Sometimes the truth has to come to us in an unusual way in order to get our attention. That is because most of us are really good at hearing only what we want to hear and seeing only what we want to see. Unfortunately, that means we are skilled in ignoring uncomfortable truths, including the simple teaching of our Lord that we must forgive others if we want God to forgive us. In today’s gospel text, Jesus Christ spoke a very disturbing parable that should make that truth clear to us all.
A servant owed his ruler more money than he could possibly earn in his entire life. When he could not pay, the master was ready to sell him and his entire family in order to cover the debt. But the servant begged for more time to pay, and the master showed mercy even beyond his request. He actually forgave the huge debt; the man then owed nothing and he and his family were safe from punishment of any kind. This was an unbelievably good turn of events for the servant and his family.
Then that same servant found another servant who owed him a much smaller sum of money. Since the second man did not have enough to pay the debt, the first servant had him put in prison until he could pay. He refused to show him even a small measure of mercy or patience. When the king heard about it, he was enraged that the man to whom he had forgiven so much would be so cruel to his fellow servant. So the king put the first servant in prison until he could pay all that he owed. The Lord ended this parable with the harsh warning: “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
This parable gets our attention because we all find it hard to forgive at least some of the people who have wronged or offended us in the course of our lives. Regardless of whether the wrongs occurred days, years, or decades ago, it is difficult to forgive. At times we actually enjoy holding grudges against others; maybe it serves our pride to think that we are better than those who have wronged us, and thus justified in looking down on them. We sometimes hate our tendency to remember past offenses, but unpleasant memories can play over and over in our minds, inflame our passions, and make us feel powerless against them.
Like everything else in the Christian life, forgiveness is a process of healing as we participate more fully in the life of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Notice that the Lord concluded the parable by saying that we must forgive others from our hearts, from the depths of our souls. Though it is a necessary and important first step, simply putting on a good face and not striking back is just the beginning of the journey. Our goal is not only to be a bit better at self-control, but to be fully reconciled with our neighbors, to be so filled with love that we forgive and forget, and show them the same mercy that the Lord has shown us with a pure and whole heart. When we realize how far we are from fulfilling that high goal, our need for His mercy should become all the more clear.
Even as we always want God to forgive us when we sin, there is no limit to the forgiving, reconciling love that He calls us to give our enemies. When St. Peter asked how many times he was to forgive his brother who sinned against him, maybe seven times, Christ said, no, ‘seventy times seven.” (Matt. 18:22) In other words, we should always forgive; there is never a point where the Christian becomes justified in judging, condemning, and refusing to show mercy. We are instead to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect in His providential love, care, and blessing for the just and the unjust. (Matt. 5:48)
None of us is anywhere near fulfilling that divine calling, but we must not give up and despair about our struggle to forgive others. Instead, we must remember that to be a Christian means to participate personally in the life of the Holy Trinity by grace. Jesus Christ brings us into eternal life such that we share in His victory over sin and death. Already in this life, in the world as we know it, the holiness, mercy, and love of the Lord must become active in us, must become characteristic of us as unique persons as we find greater healing for our souls.
The more we participate in Him, the more we will extend His forgiveness to those who have wronged us. If we refuse to do so, however, we refuse Christ and reject His mercy. And when we refuse Him, we condemn only ourselves.
In moments of anger and pain, it is usually much easier to judge, hate, and condemn than to love and forgive. Ever since the fall of Adam and Eve, we humans have distorted our relationships with one another, allowing fear, judgment, and insecurity to divide us. Early in the book of Genesis, their descendent Lamech brags that he will avenge himself seventy-seven fold. (Gen. 4:24) In other words, he was like a bloodthirsty gangster who never showed mercy to anyone. We are not that far gone, but we probably do find it beyond our present strength to forgive seventy times seven as Christ forgives us.
Like any other area of weakness in the Christian life, our struggle to forgive must begin with a sincere confession that we hold a grudge against someone else. So we must ask for God’s forgiveness and help in being healed. We must also pray for those who have offended us, asking God’s blessings on them. And when we are tempted to remember what they have done or to judge them, we must immediately turn our attention to the Jesus Prayer and remembrance of our own need for forgiveness from the Lord, and from those whom we have offended throughout the course of our lives. We are not the blameless judges of others, but those who stand in constant need of grace, mercy, and healing together with those who have wronged us.
It is a long struggle, but if we consistently turn away from unholy thoughts, they will lose their power over us. “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7) The less attention we give to our temptations, the more they will diminish. The challenge is harder if the others involved in these relationships continue offending us. But remember what the one who told us to forgive seventy times seven said from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) There is no limit to the forgiving love of Jesus Christ. And if we are in Him, there can be no limit on our forgiveness either. We who want His mercy must show it to others. Otherwise, we reject Him and condemn ourselves.
Every human being bears the image of God, including our enemies. In that we have done something harmful to anyone, we have done it to the Lord. Remember the words of St. John: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar.” (1 John 4:20) It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and souls that we will be able to live out our love of God in relation to every human being we encounter.
The more we share in His life, the more His mercy will become characteristic of us in relation to our enemies. We fool only ourselves by thinking that we may accept His forgiveness without also showing that same forgiveness to our neighbors. If we do that, we will become the hypocritical judges of others, like the servant in today’s parable who shut himself out of his master’s mercy. Whether we acknowledge it or not, that is who we risk becoming every time that we refuse to extend the great forgiveness that we have received in Jesus Christ to those who have wronged us. So let us all convey our Lord’s mercy to our enemies, for that is how we open ourselves to the grace that we all desperately need for the healing of our souls.