Sermon preached by Rt. Rev’d Humphrey Southern, Principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon at All Saints’, Cuddesdon on Sunday 3rd June 2018.
Readings: Exodus 34. 1-9.
Matthew 18. 21-35.
‘Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.’
There are an awful lot of numbers in the Scriptures chosen for today’s reflection on the fifth beatitude. God promises Moses ‘steadfast love for the thousandth generation’, yet expects to visit ‘the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and fourth generations’. Peter asks Jesus whether forgiveness should be extended to a wrongdoer as many as seven times, and receives the disconcerting reply that 77 would be more like it, or even (as some versions have it) seventy times seven: 490, indeed! (But who could possibly keep count?)
So, many numbers and much counting and calculating to inform our thinking about mercy, the quality of mercy and what is the nature of the blessedness promised to those who show mercy.
Now, all these numbers – all this counting – could be very misleading. They could suggest that mercy, the capacity to forgive, is some kind of measurable commodity, like the litres of fuel I put in my car or the pence and pounds I might hope to see build up in my savings account, to be hoarded or wasted or invested or otherwise dealt with like any other commodity. Mercy, such a view might suggest, is a thing – to be traded, acquired or disposed of, frugally or prodigally used, deployed to advantage or disadvantage, run out of, even – when (of course) nothing could be further from the truth.
Which is the point – surely – of the numbers themselves in these passages of Scripture. ‘A thousand generations’ is not a measure of real time (though three or four generations – interestingly – may be). Who, other than an obsessive of some kind, would keep count of 77 slights or insults, still less of 490? (Though seven offences may be recorded, I suppose, in some sort of ledger or memory bank.)
The point – surely – is that it is acts of carefully guarding offence and seeking retribution that can be and are counted in the squalid market place of human insecurity and inadequacy. While in the divine economy, by contrast, it is the figures that are uncountable – a thousand generations and hundreds of forgivenesses – that convey the true nature of mercy, of God’s love, indeed.
God does not stop loving in the 1001st generation, nor condemn the sinner on the 78th or the 491st offence: that’s not what these passages are saying and to try and make them do so would be the most absurd and wicked fundamentalism.
The message is that mercy is the absolute opposite of a commodity to be measured. Mercy – the capacity to forgive – being a divine attribute is, like the Divine, God’s self, limitless and eternal.
You will be expecting me to quote Shakespeare at this juncture, and I am not going to disappoint you. In the words of Portia, Shakespeare expresses a truly divine sense of the nature of mercy: limitless, graceful and the very antithesis of fleshy matter that can be weighed by the pound, demanded and surrendered (which is what Shylock dealt in).
‘The quality of mercy is not strain’d;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice…’
A beautiful and a powerful sentiment. Shakespeare at his finest as poet and as theologian. But isn’t it odd that the wisdom and the truth of this speech – as, indeed, of the fifth beatitude on which it so clearly riffs – is so offensive to human sensibility and human common sense and so alien to human behaviour?
Mercy does not come naturally and the command to forgive as duty is very hard to hear and even harder to act on. (This was the point of the parable in today’s Gospel, where mercy had – rather ironically – to be tortured in to the unforgiving servant.) Indeed, forgiveness given purely out of duty generally belies itself: resentment, injured pride, hoity self-righteousness being the hallmarks of duty-forgiveness, something very different, I think, from the biblical notion of mercy.
You see, there is something deeply attractive and reassuring to us about the status of the victim, of being the one wronged. It is, after all, a powerful ticket of admittance to the moral high ground. And forgiveness seems to involve the surrender of this status, the denial of a true and often rather precious sense of hurt. Thus, the fifth beatitude – perhaps more than any other – challenges attitudes and behaviours that are deeply engrained in us, and does so at a very visceral level. This – in other words – is where it gets personal.
Yet, as Portia knew and Jesus himself promises, the very act of forgiveness, of showing mercy, involves release and blessedness not simply to the recipient, but – vitally and radically – to the giver, also.
It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Forgiveness is not about denying the past or belittling hurts and griefs experienced within it but is, instead, a great act of empowerment for the person doing the forgiving. The one who forgives declares, by his or her own authority, that the past and its demands no longer has any power over them. When I forgive the one who has done me wrong, when I discharge that burden of anger, resentment and grudge that I am bearing, what I am doing is releasing myself from the tedium and discomfort and exhaustion of carrying it further.
Thus the mercy I show is mercy not just to the one who has wronged me, but also to myself who am now no longer a slave to that wrong and to its legacy. ‘Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.’ In the very act of showing mercy – of releasing the debt – mercy is received and the burden falls away.
It is the dynamic so clearly set out in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Forgive us our trespasses’ – release us from our debts – ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’ – as we release others from their beholdeness to us.
Blessed are the poor… the mourners … the meek … the hungry for righteousness … the pure in heart… These beatitudes speak (mainly) of conditions, of circumstances – circumstances which surprisingly and shockingly in Jesus’ teaching can be reinterpreted and re-experienced as blessings, rather than woes. This beatitude, by contrast, is not about a condition, so much as an action. Blessed are the merciful, those who forgive: it’s a blessedness not to find by reinterpreting a circumstance so much as to claim by simple action.
Forgive, as we are forgiven. Release and be released. It’s as simple as that.
And as difficult. Amen.