THE SETTLING OF ACCOUNTS

Sermon delivered on the 14th Sunday after Trinity, the 17th September 2017 by Bishop Nicholas J G Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Genesis 50: 15-21     Romans 14: 1-12     S. Matthew 18: 21-35

S. Matthew 18:23 "The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants."

SETTLING BILLS
The settling of accounts I suppose is something that most of us know quite a lot about. We have electricity and water bills to pay every month, for instance. It is annoying if something goes wrong with that, and for that reason I recommend automatic deduction arrangements wherever possible, as well as online banking. Many years I remember ago receiving word from one of my monthly service-providers that their bill had not been paid, even though I knew I had written a cheque for it. In those days chasing down the proof was quite a chore because it was in the days when the bank concerned had recently developed the policy of not posting cancelled cheques, and it occurred to me it might be much easier to give in and write another cheque. The copy of the cancelled cheque I did eventually obtain showed that someone else's service account had been credited with my money rather than mine, and eventually, having been shown this, the organisation concerned called over the phone to say, though without apology, that the account had been settled. As I say it was many years ago and hopefully their customer service has improved somewhat since then.

GOD CALLS TO ACCOUNT
It is true that I never like to owe people money and feel uncomfortable with any unpaid bills and don't only chase up demands for overpayment. As with any human trait, this may not be altogether good, as one can end up placing more time and importance on the ordering of current personal finances than on some other aspect of life that is less pedestrian. Indeed, if not checked and disciplined it can end up with an emphasis on money that amounts to a worship of Mammon. Still, I am comforted by the comparison offered by Jesus' parable in our Gospel today: "The Kingdom of God may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants." I am comforted because the comparison teaches that God's very universe is not a laissez-faire one in which the accounts are never settled. Not only among ourselves, but between ourselves and God, there is this necessary element to be reckoned with. The parable we should note is speaking of a relationship between God and His own servants. The relationship between God and His household is not a laissez-faire one in which outstanding things are never called to account, and I suppose the families of the servants, that is to say our own families within that household, should reflect that as well. Parental authority in relation to their dependent children should sometimes be revealed as a calling to account. I suppose that you are in agreement with me over that, though there are those out there who may not be.

THE DEBT TO GOD
However, there is an independently overriding principle, Jesus teaches, in the relationship between the king of the kingdom of heaven and His household that we also are to reflect in our relationships with one another, and that principle is forgiveness. God's universe is not a laissez-faire one in which the accounts are never settled, so the time comes in a person's relationship with God when he must acknowledge that his debt to Him is vastly greater than he can pay. In the parable the employees are the talented servants to whom the king has chosen to entrust the administration of his property. They should have been able to keep the management of the property and their own personal affairs separate, but here was one servant that was depicted by Jesus to be in debt to the extent of a vast sum, some 6 billion dollars according to my commentary. He was financing his own lavish living from the property books, having taken everything "on tick" for years and not bearing in mind that one day there would be an accounting. The best return that the king could get from him at this late stage would be by selling him as a slave, his wife and his children and all his possessions. I suppose there would be no prospect of his family remaining together. These extreme circumstances at last bring him to take account of the very existence of the king, whose reality he had been shrugging off for very many years, and he falls on his knees before him. Significantly, he begs not to be released of the debt, but to be given time to pay everything. The king, however, went beyond that, just like the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. He did not just give what was asked, but we read that "filled with tenderness" the lord of the servant released him and forgave him the loan.

I think we should notice the particular twist in the story that before the forgiveness comes the accounting. The servant's major problem was that he had over the years ignored the possibility that the king would ever come back and like a modern auditor-general ask the questions he did. It is important to note that if there had been no call to settle the accounts, any forgiveness would have been impossible. Only after the man had faced the reality and the horror of his own indebtedness before his master, could the relationship with him have been healed. But the rest of the parable shows us what the demands of a truly healed relationship with God are for our relationships in this age also. Among us too there must be the recognition of accounts to be settled and an overriding spirit of forgiveness in all conceivable directions. If we have benefited by the forgiveness by God, say, of 6 billion dollars, then we are expected to be ready to forgive and extend kindness to someone who humbly admits to being in debt to us to the tune of some 12 thousands that the parable depicts.

ST. PAUL'S APPROACH TO TOLERANCE
St. Paul's message to the Roman Christians in today's second lesson deals not with forgiveness but with tolerance towards differing practices within the Christian fellowship. Much has been spoken about tolerance in recent times, but it is nearly always an appeal to a tolerance devoid of any ethical or theological foundation, an appeal that must fail sooner or later [because any law of tolerance is always weaker than the law of non-contradiction]. In contrast to this, the reality of God is the very foundation of St. Paul’s appeal. St. Paul's appeal for tolerance over whether someone abstains from a food or not, and whether someone esteems one day, such as the Jewish sabbath, as better than another or not, is upon the foundation that each one is expressing thereby a discipleship of the Lord, and each one in time shall account of himself to the Lord. No one has to give account of anybody else's version of discipleship. The reality of God in Christ enables a tolerance towards different views and practices, made possible by what the faith teaches and reveals is in Christ.

FACING THE REALITY OF GOD
In Christ (we may proclaim to our generation) we are impelled to forgiveness, and also we are impelled to a faith-revealed tolerance. But the awesome and at times even threatening reality of God in Christ is the basis of these great benefits. This God is the Lord that demands to settle the account with us. This Jesus, as St. Peter preached long ago, was "crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men". This is the Lord who we are called to make our generation, quite ordinarily as unrealistic as the indebted servant, face up to. Only then may forgiveness become a reality, both the knowledge of God’s forgiveness of us, and the absolute demand of our forgiveness for one another; and we must consistently teach our generation too the power and meaning of Christian forbearance and tolerance. The truth is that without that absolute demand for forgiveness that only God issues to us, we do not absolutely forgive. The grace to do so comes from God, not from us. In the humanistic ethical discourse of our time, tolerance without faith is seemingly fundamental, and regulation without grace or forgiveness is expected. However, such political correctness is ethical error. Neither is it powerful enough to deal with the moral issues that have arisen since the 9/11 attack some sixteen years ago, and from the general Islamist and shariah incursion into the Western world. For the love of God, and of what Christ has wrought in this world, it is high time to pray for the awesome reality of God in Christ to be made known in our time; for it is only in the knowledge of this reality that forgiveness can be known, tolerance can be exercised, accounts may thereby at last be settled, and social ethics can run true.

QUESTIONS

1. Identify the difference between (a) tolerance as taught by St. Paul and (b) tolerance as taught by (say) the editor of The Caymanian Compass

2. "Before the forgiveness comes the accounting." Give biblical and modern instances of this.