The Lord’s Words in our Gospel today on the need for a spirit of forgiveness in our hearts towards others, is probably the most challenging teaching we can try to respond to in Christian life. We are only human with feelings. We are easily hurt when we are let down, betrayed, insulted, victimised or rejected. We Christians, like others, feel pain and profound disappointment. No one would blame us for closing the door on the person who has offended us. We all know people who haven’t spoken to each other for years over something from the past that the passage of time has not healed. If anything delay has made reconciliation all the harder. We all agree: LIFE IS TOO SHORT. But sadly, many people are unwilling or unable to forgive and to forget.
Jesus brings His Kingdom of love, harmony and peace into our world. The Church is the instrument of this. The Lord does not want (and neither should we allow) such ongoing pain to endure when forgiveness offered and in turn received can heal wounds and restore harmony. Remember, this Gospel is part of the Lord’s Sermon on relationships within the Church. These teachings are vital for the health of the Body of Christ, the Community of Believers so that we can first: live in the peace of Christ and each other, and second: be a wider reconciling presence among those around us, a leaven of the peace this world could never give but badly needs. We have been listening to the Gospels long enough to know that forgiveness and reconciliation are at the heart of the reasons for the Lord coming among us. It is a constant theme of His preaching and teaching and His actions in His healing absolving ministry. This all climaxes in the Lord’s dying on the cross forgiving His killers while he bled in love for all –period. In the Beatitudes we are taught an important truth echoed in the parable of the unforgiving servant in our Gospel today: Blessed are the peace makers, they will have mercy shown them. These is a quid pro quo here. The Lord will give His mercy to those who are merciful. In our Gospel today, a servant is forgiven an unrepayable fortune of debt for the one reason: The Master felt compassion for the servant. This act of forgiveness is undeserved; it rests solely on the largess of the Master. The servant failed to pass this extraordinary act of mercy to his fellow servant. This in turn costs him the original act of mercy he received and he is back at square one once more in unpayable debt.
Prior to the parable of the unforgiving servant, Peter had asked Jesus how extensive should forgiveness be. He though he was generous by saying we should forgive seven times. Seven opportunities for the offender before Peter passes definitive judgement, justifiably closes the door and walks away. Jesus responds: not seven, but seventy times seven, indicating forgives without limit. Note: this is to Peter not to Simon as he was. Peter is the one conferred with the authority of the Church; so this is an instruction to the whole Church and for all who teach others in the Lord’s Name. We may say: “This seems too much”. We are the offended party. Maybe the other person has not expressed any remorse? It seems unjust. Yet do we use a lack of forgiveness as a weapon? We often withhold forgiveness for our own reasons. We delay/defer forgiveness indefinitely to stress to the other person how hurt we are. It can be a form of punishment if the person is sorry but we are determined to make our point and won’t let him/her off the hook so easily and make the offender feel bad so that he/she will learn the lesson and think twice next time. Maybe we want restitution from the other person, our pound of flesh. Maybe the person is indifferent and our forgiveness isn’t valued. None the less, Jesus teaches us a Christian must forgive. It must become natural to us. Why? Because forgiveness achieves God’s purpose. The death of Jesus released the liberating power of forgiveness to heal, to liberate, to bring back to life. The Kingdom of God which we serve in our daily lives is powerfully advanced and established by our acts of forgiveness. Each time we forgive on Earth, the Kingdom of God moves nearer its completion and there is a cry of joy among the saints in Heaven. The Devil wants us to hate, to hold grudges, to nurse and keep alive old wounds, to keep the door firmly closed. He wants people at loggerheads wasting time, energy and missing the opportunity to do something life enhancing and good.
Forgiveness remains a big ask by God to His Church. Alexander Pope said: “To err is human, to forgive Divine”. This reminds us it is not in our natural capacity to forgive. We need help from above. Divine Mercy is the grace God gives us that enables us to forgive, to be the first to hold out the hand, to move forward without the burden of brokenness. Forgiveness is a work of God in us, waiting to be generously shared. How can we take this great grace from God and make it work? The Gospel teaches us that the servant was first forgiven an unimaginable debt, so huge it was unrepayable; even if the servant or his family tried it was totally beyond them. He immediately forgets this and rejects his fellow servant’s plea for mercy over a debt of pennies that could be repaid in three weeks. The lesson? Only a person who appreciates his/her unrepayable debt to the Lord Who dies on the cross to cancel it, can he/she begin to be the forgiving person God wants he or she to be. Without this realization, Divine Mercy won’t work in us or through us. We must see our offences are part of the cross Jesus carried, that we were part of the problem as Jesus carried the sins and offences of humanity past, present and future. We must feel we have been let off the hook simply because God loves us and wants us to be free and at peace. He is the Master who sets us free. But this is only half the story. This forgiveness needs to be authenticated by us in turn being forgiving people. God’s forgiveness when given is valid but it must become fruitful. The hard hearted servant failed the test when he refused to forgive his fellow servant, the Master’s generous act had made no impression on him; it had not reached his heart and was unappreciated. When God forgives us and we allow it to penetrate into our heart and soul we are changed. We become the forgiveness we have received. We are eagerly looking out for an opportunity to authenticate God’s Mercy by showing it to another.
Forgiveness is not only good for the person we forgive, but it is also good for us. A lack of forgiveness colours how we see the person every time we meet. We see the whole person negatively always in terms of how we have been hurt and offended. It is a block and it becomes more immovable the longer we leave forgiveness. Withholding forgiveness hardens our hearts. It feeds resentment and fosters judgementalism in us. It doesn’t stay in its box but seeps out changing us for the worse. I have seen people become bitter. Others can see this and they steer clear of mentioning the person’s name in our presence. Lack of forgiveness freely ranges around in us popping up at its own time. It can come into our mind in the middle of the night. The inescapable truth is: It is good for us to forgive. I heard it said: “When you forgive someone you set two people free”. We are in prison by a lack of forgiveness. It’s where the Devil wants us to be. He loves to see wedges between people. He thrives on bad feeling. He loves to see people angry, frustrated and hurt. He wants us to favour those who tell us we are right to not forgive rather than listen to more conciliatory and sensible voices advising us to let it go, forgive and move forward.
It is obvious that we need to feel part of the big picture. We are co-workers with Jesus living out His victory on Calvary which enables us to access the grace to deal with our sin, death, guilt, shame, faults and regret and to promote the same liberation with others. Forgiveness requires our generosity, it calls out: “Please pass me on!” We sing: “Freely, freely, you have received. Freely, freely give”. Forgiveness humanises us and the more we forgive the more we alive we are spiritually and emotionally. Forgiveness is bigger than us. It’s not about letting people get off light, it’s about advancing the Kingdom into people’s hearts and story.
Generous Christian forgiveness will not only set people free. It has an evangelical element. It may make people curious, a curiosity that can turn to enquiry, an enquiry that the Spirit can use to turn people to faith. We must focus on our task of good influence and how we can point a life towards God. Mehmet Ali Agca was visibly moved and transformed when St. Pope John Paul visited him in prison on the 8th December 1983 and forgave him for trying to kill him. It was a powerful moment watched by the world. So many of us were deeply affected and many mystified when Mr. Gordon Wilson said he forgave the people who on the 8th November 1987 planted the bomb at a gathering in Enniskillen which killed his daughter among others and maimed him. The evil of that day was neutralised by Mr. Wilson’s immense Divinely graced capacity to forgive, to break the cycle, to not respond in kind. Mr. Wilson brought the Kingdom of God and Divine Mercy into the dust and carnage of that day. Such forgiveness releases powerful graces that ripple out and make people think maybe life is too short after all.
Fr. Gerard X