Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading, from the Old Testament Book of Sirach (which is a book accepted by Catholics but not Jews or Protestants), speaks of the dangers of resentment and anger. “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance.” Sirach demands his readers forgive others so that the readers’ sins will be forgiven. “Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?” Matthew’s Gospel begins with a question from Peter: “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus replied: “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” He then recited a parable about a man who owed his king a large sum of money with no prospect of repayment. At first the king ordered him and his family (and his property) be sold; but the man begged the king for more time. Instead the king forgave the entire debt. Now freed from this burden, the man went on his way. He came upon someone who owed him a small amount. This second man then begged the newly freed man for more time to repay. But the first man ordered the second man be thrown into prison. When the king learned of this he became enraged and handed him over to the torturers until the larger debt was repaid. Jesus then told his followers that God will treat anyone who does not forgive his brother in the same way.
I suspect that everyone reading this has known from our earliest days that Christians see forgiveness as a bedrock value of our faith. We’ve recognized that God will forgive even our gravest sin (if we ask) but we’ve also known that we are called to forgive those who sin against us.
When I was a teenager I saw an interview with the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair: she was the woman who demanded that public schools not read from the Bible. In 1963 she won her case in the Supreme Court in Murray v. Curlett. But in 1980 her son Bill became a Christian and the two became estranged. When asked if she would forgive Bill should he return to atheism she said no because what he did was unforgivable. That shocked me as nothing in my life prepared me to believe that a mother could choose not to forgive her son.
It probably shouldn’t have. The famed 20th Century author and Christian C.S. Lewis wrote a brilliant book, The Screwtape Letters. The only thing we see in this book is a series of letters from Screwtape to Wormwood. We soon learn that Screwtape is Satan and Wormwood is his nephew and that Wormwood is tasked with luring someone (called “the patient”) away from salvation and toward damnation. At the risk of ruining the ending, Wormwood failed in the end and asked his uncle for mercy. Screwtape’s response chills me to the bone:
How mistakenly, now that all is lost, you come whimpering to ask me whether the terms of affection in which I address you meant nothing from the beginning. Far from it! Rest assured, my love for you and your love for me are as like as two peas. I have always desired you, as you (pitiful fool) desired me. The difference is that I am the stronger. I think they will give you to me now; or a bit of you. Love you? Why, yes. As dainty a morsel as ever I grew fat on.
The meaning is chilling. Because Wormwood failed, he transformed from beloved nephew to a meal. He was consumed for his failure.
Christians don’t have the corner on forgiveness, and for good reason. Any relationship, family, community, city, nation, world, or religion that doesn’t value forgiveness dooms itself. Because, let’s face it, we screw up. We screw up as spouses, as children, as siblings, as parents, as neighbors, as coworkers, as friends, and as citizens. Without forgiveness no injury could ever heal. Every relationship in our lives would be defined not by our best moment but by our worst. Without forgiveness all our relationships could remain stable (if inert) or decline, but they would remain hostage to our worst moments. No relationship works if either person views injury as an opportunity to hold a grudge. No relationship works if either person views injury as an opportunity for revenge.
But today’s readings clearly show us that we all survive on our ability to both offer and accept forgiveness. When Peter asks how many times he must forgive his brother, he’s really asking when he can justify not forgiving his brother.
And Jesus’ answer gives us a brilliant insight into the Mind of God: we are never done forgiving each other. Many of us struggle with patience (stop looking at me!) and we see Peter’s question with great sympathy. When is enough enough? When can we say to someone “You have hurt me so many times that I now refuse to forgive you.”?
This is hard. Because our call to forgive often fools us into thinking that Jesus calls us to ignore the pain we were caused. When someone causes us pain our forgiveness doesn’t diminish our pain or make their offense less painful. It instead allows us a path forward. Forgiveness permits us to recognize that while we don’t wish to be judged by our worst moments, we can not judge others by their worst moments.
Many years ago I met a woman who was dying of lung cancer. Her Christian faith demanded that she forgive but there were two people she just couldn’t. She and her husband went into business with two of his relatives and both parties invested heavily. But at some point his relatives raided the assets of the business; they profited dramatically and my patient and her husband filed for bankruptcy.
As she lay dying she told me that she believed God demanded she forgive her in laws but she just couldn’t and she feared that she would be denied salvation over it. I asked her if she was comfortable with her inability to forgive and she told me she wasn’t. It’s just that her pain level over what they had done overwhelmed her ability to move forward. When I convinced her that forgiving them didn’t diminish the severity of their sin, she was finally able to forgive them. A few days before she died she heard from them and they asked for her forgiveness and her ability to forgive gave her a peaceful death. Her ability to forgive gave her great strength.
And in this context Jesus gives us an equally great parable. Truth be told, I love this parable if only for what it tells us about karma. I’m guessing that nearly everyone who reads this lives with some debt: a house, a car, a student loan, a credit card, or whatever. Regardless, we all live with the awareness that forces beyond control may prevent us from repaying these debts. This happens to the first man in the parable. And when faced with being sold (along with his family) into slavery, he doesn’t ask for forgiveness, only more time to repay. I can’t even imagine his relief when his wish wasn’t granted, but instead he was given more than he asked, or perhaps even dreamed.
But now, with his crushing debt forgiven, he has a choice to make: does he respond with gratitude or greed. When confronted by someone who owes him a much smaller debt, he chose greed. Had he chosen gratitude he could have made this a good day for everyone. But he didn’t, and in the end he paid dearly for it.
When we think of God’s generosity to us, I think we need to think hard about the ability to forgive. We all revel in God’s decision to forgive even our gravest sins. But I also think we are called to revel in God’s decision empower us to forgive the sins of those who gravely sin agains us. This power not only gives us the ability to repair our relationships, it also gives us the ability act in the lives of others as God acts in our lives.