Last Sunday, we pondered Jesus’ challenging instructions on how to correct a fellow sinner. Today’s readings give us even more challenging personal instructions on forgiveness. The Psalm sets the tone for the whole week, showing us the foundation of every decision to forgive: “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.” By his very nature, God is merciful. When he calls us to participate in his life, he calls us to do what he does and to offer generous forgiveness. If we do not build on the foundation of his divine mercy, we will have little reason or motivation for forgiving those who offend us.
Forgiveness: when this topic comes up, how easily we can think of offenses we have suffered. We may also recall how we have reacted. In fact, we may still be angry and resentful. Perhaps we have even retaliated for what we have suffered. Some offenses are very serious, and therefore very hard to forgive: betrayal, abuse, infidelity in marriage, attacks on one’s reputation, career or property. Other offenses are smaller, such as being insulted or ignored. Often there is a real injustice involved, which usually strikes us as the main point. God, however, does not look at it that way. At times we must correct and punish, as we learned last Sunday, but the main point is reconciliation, not retaliation. If we get stuck focusing on the injustice, we will find it very difficult to forgive the offense! To forgive once is hard. Seven times seems heroic. How could anyone ever forgive seventy-seven times?
In the reading from the Book of Sirach, we learn that there is a close connection between being forgiven and forgiving. We are told, “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.” Refusal to forgive – which seems to us to be a matter of making the other person suffer – in the end only makes us suffer. Holding onto vengeance will only bring judgment upon us. The reading poses three questions to our conscience: “Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD? Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins? If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?”
The Gospel teaches us the same lesson, but with a vivid demonstration in the parable of the merciful master and his ungrateful servant. The parable forces us to turn our attention away from the sins done against us and look first at our own sins. Jesus begins by mentioning the first debtor’s very large offense against the king. To understand the parable we need to see ourselves as this first servant, for we owe a huge debt to God. Whatever wrong has been done to us is, by comparison, a small debt. One grave wrong we commit against God, one mortal sin, is worthy of eternal punishment. Were it not for God’s mercy, we would be in a hopeless state, with no way of paying back a huge amount. Yet God very freely forgives when we repent! As the beautiful Psalm tells us: “Not according to our sins does he deal with us, nor does he requite us according to our crimes.”
Once we acknowledge that we have been forgiven a huge debt, we have a proper perspective for relating to those who offend us. We must forgive, or we are wicked servants. The parable makes the point quite explicit: “Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” The last line is key: “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.” If we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. We harm ourselves when we do not forgive! When we pray the “Our Father” we ask the Lord to forgive us as we forgive others. Let us forgive from the heart, and receive forgiveness from the heart of God.
Am I still harboring anger or resentment for an injustice? Do I find it difficult to forgive others? When I do forgive, is it from my heart or just words?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 16, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.