Today’s readings center on the all-important theme of forgiveness. Forgiveness lies at the very heart of Christian living. It is the acid test of true discipleship. Jesus tells us that if our love does go beyond those who love us and reach our enemies, we are no different from the sinners. And because forgiveness is at the core of discipleship, it is a constant, a default in our daily life.
But we also know how difficult it is to forgive. “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet [we] hug them tight,” our first reading correctly observes. How often we find it impossible to forgive and to let go of our hurt.
It is in fact humanly impossible. Whenever we are offended, we instinctively seek revenge. The English poet, Alexander Pope, is right is saying that “to err is human, to forgive divine.” Forgiveness is beyond our capacity. It is a divine act, a working of divine power. Hence, it is primarily a grace, a gift we obtain through prayer. The Church officially prays the Our Father three times a day. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The parable of the unforgiving servant illustrates how God deals with us regarding forgiveness. The story is gross and is deliberately exaggerated to drive home the point. The debt of the first servant to his royal master was 10,000 talents which in today’s currency would amount to billions of dollars. In short, it was an amount over the top, a debt simply beyond the servant’s capacity to pay. In stark contrast, the second servant owed a paltry few hundred denarii from the first servant who summarily sent his debtor to prison until he could pay in full.
The story ends with the message that God deals with us in the same way we deal with others.
In our case, the parable perfectly applies for indeed God has forgiven us a debt beyond repayment. At baptism, God released us from the intractable debt of original sin, a debt payable only with the blood of his own Son.
From then on, God never stopped forgiving us.
When Peter asked Jesus how often we should forgive, he also made a generous proposal of seven gives. Jesus’ answer far exceeded Peter’s liberal offer, not seven times but seventy times seven times. In a word, all the time. The deeper question is really not so much “how many times must I forgive?” but rather “how must I forgive?” And the answer is clear: “I forgive as God has forgiven me.”
God forgives us always because he wants us to live a full life, free from the bondage of sin and its effects. When we are unforgiving, we allow ourselves to be held hostage by our anger and hate, which rob us of life. Life is too short to be wasted, and holding on to old resentments is just pointless.
Forgiveness is a grace, yes; but it is also an act of the will, a decision to let go. “Forgiveness means giving up, letting go. It has nothing to do with condoning behavior. It’s just letting the whole thing go. We do not have to know how to forgive. All we need to do is to be willing to forgive. God will take care of the how.” (Louise Hay)
And indeed, God will show us how and give us the power to forgive – the same power that enabled Jesus to pray from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
There is an interesting detail at the end of the parable, which is worth considering. The second servant was saved because of the compassion of his fellow servants who reported the incident to the king; they too had experienced the liberating forgiveness of the king. Forgiveness is not a personal possession but a gift to be shared. God intends his salvation for all his children.
Don Bosco used to tell his boys that no one goes to heaven alone. This reminds me of the story of a sadistic criminal who died and went straight to hell. He called out to God for help, and surprisingly God answered, “Tell me a good deed you did in your life.” He could not cite any for he was truly a wicked man until he remembered having controlled himself from stepping on a spider, when he was a boy. Suddenly, a spider’s thread appeared in front of him. Finding it firm and strong enough, he started climbing upward. As he was nearing the light, he heard noises from below and saw many others climbing. He kicked them down, shouting, “Get off my thread.” There and then, the thread snapped.*