Brief synopsis of the readings: In the first reading from Sirach, we learn that “resentment and anger are foul things” and anyone who exacts vengeance will suffer vengeance from God. But forgiveness will bring forgiveness from God. Nobody can nurse anger against another and expect compassion from God. Peter, in Matthew’s Gospel asks Jesus how many times must he forgive his brother: seven times? Jesus responds by telling him that he must forgive his brother seventy times seven times. Jesus then told a parable about a man who owed his master a great sum of money. He couldn’t pay and his master directed that he and his family be sold into slavery. But the man begged saying he just needed more time to pay what he owed and the master felt compassion and forgave the debt. The newly freed servant, on his way home, met another servant who owed him a much smaller debt and he also needed more time to pay. Showing no mercy the first servant demanded that this man be thrown into prison. When the master heard this he became enraged: “I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?” The master then demanded that the wicked servant be imprisoned.
“And they all lived happily ever after.” That’s how the Gospel story should have ended. These days, in the world in which we live, we are well aware of the fact that there are many among us who have lost our jobs and are not able to make our mortgage or rent payments. The fear of homelessness, to say nothing of food insecurity and health care, consumes many of us. And today’s Gospel must appear much more poignant.
So imagine this: For whatever reason you don’t have enough money to pay your debts and in your panic you reach out to the person who you owe. You don’t ask for your debt to be forgiven. You ask only that your debt be restructured to give you more time to pay what you owe; you promise to pay all that you owe but only need more time to do it.
This isn’t just a parable from long ago. Twelve years ago thousands of Americans found themselves in exactly this situation. They had home mortgages that they couldn’t afford and asked only that they keep their homes and take longer to pay it off. Some lenders did, but many more homeowners were evicted because their lenders cared nothing for them or their situation and only wished to make a profit regardless of the impact of others.
But in today’s Gospel, when the debtor asked for more time, his lender did something astounding: he forgave the debt. “I understand you want to restructure the loan but I’ve decided to wipe it out. Your house is now yours free and clear.” Now take a minute to let that soak in: your lender just handed you a pile of money much larger than you dreamed.
And imagine as you’re walking home, six feet off the ground, you meet someone who owes you a pittance who also asks to restructure his debt. This man in our story stood at a fork in the road. Does he choose to make his master’s generosity contagious, or does he choose the path of greed? Alas, he choose greed and had his debtor imprisoned. Seriously? How had would it have been to say to him: “Dude, I’ve just had the best day of my life and what you owe me is nothing. As my debt was forgiven, so is yours.”
And the worst part of it? His greed became his undoing because his master found out and had him suffer the same fate. I wonder if the two guys became roommates: that would have been tense if only because both of them could have been free.
We believe that God’s power is infinite and by comparison our power is pretty weak. We can’t create a Universe and without the Holy Spirit we can’t heal people of disease or evil spirits. Even God’s power to love without condition eludes us.
But there is one thing we can do that God does: we have the power to forgive. And it’s a power that God respects. Remember in last week’s readings Jesus told his followers: “Amen, I say to you,whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Whatever we forgive, no matter how serious or how little deserved God will respect it.
When Peter asks Jesus how many times must I forgive my brother he’s really asking how many times before he can stop forgiving his brother. In other words, when does my forgiveness have an expiration date? When does God decide that I’ve been patient enough and now can unleash vengeance.
Now understand, our call to forgive is not an easy one. Forgiveness calls us to our best selves, to act as God would act. We sometimes think that if we had enough faith we could forgive instantly and effortlessly. But that belief falsely claims that sin is not powerful and forgiveness is cheap.
In reality we can hurt each other in stunning ways. One person’s greed makes another unemployed or homeless. One person’s unhealed wound causes him to wound another in the false belief that pain can be transferred. But we also hurt each other in ways more simple: a sarcastic response to a genuine question or a thoughtless insult. When Peter asked if he could stop forgiving his brother after seven times I think many of us thought that seven times takes no time at all. If our forgiveness takes time it means that we take it seriously and truly wish a reconciliation with the person who harmed us.
Finally, and we see this in the first reading, we need to take the initiative in forgiving. If we wait for forgiveness we are not taking our call seriously. A friend of mine once shared that he was in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting when someone spoke about this. He said he realized that in his life he has been a sinner and a victim of sin. But if he waited for everyone else to ask forgiveness, and if everyone else did the same thing, forgiveness would never happen; we would all be waiting for someone else to make the first move. But if he started the healing he could be like the master in today’s Gospel. Maybe it would work and maybe it wouldn’t but it’s the only path to true healing.