it ain’t necessarily so …. feeling guilty and the Bible

sistine handsSo who needs guilt when you’ve got the Bible?   The Bible is guaranteed to make us all feel guilty about wicked things we have done, or thought about doing, or wanted to do on a dark night, or might even just like to try once if we had the chance, and guilty about all the good things that we haven’t done, that we know we ought to do but can’t bring ourselves round to doing.


Ancient Greeks and Romans used to sacrifice sheep and fruit and grain so that the gods wouldn’t punish them but would forgive them for all the bad things they had done, and the caricature of Christianity is that we Christians sacrificed Jesus so that God wouldn’t punish us for all the bad things we have done, but will forgive us. -  and that – in a very simple sentence –  is still how many people see Christianity in 2017.  We humans beings are bad, God up in heaven is good, so we had better feel guilty and say sorry to Jesus and then everything will be OK.    But – my friends – it ain’t necessessarily so …   there is another way.

For a start, no, we’re not bad.  Yes we do some bad things sometimes, and yes there are bad things we don’t do but we might do if we had half the chance – but yes there are also lots of good things that we do do.  But – lets start off by saying that no one in this church is all bad, – and no one in this church is all good either – we are all of us a mix.   And we’re not even a consistent mix.  We’re nice to some people and we’re nasty to others. We judge some people, but we don’t judge others.  We forgive some people, but we don’t forgive others,  we do some good deeds, and we don’t do others.  We love some people but we don’t love others … we are, in fact, all mixed up.  We’re not all that bad, and not perfectly good either – we’re just a bit confused… and that’s quite normal.

If we lived in 1400 we would have been confused then as well – but we would be have been confused about different things.   We would probably like people from Leyton – because they are like us and we know them – but we would have distrusted people from Yorkshire,  – like me and Denise – because we speak different.  And whether we were from Yorkshire or Essex none of us would like witches – we’d have been scared of them.

And if we lived a couple of hundred years later in 1600 we wouldn’t like catholics either  – because we would have been told that they’re secretive and mysterious and work for the Pope.   And if we lived in 1800, or 1900, or 2000 then there would be other groups of people or races that we would pick on not to like -  and so the story goes on right up to 2017.  Every generation has judged people who are different – it’s just that it’s not always the same people that get judged – because whatever we think about anything …. it aint necessarily so….. witches are not devil worshipers, and most of them were just eccentric women who tried to heal people using herbs and potions – today they would be running highly successful alternative medicine clinics and making an honest living.  Catholics – well, they’re not trying to overthrow the monarchy – they’re just Christian people going to Mass.

And so twenty years ago we thought one thing, ten years ago we thought another, and today we think something else……..  So if we’re as mixed up as all that, then who are we to pass eternal judgement on another person?

So perhaps the Bible isn’t about making us feel guilty after all, but is about something else….  As the song goes  -   it ain’t necessarily so.

You see the parable this morning about the slave who is forgiven and then fails to forgive someone else, is not there to make us feel guilty -  in fact it’s not about sin, or guilt, or fear, or even about torture – it’s not even really about God – it’s about the Kingdom of heaven.   It is The Kingdom of heaven which may be compared to a king …….   And even though Jesus explicitly does not say  ‘God is like a king who wished to settle accounts’  we still read it as if he did.   But what Jesus says is that ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts’   So This is a parable about how people interact with one another  – It is a story of a world where everyone affects everyone else – he could just as easily have said – in the Kingdom of heaven there are no individuals, no private deals, no ‘just me and God.’

And so in the story first of all there is the king – the one who wants to settle his accounts, and then there is the slave who owes the king some money,  – but there are also his wife and his children, and whatever he does and the king does will affect them.   And then there is the other slave – the one who owes money to the first slave, and then there are the fellow slaves who look on and are angry ……  everyone is involved, everyone is affected, and every person has a role to play.  And it seems to me that what really matters is not who is right or wrong, not who is guilty and owes money or doesn’t, what really matters in this kingdom of heaven that Jesus is describing is whether or not they are able to sympathise with other people – even when they are wrong.   The King feels sorry for the slave and his family – the other slaves feel sorry for the slave who has not has his debt forgiven,  but the first slave does not feel sorry for anyone, except himself  – he doesn’t even seem to care much about his own wife and children– after all he was the one who got them into this predicament – and he certainly doesn’t feel any sympathy for the slave who owes him money – he is the weak link in Jesus’s kingdom.  He is the one who breaks down a system which could have worked … how different the whole story would have been if the first slave had generously forgiven the second slave just as he himself had been generously forgiven by the king.

But then Jesus does say those harsh words: ‘his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

back to guilt…..  if we don’t forgive – and none of us truly forgive everything always -  then we will be punished by God.   But no …. it ain’t necessarily so .

The Bible is Good News, and it is not good news if we are to be handed over to the torturers with everyone else who has never forgiven.  And God is good and forgiving and does not desire the death of a sinner.   So what it going on.

Well whenever I read a sentence like this one … So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”   I do not think it means that God will punish us when we die for all the wicked things we have done and for all the evil things we have not done.   I think that when we die God will forgive us …. but I think that if we do not forgive our brother and sister from our heart … then the punishment begins now, while we are still alive.  Just as the slave had the choice to live freely in a generous and forgiving world, and he blew it by his selfishness, so we do as well, every day, have the choice to live freely in a generous and forgiving world, or we can lose it by selfishness, unforgiveness, by failing to imagine what other people are feeling, to empathise with them and see them as human beings just like us.  The choice is ours – one way leads to a wonderful kingdom of heaven,  where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven,  the other way leads to torture and punishment until the last issue is untangled and sorted.   Whether it is our personal selfishness and unforgiveness, or whether it is the massive selfishness and unforgiveness of countries against each other, races against each other, peoples against each other.  Day by day – the Bible tells us – we have the choice.  Forgive, sympathise with other people, love them  and the earth … or destroy yourselves.  That is the choice.  Jesus’s parable is stark. It is not about making us feel guilty and scared.  It is about helping us to understand that the better way, really is the better way .. that the Kingdom of heaven is the only way that works.

The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington