse on a bare minimum and his pay would be as much as he could extort and so keep his job and dignity as well as giving cruel reign to his perversions. Likewise with Squeers, even more cruelty against those who couldn’t hit back and no doubted trusted by the governors of the school to keep within the budget and exploit the poor.
Jesus uses this to illustrate the importance of forgiveness. The king forgave the bad overseer who failed to forgive someone he could hurt, Bumble and Squeers just bullied their way through life as their successors still do. As nice as pie making a loan and then totally vicious and unscrupulous when it cannot be paid and the poor debtor has to resort to more borrowing or to a rather amateur life of crime which rapidly comes to a costly end. There is no thought of forgiveness and the horrid nonsense word “jobsworth” comes into play.
Jesus deliberately uses here the word “forgiveness”, and Christians spend quite a lot worship time talking about forgiveness, even of someone who has done a big hurt to us. Of how many groups large or small gathered round the altar to day in church after church.is this true? Thankfully the sort of mechanical confession advocated once upon a time before receiving Holy Communion has lapsed, also those lists of sins which caused one penitent to admit to having been compiled by a priest and published by Mowbray’s are lapsing because they don’t attempt to go behind the sin, towards the pride, envy, hatred and malice that lies behind so many other sinful manifestations.. We need to know the manifestations of that evil quartet sometimes hidden for so long that we think them as a part of our make-up not really sinful because we don’t do anything about them, although we would love to in our better moments. Those lists of sins deal only with symptoms.
Pride, envy, hatred and malice; being the subject or object of any of these is deeply unpleasant, and these terrible and yet very common blights on our existence result in wounds that are sometimes very deep. By “subject” I mean when we exercise envy, hatred and malice towards another, and this requires serious measures of grace for it is all too easy to imagine that we have real reasons, real provocation, but the rot has to be removed and the price is more hurtful to our pride than anything else. If we are the object on the receiving end, which can make life difficult, but we are required to forgive, and like my grandfather get on with life without being horribly bitter and twisted.
Just as the king in the parable listened to the senior slave and granted his request, so God will listen to our longing to banish envy, hatred and malice that we have shown to another provided that we seek to forgive the envy hatred and malice of which we have been the object, when we would probably have been both angry and hurt and want to act unwisely. We know well enough that we sin, but why do we sin? I am not thinking about the provocation of the moment so much as a long standing “bentness” possibly towards a person, or their race, or their political position, and that is both bad and corrupting so what can we do about it? Of course we are made up of many memories, blandishments as well as hurts, but all need to be exposed not so much to the gentle balm of an ointment, but rather the surgeon’s knife. Pride, envy and malice will kill us as people, but think of the provocation that Jesus received, all day and every day and even the disciples were obtuse,Jesus indeed had hatred, for all that was evil and it produced sorrow, Jesus wept, he didn’t throw stones or kick the cat! There is a tale that when he cleansed the temple and set free the birds waiting to be sold for the appointed offerings, the wife of the stall holder who had been keeping the stall when Jesus cleansed the temple was scared to bits about that was her husband going to say when all his stock had disappeared with nothing in return, but as she gets home she finds him surrounded by all the birds who had come home of their own volition!
There is no envy, hatred or malice in Jesus, the sinless one, for the rest of us they are around waiting, as it were in the wings to be provoked into action, we are unlikely to turn the other cheek but if we seriously want to follow the master that is what we have to learn to do, it is certainly not instinctive, just recall the way a small, or not so small child when remonstrated with will say “sorry” with a certain intonation that really means the complete opposite! So if we are to take the message of the gospel on board, that “sorry” has to be meant, clothed in appropriate actions, by rejection of all temptations towards envy, hatred and malice, as it were, to take grace on board, not once, but again and again. The invitation to Communion in the Prayer Book “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins and are in love and charity with your neighbours”, how can any of us dare to approach the altar? But there is another quotation, also in the Prayer Book, and indeed a very comfortable word indeed, “Come unto me all who are burdened and heavy laden and I will give you rest” Those two quotations are our salvation in a nutshell, the burden of envy, hatred and malice is indeed heavy, but Jesus offers to carry it, not once but again and again and again. The Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world, thanks be to God.