God's Word on Sunday: Forgiveness is not optional, it’s our duty

  • September 15, 2023

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

The psalm proclaims that “the Lord is merciful and gracious.” And fortunately for us, the Lord is indeed merciful and gracious, but there is a catch that we often overlook. We are made in the image of God so we too must be merciful and gracious. After all, we are bound together not only with God but with all human beings.

As part of this declaration concerning God, Sirach insists that anger and wrath are sins and abominations. And yet “sinners” — the mass of people — cling to them and refuse to let go and move on. They harbour deep resentments in their hearts, not realizing that this is spiritual poison. Often people carry within them a lifetime of anger, resentment and hate. It colours their emotions, thoughts and dealings with other people in so many negative ways. Relationships are ruptured and corroded, as are families, workplaces, schools, societies, churches and nations. A quick look at the world around us will confirm this with stark clarity.

So why do we refuse to put enmity aside and why do we defy God by being angry with our neighbour? There are many reasons: fear of being hurt again; wounded pride; the smug feeling of moral superiority that often accompanies this anger; and a reluctance to minimize or dismiss the seriousness of the wound that we have experienced. Forgiving is not a sign of weakness or vulnerability but an expression of psychological and spiritual strength and maturity. We need not make light of the hurt or harm that has been done — it must be acknowledged honestly before we can let go. Forgiving is something we do most of all for ourselves, so that we can be free and move on with our lives. And as Sirach reminds us, if we are unwilling to forgive others or to put our rage to rest, how can we possibly ask God to forgive us our sins and failings? We need to remember that the person or group with whom we are angry is created in the image of God. To curse and rage at another is to curse and rage at ourselves and at God, since we are all one. The one with whom we are angry is on the same pilgrimage as we are, seeking wholeness, happiness and God.

Paul hints at this in his observation that living and dying is not just about us. All those who take the name of the Lord dwell in Jesus Christ, so living or dying do not really matter (and neither do many other things). We are one and Jesus intends to give life to us all. 

We can almost feel the irritation and resentment in Peter’s words as he asks Jesus how many times he has to forgive a brother or sister. His slightly sarcastic suggestion of “seven times” is immediately countered by Jesus with “seventy-seven times.” In other words, without end. This must have come as a shock, and we can almost see Peter’s jaw drop.

Jesus illustrates His point with a story. A king decided to settle accounts with his debtors. One of his slaves owed him 10,000 talents — a huge amount. He could not pay so he pleaded with his master for patience and mercy, promising that he would repay everything. The king took pity on him and forgave the entire debt. But a bit later, the slave came upon another slave who owed him money — a fraction of what he had just been forgiven. This slave also pleaded for patience and mercy, but the first slave refused and had him thrown into prison — along with his family — until his debt was paid. The other slaves were understandably upset and reported everything to the king, who then called the slave into his presence. In a rage, he chastised him for failure to show to another the same mercy that had been given to him. He reinstated the huge debt and threw the slave and his family into prison until it was paid.

Jesus ends with ominous words: God will treat us in the same way unless we forgive our brothers and sisters from our hearts. Forgiveness is not optional in our faith — it is at its very core. By showing mercy and forgiveness, we contribute to the healing of the world and all humanity and show our gratitude to God.