In today’s Gospel, after Peter asks Jesus how often he needs to forgive someone who sins against him, Jesus responds with an unbelievable figure: seventy-seven times, which actually represents a larger number than that. And then Jesus tells a parable about a servant whose debt to the king was forgiven, but who did not forgive the debt owed him by a fellow servant. The parable ends with the first servant being tortured, and Jesus concluding the parable by saying, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”
As I was reflecting on the parable, I found myself wondering why the first servant, whose huge debt was forgiven, did not forgive his fellow servant a much smaller debt. After all, any pressure to get money to pay off his debt to the king was gone. I would think that would have put him in a generous mood with regards to his fellow servant. The only thing I can think of is that somehow the first servant didn’t realize what a gift he had been given. The king forgave his entire debt! But somehow the servant didn’t realize the extent of the king’s mercy and compassion.
I wonder if the same dynamic doesn’t apply to us. When we forget how much mercy God has shown us, it can be easy to withhold mercy from others. To put it another way: only when I get in touch with how merciful God has been to me, am I able to show mercy to others. When Peter asks Jesus if he should forgive as many as seven times, I’m sure that he’s thinking he’s being so generous with considering seven times. But you only keep score when you forget that God has not bothered to keep score on you. God doesn’t keep score on us! Otherwise, the Son of God would not have become one of us in order to save us!
Now I can look at my life, and conclude that, since I haven’t killed anyone or embezzled any funds, or committed any act of terrorism that God hasn’t had to show much mercy to me. Except that numerous times I have tried to do it my way instead of His, or given into resentments or been indifferent to people’s needs, or wasted time, or not been true to who and whose I was. I have not always gotten it right, and the times I did get it right I needed grace to do it! Maybe I do need God’s mercy after all.
But aren’t there sins that are unforgiveable? There may be, but it’s not up to me to determine that. To want vengeance is understandable, but it is not the way we see God work in what Jesus says or does. Jesus forgives from the Cross. He forgave Peter and did not give up on him. We can keep score all we want, but it’s a game God chooses not to play. Instead, God wants to use us to bring healing to our world.
To forgive does not mean to deny the truth. I saw on the PBS News Hour some time ago a story about reconciliation in Rwanda. A tribesman who perpetrated violence against another tribe was exposed for what he had done. The truth was out, but reconciliation still occurred. We don’t have to be in denial to forgive. In fact, we need to speak the truth about what has been done. But if the path forward is a never-ending cycle of vengeance, how does that serve God, or the world, or even ourselves? How can I focus on following Jesus when I am bent on getting my revenge?
As outrageous as it is, God forgives us. As outrageous as it is, Jesus calls us to forgive. May we follow this outrageous way of Jesus.
Fr. Phil, CP