How Often Must I Forgive?

[Homily: Monday of Third Week in Lent. Based on Mt. 18: 21-25]

Our Gospel reading for this day begins with the question, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?” That, I am certain, is a question that is close to the heart of many persons trying hard to be disciples of Jesus, but have in their lives a brother or sister, sometimes even a blood-brother or a blood-sister, who has wronged him or her. That can be rooted in an argument over a family inheritance, a dispute about a financial transaction, or an injury due to something done in malice. It can have to do with a fellow student who has borrowed money from you, or with another student who has wronged you by backbiting, or a student who has failed you in friendship, not just once but many times.

“How often must I forgive?” Our Lord’s reply: forgive, forgive, forgive – not only seven times, but seventy-times-seven times! Here, “seventy-times-seven is not the mathematical product “490”, but the virtual imperative, “Forgive always!” If your admission to the Kingdom of God is through your having been forgiven infinitely in God’s mercy, you too must be able always to forgive others – especially when this concerns your life, and those who are indebted to you. Forgive, because you recall how in life you have been forgiven – over and over again!

The parable in today’s Gospel portrays, on the one hand, a King who had decided “to settle accounts with his servants” and, on the other hand, the servant who knew that his accounts could not be settled favorably, that his deficit would be disastrous, that there was no way possible that he could avoid the terrible justice of his King. This justice, he knew, would cause the confiscation of all his property and force him, his wife and his children into slavery.

Having no other recourse, he fell at the feet of his King and simply asked for an extension of the deadline to settle his debt. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “And I will pay you back in full.”

Moved by his entreaty, the King does not merely extend his deadline. He does what in the manner of the world would seem uncontrolled, irrational, or even foolish: He forgives the debt! He takes compassion on his servant. “Compassion” meaning: he is able to “suffer-with” his servant, to feel his horror at the prospect of being sold with his wife and children into slavery, to feel his fear, and his loss of face. He is able conversely to feel his servant’s rush of joy at being liberated from debt able finally to live life freed of worry and despair. That is the way of this King. He forgave.

There is no explicit injunction from the King in this parable, “As I have forgiven you, so you should forgive others.” There is no articulation of the moral imperative arising from the servant’s encounter with the King, “As I have been forgiven my debt, so too must I forgive others.” The “Therefore, this is the way I must act…” coming upon the experience of the King’s compassion is left to the intelligence and moral reasoning of the servant.

Here, we know, he failed miserably. That belongs to the core message of this Gospel. When the servant found his own servant who owed him a great debt, he demanded he pay it back. In full. The servant’s servant fell at the knees of his debtor and begged for forgiveness. But unlike the first servant’s master, he neither felt nor exercised compassion. Instead, merciless, “he had him put in prison until he had paid his debt” (Mt. 18:30).

When the affair was reported to the King, the King summoned his servant: “You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your servant as I had pity on you?” The Gospel ends with the words: “Then in anger the Master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart” (Mt. 18:35).

The ending is good news for sinners who have great debts to the King and have no way of paying these debts, and bad news for those who have been forgiven great debts and who do not use the experience of this forgiveness as a warrant themselves to exercise forgiveness. It is good news for sinners who have experienced the gracious mercy of the just judge, and bad news for Christians who forgetting this mercy exercise just justice. It is insight into the King and his Kingdom. This is a King who is not just an abstract, unfeeling, uniformly applicable “Law” or “Natural Law” or “Eternal Law” unmoved and immutable; this is a King who is moved, is responsive, feels the suffering of his people, is touched by entreaties for forgiveness, is sensitive to their human need for “face” and “dignity” and responsibility to wife and children, and exercises his kingship in understanding, love and mercy. But this is also a King who cannot extend infinite mercy if the debtor himself in his life and life choices blocks out even finite mercy, sees only the cold, hard demands of justice, and opts to see people suffer in their indebtedness rather than forgive. This is a King whose mercy cannot be extended to one who in life says in principle no to mercy, and insists adamantly on the demands of justice. The Gospel says: to one who insists on justice, he will get just justice; to the one who pleas for mercy, he will receive mercy in the compassion of the just King.

Everyday, very easily, we say the Lord’s prayer. When we pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” let us think of the Kingdom portrayed in this parable, a Kingdom whose center is a loving and compassionate King, a Kingdom peopled by subjects who forgive one another, because they know themselves forgiven by the King. When we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” let us recall the servant who received forgiveness, but who could not move from the experience of forgiveness, to the moral imperative himself to forgive. He insisted rather on not forgiving that offensive word once spoken so embarrassingly in public about him, on not forgiving the arrogance of once having made a decision against his desires, on not forgiving once being placed on the painful side of disloyalty in friendship. Let us understand: One can be so just in not forgiving, but miss the entire point of Jesus.

Our Gospel reading for this day begins with the question, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?” Reflecting on your lives, and the wounds in your lives, how would you answer this truthfully?

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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