The Gospel this Sunday 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 fear that in offering forgiveness they will become vulnerable to further harm. Forgiveness is something we experience as a very personal call; in some cases, it may be the most challenging thing we are ever asked to do.
I have titled this Homily carefully; if we read the parable closely we will come to understand that mercy and forgiveness are not something we do out of our own flesh. Rather, they are capacities we must find within ourselves. As the remarkable reality of God’s incredible mercy for us dawns upon us, our hearts are moved. Suddenly we don’t hate anyone and forgiveness flows from our broken, humbled hearts. This is a gift that 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.”
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. Many would likely agree with Peter and might not even propose to be as generous as forgiving seven times. Jesus answers by speaking in a Jewish way, telling Peter that we cannot set limits on mercy or forgiveness, but must forgive without limit.
This of course raises many questions. Some people like to use extreme examples to illustrate that they think such a principle absurd or impractical: Do you mean to say that a wife should welcome back her physically abusive husband as long as he says he’s sorry? Should a business welcome back an embezzler and put him in charge of the cash register as long as he says he’s sorry? Should I let my alcoholic uncle stay with us and disturb my children as long as he says he’s sorry and swears he won’t do it again?
On some level these questions imply that forgiveness is to be fully equated with pretending that something never happened, or that it obligates me to maintain an unchanged relationship and let “bygones be bygones.” 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 obligate us to put ourselves or others at unreasonable risk or to 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. What does forgiveness mean in situations like this?
In effect, forgiveness is letting go of the need to change the past. Forgiving does not necessarily mean simply returning to the status quo ante, but it does mean letting go of resentments, bitterness, hatefulness, desires for revenge, and the need to lash out at someone for what he did or did not do. Forgiving means setting down ball and chain of hatred and anger we so often carry about. It means learning to love those who have harmed us and understanding the struggles that may have contributed to their harmful behavior. Forgiving can even mean being happy for the health and welfare of those who have hurt us and praying for their continued well being. Ultimately, forgiveness is freeing; a crushing weight is removed when we receive this gift from God.
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 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 that this fellow owes a great deal of money and it’s going to take more than working a little overtime or taking on a part-time job. This is a debt that is completely beyond his ability to pay. The situation is hopeless; the man is so profoundly poor that he is completely incapable of ever making a dent in what he owes.
This man is each one of us; this is our state before God. We have a debt of sin so high and so 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 we say, how often we go to Mass, how many pilgrimages we undertake, or how much we give to the poor. We can’t even make a noticeable dent what we owe.
People like to make light of sin today, saying such inane things as, “I’m basically a good person” or “At least I’m not as bad as that prostitute over there.” So you’ve got $500 in your pocket and she’s only got $50. Big deal; the debt owed is three trillion dollars. None of us can even come close to paying it off. Without Christ paying the difference, we’re finished; off to jail; off to Hell. 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.
You may think I’m belaboring the point, but we really have to get this through our thick skulls. We are in real trouble without Christ. The more we can grasp our profound poverty and understand that without Jesus Hell is our destination, the more we can appreciate the gift of what He has done for us. Let this sink in: We are in big trouble; our situation is grave. An 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! 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.
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. 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. When it does, our stone hearts will break and love will pour in. With broken, humbled hearts, we will find it hard to hate anyone. In our gratitude we will gladly forgive those who have hurt us, even those who still hate us. With the new heart that the Lord can give us, we will forgive gladly, joyfully, and consistently out of gratitude and humility.
But we have to understand this. We have to know our poverty and recognize our inability to save ourselves. Then we have to know and experience that Jesus paid it all, that He saved us wholly and freely. If this will break through for us, we will forgive and love others.
If we do not understand this and we refuse to let the Holy Spirit to minister this gift to us, some pretty awful things will happen.
IV. THE PITILESSNESS THAT IS PERILOUS – The text then relates a 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. As a result, his heart remained unbroken; it remained hard; it was stone. Having experienced no mercy (though mercy had been extended to him) he was willfully ill-equipped to show mercy to others. Callously unaware of the unbelievable gift he had been given, he remained unchanged. In so doing and being, he was unfit for the Kingdom of God, which can only be entered by gladly receiving mercy.
Yet many Christians are like this. They go through their life unaware and unappreciative of either their need for mercy or even the fact that incredible mercy has been extended to them. Unaware, they are ungrateful. Ungrateful, their hearts are unbroken; no light or love has been able to enter. Hurt by others they respond by hurting back, holding grudges, or growing arrogant and unkind. They lack compassion for or understanding of others and consider themselves superior to those whom they view as worse sinners than they are. They think that forgiveness is either a sign of weakness or something that only foolish people offer. They don’t get angry; they get even.
It all begins with a person who doesn’t understand the gravity of his condition or the depth of his poverty. 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). Refusing to see their poverty they do not appreciate their gift; so the terrible cycle ensues.
Scripture warns in many places of our need to experience and show mercy:
- 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 6:14).
- Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matt 5:7).
- For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you (Matt 7:2).
- Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37).
- This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart (Matt 18:35).
- For judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. But mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:13)
- 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 (Sirach 27:30).
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to need a lot of mercy on the day of judgement. In texts like these, he Lord teaches that we can have an influence on 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. I promise you; you don’t want that! 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.
This is a tough Gospel, but a freeing one. Certainly some of us find it hard to forgive. Some have been deeply hurt. In the end, forgiveness is a gift that we must receive from God. It is a work of God in us. We should, we must ask for it. Even if we feel hurt, we must seek the gift; it will bless us and prepare us to receive more mercy. Listen carefully to the warnings. 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 justify our anger and refusal to forgive. God has just been too good to us. 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.
This song 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.”