“Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” So says the wisdom-writer Sirach in today’s first reading. His words set up well the Gospel today, and the overall emphasis of forgiveness as a powerful tool for the disciple. The disciple would do well to abandon wrath and anger, and hold fast to forgiveness: eagerly seeking it for himself, and freely giving it to others. These readings come on the heels of what we heard last week, which was about the way the Christian disciple resolves conflict. Forgiveness is the natural conclusion to that discussion.
But forgiveness, sadly, doesn’t seem to come as naturally to us as it does to our God. Sinners though we are, we seem to always gravitate toward wrath and anger. You can see it well in just about every corner of our world right now. We don’t have interesting conversations about political issues any more: we have wrath and anger. In an election year like this one, campaigns no longer provide us with convincing reasons to vote for a candidate; instead they numb us to everything so that the truth can hardly be found. Even a pandemic, which should galvanize us and make us all want to seek the common good, has only been weaponized to divide us further. All we see is wrath and anger, and I don’t know about you, but I’m sure weary of it.
Well, friends, the way that we move forward has to do with forgiveness. Those who hug wrath and anger tight will never be at peace; peace only comes from forgiving and letting go of the poison. So how do we forgive?
In the Gospel, Peter wants the Lord to spell out the rule of thumb: how often must we forgive another person who has wronged us? Peter offers what he thinks is magnanimous: seven times. Seven times is a lot of forgiveness. Think about it, how exasperated do we get when someone wrongs us over and over? Seven times was more than the law required, so Peter felt like he was catching on to what Jesus required in living the Gospel. But that’s not what Jesus was going for: he wanted a much more forgiving heart from his disciples: not seven times, but seventy-seven times! Even if we take that number literally, which we shouldn’t, that’s more forgiveness than we can begin to imagine. But the number here is just to represent something bigger than ourselves: constant forgiveness. The real answer to Peter’s question is that we don’t number forgiveness: just as our God forgives us as many times as we come to him in repentance, so we should forgive others who do that with us.
The parable that Jesus tells to illustrate the story is filled with interesting little details. The servant in the story owes the master a huge amount of money. Think of the biggest sum you can imagine someone owing another person and add a couple of zeroes to the end of it. It’s that big. He will never live long enough or earn enough money to repay the master, no matter what efforts he puts forth. So the master would be just in having him and everything he owned and everyone he cared about sold. It still wouldn’t repay the debt, but it would be more than he would otherwise get. But the servant pleads for mercy, and the master gives it. In fact, he does more than he’s asked to do: he doesn’t just give the servant more time to pay, he forgives the entire loan! That’s incredible mercy!
On the way home, however, the servant forgets about who he is: a sinner who has just been forgiven a huge debt, and he encounters another servant who owes him a much smaller sum than he owed the master – for us it would be like ten or twenty dollars. But the servant has not learned to forgive as he has been forgiven: he hands the fellow servant over to be put into debtor’s prison until he can repay the loan. But that in itself is a humorous little detail. In prison, how is he going to repay the loan? He can’t work, right? So basically the fellow servant is condemned for the rest of his life. For twenty dollars.
We don’t have to do a lot of math or theological thinking to see the injustice here. The servant has been forgiven something he could never repay, no matter how long he lived. But he was unwilling to give that same forgiveness to his fellow servant; he was unwilling to give him even a little more time to repay the loan, which the other servant certainly could have done. That kind of injustice is something that allows a person to condemn him or herself for the rest of eternity. The disciple is expected to learn to forgive and is expected to forgive as he or she has been forgiven. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We can’t just say those words when we pray and then withhold mercy from our sisters and brothers; we actually have to forgive those who trespass against us.
This call to a kind of heroic forgiveness takes on a new meaning when we consider the state of our world today. We still have conflicts all over the world. In fact, I’ve read that as many as a third of the nations of the world are currently involved in some sort of conflict. And we owe a great debt to those who are fighting to keep our nation safe. But I don’t think we can stop with that. We will never find the ultimate answer to terrorism and injustice in human endeavor. We have to reach for something of more divine origin, and that something, I think, is the forgiveness that Jesus calls us to in today’s gospel.
And it starts with us. We have been forgiven so much by God. So how willing have we then been to forgive others? Our reflection today might take us to the people or institutions that have wronged us in some way. Can we forgive them? Can we at least ask God for the grace to be forgiving? I always tell people that forgiveness is a journey. We might not be ready to forgive right now, but we can ask for the grace to be ready. Jesus didn’t say it would be easy, did he? But we have to stop sending people to debtor’s prison for the rest of their lives if we are going to honor the enormous freedom that God’s forgiveness has won for us.
Every time we forgive someone, every time we let go of an injustice that has been done to us, the world is that much more peaceful. We may well always have war and the threat of terrorism with us. But that doesn’t mean we have to like it. That doesn’t mean we have to participate in it. It certainly doesn’t mean we have to perpetuate it. Real peace, real change, starts with us. If we choose to forgive others, maybe our own corner of the world can be more just, more merciful. And if we all did that, think of how our world could be significantly changed.
As the Psalmist sings today: “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.” So should the Lord’s disciples be.