Today’s Gospel draws us into a remarkably sensitive area of the faith, that of forgiving others who may have harmed us. There are many who been authentically hurt, and others who that offering forgiveness will make them vulnerable to further harm. Forgiveness is something we experience as a very personal call, and it may, in some cases, be the most challenging thing we have ever been asked to do.
I have titled this Homily carefully, for if we read the parable closely, we must come to understand that mercy and forgiveness are not something we do out of our own flesh. Rather, mercy and forgiveness are a capacities we must find within us as the result of a stunning realization of the mercy we ourselves have been shown. As the remarkable reality f God’s incredible mercy for us, dawns upon us, our hearts are moved and suddenly we don’t hate anyone, and forgiveness is something which flows from our broken, humbled hearts. This is a gift which the Lord offers us. Let’s look at this Gospel in four movements.
I. THE PRESENTATION OF THE PROBLEM – The text says, Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
In effect Peter’s question seems to presuppose that there needs to be a limit to forgiveness, that it is unrealistic to expect human beings to forgive without limit. And many would likely agree with Peter, and might not be even as generous in setting the number at seven times. But Jesus answers by speaking in Jewish way that means essentially, “Peter, we cannot set limits on mercy or forgiveness. Just forgive without limit.”
This of course raises many questions and people like to use extreme examples to illustrate that they think such a principle absurd or impractical. “Do you mean to say a wife should always welcome back her physically abusive husband if he says, “I’m sorry?!” Should a business welcome a stealing employee back and put him in charge of the cash register, just because he said, “I’m sorry?” “Should I have to let my alcoholic uncle stay and disturb my children just because he says he’s sorry and swears he won’t do it again?” Etc.
At some level these questions presuppose that forgiveness is to be fully equated with pretending something never happened, or that forgiveness obliges me to exhibit no change in the relationship, letting “bygones be bygones.” But, in fact we are not always able to live in peace, and have relaxed boundaries with people who have shown themselves to be untrustworthy in a consistent or fundamental way. Forgiveness does not usually oblige us to put ourselves or others at unreasonable risk, or, frankly, to merely set the sinner up for another fall.
But even though we may have to erect necessary and proper boundaries with those who have sinned against us, we are still summoned to forgive them. But what does forgiveness mean in situations like this?
In effect, forgiveness is letting go of the need to change the past. To forgive may not always mean we can simply return to the status quo ante, but it does mean that we are able to let go of resentments, bitterness, desires for revenge, hatefulness, and the need to lash out for what a person did or did not do. Forgiveness means we are able to set down the bowling balls of hatred and anger we so often carry about. It means we can even learn to love those who have harmed us, and have understanding for the struggles that may have contributed to their harmful behavior. Forgiveness can even mean that we are happy for the welfare of those who have hurt us and pray for their continued well being. Ultimately, forgiveness is freeing for us, and a crushing weight is removed when we receive this gift from God.
But how are we to receive this gift? The Lord gives an important insight for us to grasp in the verses ahead.
II. THE POVERTY THAT IS PROFOUND – The text says, That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
The Lord’s parable begins by describing a man (this means you) who owes a huge amount. The Greek text says he owed ten thousand talents (μυρίων ταλάντων). Scripture scholars love to debate exactly how much this would be in modern currency. But for our purposes, it is a Jewish way of saying this guy owed many millions of dollars and he’s not just going to work a little overtime or take a part time job to pay it off. This is a debt that is completely beyond his capacity to pay. This man is toast, he has a profound poverty in that he is completely incapable or ever hoping to make a dent in what he owes.
But understand, this man is you and me. This is our state before God. We have a debt of sin so high and heavy that we can never hope to be rid of it on our own. I don’t care how many spiritual pushups we do, how many novenas, chaplets and rosaries, masses, fastings, pilgrimages, and gifts to the poor. We can’t even make a noticeable dent in the debt we owe.
People like to make light of sin today, and say stupid things like, “I am basically a good person” or “At least I’m not as bad as that prostitute over there.” OK, so you’ve got $500 and she’s only got $50. Big deal, the debt is three trillion. None of us can even come close. Without Christ paying the difference, we’re toast, finished, off to jail, off to hell. For we have all committed the infinite offense of saying “no” to a God who is infinitely holy. You and I just don’t have the resources to turn back the debt.
If it seems I belabor this point, fine. But we really have to get this through our thick skulls. We are in real trouble without Christ. And the more we can grasp our profound poverty and that hell is our destination without Jesus, then the more we can appreciate the gift of what he has done for us. So let this sink in: We are in big trouble, our situation is grave. And old song says, In times like these, you need a savior.
III. THE PITY THAT IS PERSONAL – The text says, Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.
Look at that! Don’t miss this! The WHOLE DEBT is paid. Complete and dramatic mercy! And notice how personal the mercy is. The text uses intensifiers: the master of THAT SERVANT let HIM go and forgave HIM the loan. This man is you. God has done this for you. You.
Now if we miss this point, nothing else makes sense. We have got to let it get through to us what God has done for us. And if we do, it will equip us to show mercy.
One day it will finally dawn on us that the Son of God died for us, died for me. And when it does, our stone hearts will break and love will pour in. And, with broken humbled hearts, we will find it hard to hate anyone. And in our gratitude we will gladly forgive those who have hurt us, even those who still hate us. With a new heart that the Lord can give us, we will forgive gladly, joyfully, and consistently out of gratitude and humility at what God has done for us.
But we have to get this. We have to know our poverty and inability to save ourselves. And then we have to know and experience that Jesus paid it all, that he saved us wholly and freely. And if this will break through for us, we will forgive and love others.
If we do not get this, and refuse to let the Holy Spirit to minister this gift to us, some pretty awful things will happen that are detailed in the final section of this gospel.
IV. THE PITILESSNESS THAT IS PERILOUS – The text tells a very tragic story: When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized one of his fellow servants and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his 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.”
Apparently this wicked servant never got in touch with his true poverty and refused to experience the gift that he himself had received. And in refusing this, his heart remained unbroken, it remained hard, it was stone. Having experienced no mercy (though mercy HAD been extended) he was willfully ill-equipped to show mercy to others. And being callously unaware of the unbelievable gift he had been given, he remains unchanged. In so doing and being, he was unfit for the Kingdom of God, which can only be entered by gladly receiving mercy.
And yet, many Christians are like this. They go about quite unaware and unappreciative of either their need for mercy, or that incredible mercy has been extended them. Unaware, they are ungrateful, and ungrateful, their hearts are unbroken, and no light or love has really been able to enter there. Hurt by others they therefore hurt back, or hold grudges, or grow arrogant and unkind. They lack compassion or understanding for others and consider themselves superior to others, whom they see as worse sinners than themselves. Forgiveness is considered by them to be either a sign of weakness, or something that only foolish people do. As for them, “they don’t get angry, they get even.”
And it all begins with a person who has never known just how grave their condition and awful their poverty really is. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked (Rev 3:17). And refusing to see their poverty they do not appreciate their gift, and so the terrible cycle ensues.
Scripture warns in many places of our need to experience and show mercy:
- Matt 6:14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins
- Matt 5:7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
- Matt 7:2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
- Luke 6:37 Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
- Matt 18:35 This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.
- James 2:13 For judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. But mercy triumphs over judgment!
- Sirach 27:30 The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance, for He remembers their sin in detail. Forgive your neighbor’s injustice, then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Can anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord? Can anyone refuse mercy to another like himself and then seek pardon for his own sins? Remember your last days, set enmity aside. Remember death and cease from sin. Think of the Commandments, hate not your neighbor, remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.
I don’t know about you, but I am going to need mercy on the day of judgement. And the Lord actually teaches in texts like these that we can have influence over the standard of judgment he will use. Do you want to find mercy? Then receive it now from him, and show it to others. Otherwise you will be judged with strict justice. And I promise you, you don’t want that. For if strict justice is the measure, we will surely go to Hell. We just owe too much to think we can make it without mercy.
OK, a tough gospel, but a freeing one too. It is sure that some of us find it hard to forgive. And some have been very deeply hurt. But in the end, forgiveness is a gift we have to receive from God. It is a work of God in us. And we should, and must ask for it. Even if we feel very hurt, seek the gift, it will bless you and prepare you to receive more mercy. But hear carefully the warnings. For if we cling to our anger, and refuse the freeing gift of forgiveness, we become unfit for the kingdom of heaven. No matter how deep our hurts we cannot ultimately justify our anger and refusal to forgive. God has just been too good to us. And if that will dawn on us, our hearts will break with joy and be filled with love. And forgiveness will surely come with a new heart.
Photo Credit: From the Josephite Collection
This songs says, Your grace and mercy brought me through, I’m living this moment because of you. I want to thank you, and praise you too, your grace and mercy brought me through.