Faith: Forgiveness is not an option: just do it

  • September 10, 2017

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 17 (Sirach 27:30- 28:7; Psalm 103; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35)

Anger, wrath and resentment can poison the mind, body and soul. They can make people miserable and unhappy, or even ruin physical health. Left unchecked, these emotions can destroy families, work environments, societies and even peace between nations.

Anger has polarized our societies today and has fuelled much of the world’s violence. Humans tend to hold on to anger at people or injustices as if it were a precious possession, perhaps clinging to a sense of victimhood. They sometimes believe that to let go of the anger and forgive another is a sign of weakness or that it excuses and condones their behaviour. Nothing could be farther from the truth — the ability to let go and to forgive is a sign of strength and spiritual maturity.

Sirach counsels us to remember the end of life — good advice. It is sad to see someone (or to be someone) who has remained angry and bitter for their entire life. Approaching death, they may realize that the cause of their anger was relatively unimportant. Even justifiable anger needs to be properly channeled towards positive ends and ultimately released or its effects will be destructive. We can imagine lying on our deathbed, asking ourselves if our anger was important and worth carrying with us into the next life.

But Sirach points out another powerful incentive: We cannot expect God to be merciful and forgiving to us if we are unwilling to grant this to those who have offended us. This insight was taken up again and amplified in the Gospel of Matthew. We can only expect the treatment that we have given to others. As the psalm states, “the Lord is merciful and gracious,” so we must also be merciful and gracious.

Paul’s words are a little challenging. If we truly belong to the Lord, living and dying should not preoccupy us. Whatever happens, we belong to the Lord — we cannot lose. When we pray for healing, safety or favourable outcomes, which is understandable and fine, it should always be with the awareness that we will be taken care of regardless of the outcome. Believing this in our hearts is an effective dispeller of fear and anxiety.

Perhaps irritated by all the talk of forgiveness, Peter asked Jesus a very pointed question: Just how far does this forgiveness stuff go? How many times must I forgive someone — seven? He was probably dismayed and shocked by Jesus’ response of “seventy times seven” — the equivalent of “a million times.” Jesus then gave the application, as He often did, in the form of a story or parable. We can feel the terror of the slave, who was indebted to his master, and his immense relief when the master wrote off and forgave the entire debt. He narrowly escaped debtors’ prison. We would assume that this would have made him especially sensitive and merciful towards others in similar situations, but that did not happen. He was like so many of us — easy on self, hard on others. He encountered a fellow slave who owed him just a fraction of the debt that had just been cancelled. Demanding immediate payment, he ignored the slave’s pleas for patience and mercy, and had him and his family tossed into debtors’ prison. When word got back to the master, he hauled the slave on the carpet and tore into him for his lack of compassion and mercy. He reinstated the cancelled debt and handed the slave over to the torturers — an ancient form of bill collection.

Jesus ended the parable with an ominous warning — God will do likewise to you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart. Indeed, Matthew’s version of the Our Father adds a warning at the end of the prayer that our sins will not be forgiven unless we do likewise. The prayer itself says, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” The message: forgiveness is not optional; it is where mercy and redemption begin. We have all been forgiven much by God and have been shown great mercy. The only thanks or sign of gratitude that we can render is to “pay it forward.” How many times must we forgive? We shouldn’t even ask the question — just do it.