The Thing with Forgiveness

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Last weekend we heard from Jesus about correction, which is something we are more inclined to give than we are to receive. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault. … If he refuses to listen, take one or two others along with you. … If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. … If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” Easily when someone is doing something that does not meet our personal approval, especially if we have the sanction of sacred scripture or some actual legitimate secular authority, or the lethal sympathy of the eager mob on social media that revels in public shaming, some among us will not hesitate to point out to them that they messed up. (You know who you are.) Some even make it their self-appointed mission to pronounce judgement on their own authority. We might even go further, knowing the proper penalty to impose on the offender: a public reprimand, a fine, a suspension of some privilege, a withdrawal of support, a public indictment, a conviction, life in prison, summary execution. And some people wouldn’t even hesitate to hand out a verdict of hellfire and brimstone.

Today we hear Jesus speak about forgiveness, something we are more inclined to receive than we are to give. That second part of the gospel parable on its own would make relative sense. A servant demands that a fellow servant pay the debt he owes. His inability to meet his obligation earns him a rather severe penalty. Now he might get away with it if it was acceptable for the king to punish his servant in just this way for a similar offense. I found this on a legal information website. “You cannot go to prison for failing to pay for a credit card, loan, or hospital bill. You can, however, be [sent] to jail [for not paying] your taxes or child support. The U.S. Supreme Court has outlawed the use of prison to punish [those] who fail to pay for court costs and fines as part of their sentence. [But] many state and local courts [bypass] this by assessing fees, fines, and costs as part of a civil fine or ‘criminal justice debt,’ or a condition of someone’s probation or parole. In that way, if you fail to pay these fines, you may go to jail.[1]

But that little twist in the first part of the parable changes the whole tone of the story, when the king wrote off the servant’s entire huge debt. Imagine what it would be like if your student loans just went away, your mortgage, the national debt. The lesson which is more about God than us invites a similar response in the way we relate to our sisters and brothers. God forgives generously. The implication is so should we. But the debt Jesus refers to is something entirely other than financial. We can all acknowledge God’s gracious gift of life which we did not deserve or earn. Then we can add to the pile all other blessings we have neither deserved or earned, our awesome families, amazing friends, our freedoms and opportunities, our lavish tables, uplifting works of art and literature, inspiration, entertainment, goodwill, tidings of comfort and joy. But in our sinfulness and human weakness, by our selfishness and pride, our jealousy and lust, our dishonesty and disrespect, our arrogance, ingratitude, and resentment, we display a total lack of appreciation and gratitude for God’s mercy extended to us when we were totally undeserving and in need. Our many and grievous offenses against the goodness and mercy of God incur a debt so huge there is no way we can pay it. But somehow we expect forgiveness from God whenever we ask it. The parable is not about God taking back his forgiveness in retaliation for our lack of willingness to forgive. Rather it is a serious warning to keep in mind if and when we are tempted to withhold mercy from our equally undeserving fellow servants who plead with us.

But Peter’s question that prompts the parable concerns our obligation as his disciples having known God’s mercy ourselves, to extend forgiveness in the face of an offending neighbor’s repeated evil and disgraceful behavior. There is no question about the grievousness of the offense or its frequent recurrence. Instead the question is about a disciple’s duty to forgive. And Jesus did not hesitate. There is no limit to God’s mercy and forgiveness. There should be no limit to ours.

Before you object, because I too would object, it might help to understand what Jesus means by forgiveness. It does not give the offender permission to keep offending without care for the damage they inflict. It does not give the offender permission to keep harassing, hurting, or shaming you. Such behavior no matter the offender is evil and needs to be stopped. Forgiveness is the deep personal response of one who desires to follow Jesus to let go of their rightful and reasonable rage, resentment, and thoughts of vengeance. When damage is done, it likely cannot be undone. There is no returning to life before pandemic. But damage can be repaired although not completely. Wounds can be healed although there will be scars. Brokenness can once again be made whole although life will be forever changed. But only with forgiveness can we move on. We can come to a place of peace. We can know joy once again. And while Jesus invites us to extend forgiveness as he extends forgiveness, as the Father extends forgiveness, it is not something we can arrive at easily or on command. Forgiveness is a journey each of us has to take, and only with Jesus beside us, never on our own.

Forgiveness actually happens more often than we think. “In fact, we do forgive all the time. We all experience hurts from friends, family, people at work, [at church, people we don’t know personally, people who don’t know us.] Most of the time, we edit them out and move on. Like natural healing, forgiveness happens if we don’t keep pulling off the scab. Forgiveness doesn’t show weakness but strength and power. It enables us to stop reacting and to take control of ourselves. In fact, forgiveness does more good for us than for the one we forgive because it sets us free. How can we begin to forgive? The Lord says, ‘Pray for those who persecute you.’ Prayer transforms us from being a victim to becoming an intercessor. We can start to see people who have done us wrong in a new light, as individuals themselves in need of healing. To start the process of forgiveness, prayer for the other is always a good place to begin. A second step is to pray for ourselves. A third step is to look to the future and not to dwell in the past. We all have hurts from the past. Forgiveness comes as we look forward to what can be in our life and not to what was. The book of Sirach reminds us that life is short. We all need to look to our future with the Lord.[2]

We cannot demand forgiveness from another. We can only demand it from ourselves. And forgiveness is the work of a lifetime. If we want to arrive there, we need to start at some point. Today is always a good day to begin anew.

Rolo B Castillo © 2020


[2] Rev. S. Joseph Krempa. Captured Fire: The Sunday Homilies Cycle A. St. Paul Publications, Staten Island NY © 2005.

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