“I just paint things I always thought were beautiful, things you use every day and never think about.”
Those are the words of Andy Warhol. I went to the exhibition of his work at the Tate Modern the other day. It was an amazing collection of some of his most iconic prints of ordinary things: most famously, perhaps, his image of Campbell’s soup tins repeated across a huge canvass. Just soup cans, one after another, repeated in a way that strangely holds your attention and makes you reflect in a surprisingly original way.
You start seeing beauty in the everyday in a way you didn’t before, and you reflect on what makes something precious or beautiful. Why not a can of soup?
Warhol seemed to have an extraordinary knack for something very intriguing. By taking an ordinary thing, and simply repeating it, he created something beautiful and powerful.
I think there is a similar dynamic at work in our gospel reading today. For Jesus teaches us that forgiveness is not something we should do every once in a while when its particularly needful or important. No. Forgiveness is something that needs to take place regularly in our lives. Not seven times, but seventy seven times. It is a thing that should repeat itself, time and time again.
In many ways an everyday act of forgiveness is quite a simple, uncomplicated thing: making an effort to get on with someone you had a row with; making amends with someone who insulted you; putting behind you a cross word or harsh criticism that you know someone made in anger without really meaning it. But just like one of those pictures by Warhol, by repeating a simple every day action, something of greater beauty and power emerges.
For it’s by regularly making and receiving acts of simple forgiveness that we find the strength to forgive on those few occasions when it’s actually much more difficult.
If forgiveness has become a natural part of your life, if it has become part of the warp and weft, then it becomes a natural pattern in the bigger, more complex things too. The problem with the servant Jesus speaks about in today’s parable is that although he receives forgiveness, he is not used to being forgiving himself.
Philosophers and theologians call this kind of thinking virtue ethics. It’s a useful way of looking on life. For ethics isn’t about calculating what the right decision is to take under certain circumstances. No Christian ethics is about something different.
It’s about growing in virtue in such a way that doing the right thing comes naturally. It’s about cultivating the habits and perspectives in life than make being virtuous easier. It’s realising that the more you forgive people, the easier it is to forgive. The more you forgive, the more natural and more fruitful and more life changing it becomes.
And all this happens for one very simple reason. The more you forgive, the more God is at work in your life.
So today is an opportunity to remember that truth we learn in those strange Warhol prints. By taking something simple and everyday, and by repeating it, we create something beautiful and powerful. Through small acts of forgiveness – both giving and receiving, repeated day in, day out, mercy and love become a natural part of our outlook on life.
The more love and mercy characterise our actions and thoughts, the easier it is to forgive when it’s really difficult. When we’ve been deliberately attacked and feel hurt, when we’ve been betrayed or cheated on, when we’ve been lied to or callously gossiped about. For it is then that we really need to forgive. And if we can, then we reveal something of what God himself is like – loving, merciful and always ready to welcome us back to his heart.