The Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity


A revised version of this collection of commentaries, entitled Stir Up, O Lord, has been published in paperback format and as an e-book (for all major e-readers) by Sacristy Press. Buy now »


Lord, we beseech Thee to keep Thy household the church…
Philippians 1:3-11
Matthew 18:21-35

Of all the master and servant parables in the Gospels, this account of the open-hearted master and the mean-spirited servant is apparently the easiest to understand, reflecting back directly to the Lord’s Prayer. The master’s good work is not imitated by his servant as the result of which he is punished. In human terms the retributive action of the master is perfectly understandable but how closely should the conduct of these two be linked? Is Jesus saying that just as we are forgiven we should forgive or is he rather saying that we will not be forgiven unless we forgive? More likely the latter, otherwise the master’s conduct would be unreasonable; and yet we should not confuse what we might call the ‘transmission’ of forgiveness with the ‘transmission’ of virtue. The simplest example of transmission is that although our parents are gratified if we return their love, they are much more so if we love our children the way they loved us; in other words, transmission is not a boomerang, we do things because we do them regardless of what may or may not come back. On this basis the master might want to punish the servant or take back his initial generous offer but he did not make that offer conditionally on the good behaviour of the servant. Conditional giving is an extremely doubtful proceeding and its grip on contemporary ethics is fatal to the kind of love which Jesus preached. The master’s proper reaction should have been summed up in the phrase: “more in sorrow than anger”; he had every right to be sorrowful but no right to be angry. It turns out, then, that this is far from a simple parable which provides a clear illustration of the principles of the Lord’s Prayer; our obligation to forgive our neighbour as God forgives us is a totally separate proposition from that which says that our forgiveness must be conditional upon the behaviour of the forgiven towards us or anyone else. we must forgive because we forgive because we forgive.

Unconditionality is the hallmark of a good work; and although Paul involves his own personal trials in his account of generosity, he is saved from egotistical excess by his ready acknowledgment that he does no good work except through God’s grace. Thus, he tells the Philippians from his prison cell that Jesus, quite literally, performs good works through them, a sentiment strongly echoed in the Collect.

The dynamics of good works and forgiveness are fused in the idea of unconditionality. That reading is confirmed by the Gospel discussion between Jesus and Peter which precedes the parable of the master and servant. Peter asks how often he must forgive and Jesus gives the inevitable answer that forgiveness must be unlimited, beyond calculation. If He had been asked the same question about the performance of good works He would have said the same thing. As ‘fallen’ people, regardless of how we understand the term (my personal understanding is most closely reflected by Shakespeare & Rayment-Pickard), we are forced to fall back on an element of predictable reciprocity rather than unlimited transmission which accounts for our legal and fiscal systems; 21st Century social arrangements could not survive without laws and taxes; nonetheless, the imperfections of both are nothing to the imperfections which have rendered both necessary. Our culture is both unforgiving and unremitting and our reaction to complexity in the public sector is to blame officials and politicians when we have lazily, or even selfishly, handed them the problems we are not prepared to solve for ourselves. This further leads to the ethically disastrous position where we think that what they do is somehow divorced from what we would do. If we are really so virtuous why do we not take back responsibility for difficult decisions? The simple answer is that we have made a contract with politicians whereby we will let them take all the difficult decisions and reserve the right to abuse them for what they do on our behalf. We do not see them as symbols of our brokenness but, hypocritically, as enemies of our virtue.

One of the deepest sadnesses of our age, as with every other, is that there is massive evidence that forgiveness and generosity are much more effective for the benefactor, the recipient and society in general than vengeance and meanness. The reasonable objection to this characterisation is that civil justice is not vengeance and fiscal prudence is not meanness but to exact retribution and to make generosity conditional are both contractual arrangements which Jesus clearly opposes.

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching, therefore, needs to be considered very carefully. It begins with Jesus laying down an unconditional principle of forgiveness which He yokes with unconditional generosity. We need to ask how far we can live that unconditional life and how far civil arrangements reflect our ‘fallen’ selves. One approximate formulation might be that the less self disciplined and generous we are, the more civil power society requires to attain a degree of stability. History teaches us, however, that civil instruments can only achieve stability, they cannot generate altruism and their failure to do so both in revolutionary France and the Soviet Union led to the most disastrous consequences. The freeloader’s reliance upon the moral integrity of others is an illusion, as is the notion that virtue can be imposed. Like truth, goodness cannot result from duress. In any case, the only starting point for social improvement is ourselves.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. What is your reading of the parable of the master and servant?
  2. How would you distinguish good works from duty?
  3. To what extent does secular government make up for our collective and individual shortcomings?
  4. What inspired Communism and why did it largely fail?
  5. Why do most of us despise politicians and steer clear of active participation in politics?

Want to read more? Buy Stir Up, O Lord (available in paperback and for all major e-book readers)