Reflection for a service with Selwyn College at the Cathedral 14 September, 2014
Thinking about Matthew 18: 21-35.
The question I have this morning is how do we map the history of an idea? Sometimes it seems to me that it is like taking the end of a piece of string and following where it takes you.
So, with Bishop Neville and the founding of Selwyn College, it is important to remember what he did not found: it was not to be a student hostel; it was not to be a hall of residence; it was certainly not to be a boarding house. It was to be a College: and as like as he could make it, to the Colleges that formed the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
Accordingly it was to be a self-governing community. It was to be a community of scholars: with a mix of faculty, postgraduates and undergraduates; it was to be a community with a common life – dining and living facilities, common rooms, tutorials and, always, a chapel. This Oxbridge model of the College evolved in the 13th century, largely shaped by the influence of the church but, following the string a little further back, its genesis can be traced to the medieval Monastic and Cathedral schools where learning and a common life went hand in hand. Farther back the thread starts to fray out into various sources but retains a strand that leads directly to communities that gathered about the Gospels and passed on the Christian story with, at its heart, a vision of what it is to be truly human.
And that is where we are taken this morning by that provocative parable we have just listened to. To make sense of the parable is itself like taking hold of one end of a string and following it to find that the story it seems to tell us draws us into a far greater story. On the face of it, what have we got? Peter asks a question about rules in the community – how many times should he forgive someone? The answer he gets is illustrated with the story we have just heard: a king forgives a servant a vast debt, but that servant will not forgive a fellow servant who owes him a trivial sum. Accordingly the unforgiving servant is imprisoned. But, is this story really about forgiveness?
Think about it. Push the boundaries of the parable. Remember, Peter asks how many times he should forgive someone in the community who has sinned against him and the answer is that Peter should not keep score and should never stop forgiving. That sounds an unrealistic and impractical proposition – almost anarchic and lawless; and quite impossible. But this is where the parable kicks in and we discover that the parable is really about us and what it means to be human.
In the frame of the parable it is no great step to say that the King represents God but we don’t immediately grasp that the servant with the unimaginable debt is you and me, Peter, anyone. Think about it: the source of all our being, the source of all that is, is God; and the mystery of our life and everything that is can be imagined as an unpayable debt; but, as the parable shows, this not a debt we are to be burdened or oppressed by. Instead, freed debtors all of us, we are free to enjoy who we are and what we have; free in the knowledge that our being is grounded in a loving and gracious creator. Following the thread of the parable then is to be reminded of who we really are: God’s creatures, grounded in God; living generously, fearlessly, creatively and in peace.
Alas – something is wrong. The second section of the parable shows us acting as if we had no memory of having been given (or forgiven) anything; without any consciousness of gift or gratitude; we seem to have no memory of who we are. Someone or something offends us and we assert ourselves to get our rights and our way. In that moment, in that graceless display of self-centred egotism, we catch a glimpse of what happens when we have forgotten who we are, lost sight of our gift of being, and are disconnected from our source in God! In that unforgiving servant throttling his neighbour we recognise ourselves and what we do to one another and to our world. To recognise this is to contemplate life without grace.
The final section of the parable is the prison scene, but behind the narrative frame is a warning of the violence we risk to ourselves disconnected from God. The ‘God-connection’ shapes and forms who we are and how we act. To live unmindful of God is to risk being chained, imprisoned and tortured by our resentments and grievances (real or imagined); to fret about the person we might have been and grieve over the person we fear we have become.
No wonder we daily pray ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ To pray that prayer, to be formed by that prayer, is to keep hold on the thread of Bishop Neville’s vision for Selwyn College; and his vision for this Cathedral.