Last Sunday, Jesus’ instruction was about fraternal correction. This week, as we continue to read from Matthew 18, our focus shifts from correcting to forgiving. At the heart of the Gospel is the call to extend mercy to others because God has been so merciful to us.
What do we do when someone wrongs us? What if he repeatedly wrongs us? This is Peter’s question to Jesus: “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive?” When the topic of forgiveness comes up, we can easily think of offenses that we have suffered, and we recall how hard it is to forgive! We are most often offended by those who are close to us. Some offenses are very serious: betrayal, abuse, infidelity in marriage, attacks on one’s reputation or property, etc. Even smaller offenses like rudeness or selfishness are hard for us to forgive. We respond with anger, resentment, and even vengeance, saying to ourselves, He had no right to say that! What did I ever do to him? In a sense, we are right, but focusing on the injustice makes it very difficult for us to forgive. To forgive even once is hard enough; we cannot imagine forgiving unlimited times!
Yet unlimited mercy is precisely what Jesus asks of us, his followers. When Peter asks him how many times he should forgive, he is probably thinking that “seven times” is very generous. But Jesus goes far beyond that number: “not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Pope Francis notes in this week’s Spiritual Reflection, “in the symbolic language of the Bible this means that we are called to forgive always.”
To further illustrate his answer to Peter’s question, Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving servant. When we are offended, we tend to think only of that painful offense, but Jesus does not begin the parable with one servant’s offense against another. Instead, he begins with the first servant’s much larger offense against the king. The message is that, before we consider how offended we are, we must recall that we are the first servant who owes a huge debt to God, our King. Whatever wrong has been done to us is very small compared to our offense against the King. In the parable, the first servant owed a huge debt that was impossible to pay back. The second servant owed the first servant a fraction of that amount. We owe God a huge amount. The just punishment for one mortal sin is eternal condemnation. Justice is all on God’s side. Were it not for his mercy, we would be in a hopeless state, for we have no way of paying back our debt. Yet God very freely forgives us when we repent! Should we not do the same?
The beautiful Psalm today reflects on the greatness of God’s mercy. “The Lord is kind and merciful…. Not according to our sins does he deal with us, nor does he requite us according to our crimes.” God has already forgiven our huge debt. This gives us the proper perspective for evaluating the offenses we suffer from others. We must forgive, or we are exactly like the wicked servant who lacked mercy and so was justly punished. Jesus tells us that God the Father will do the same to us, unless we forgive our brother “from the heart.”
The connection between forgiving and being forgiven is not new. We can find this lesson in the Book of Sirach, from which today’s first reading is taken: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD?” We are reminded of this at every Mass, and whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
When we refuse to forgive, we think we are “getting back” at the one who has hurt us. In fact, however, we are doing more harm to ourselves. We are relying on ourselves rather than on God, and we are making ourselves less and less like him. Pope Francis reminds us that we must rely on God’s grace in order to forgive: “Forgiveness isn’t something we do in a moment, it is something continuous.” If we think we can get it over with once and for all, we will struggle, because “resentment returns like a bothersome fly in the summer that keeps coming back.”
At the Last Supper, Jesus told us to love each other as he loves us (cf. Jn 13:34). The next day, as he hung on the Cross, he prayed for mercy for those who were crucifying him (cf. Lk 23:34). This is the merciful love that he commands us to imitate. His love is for everyone, even for those who insult, injure, and afflict him. He has forgiven us our sins and has opened the way to eternal life with him. When we forgive those who offend us, we are taking on the merciful Heart of Jesus. We are abandoning the tendencies of our natural heart, which is so often bent on resentment and revenge, and allowing ourselves to be filled to overflowing with the love of the merciful Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Why do I harbor resentment toward those who may have offended me in the past? What makes it so hard for me to forgive others not only once but unlimited times? How does “getting back” at the one who hurt me separate me from God’s grace?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 19, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.