How many times should I forgive the person who has wronged me? This is not a cerebral question but something that touches our profound sentiments regarding our relationships with certain persons. Probably you too, like Peter, would like to know: how long can you put up with that person who keeps offending you? But for Jesus it’s not a matter of how many times, rather, it’s an attitude in life. Let’s see, where’s Jesus leading us by his response on forgiveness?
Bible Readings Sirach 27, 30-28, 7 Psalm 103: 1-4, 9-12 Romans 14: 7-9 Matthew 18: 21-35
Forgiveness as continuity
We are still in chapter 18 of Mathew where Jesus continues his teaching about living with others. Last Sunday, he addressed the question: what should we do with a community member strays? And this Sunday, through Peter’s question, he deals with forgiveness. Is there a limit?
When Peter speaks of forgiving seven times he goes far beyond the Jewish tradition of forgiving three times. Yet, Jesus does not congratulate him for such largesse. He tells him seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven, in other versions) to mean there’s no limit.
In this question of Peter we see how our human relationships are often conditioned by calculations. Not only do we count but we arrive also at a point when we say: I can’t take it anymore. And so we make the other pay for his accumulated offences. On the contrary, in his response, Jesus hints on the forgiveness of God, which is gratuitous and boundless. But here’s the question for us: is our Christian family or community really a witness of such abounding forgiveness of God?
My difficulty with this parable on forgiveness
Who can’t marvel at the generosity of the master when he forgives his servant who owes him immeasurable debt! Yet, the end of the parable appears to me to be brutally hair-raising. When the master learns that the servant he forgave couldn’t forgive his debtor, he subjects him to torture till he pays his debt. And so, God will do the same to you if you don’t forgive from your heart. Pretty harsh!
Doesn’t that sound like a coercion to forgive? So we forgive in order to be forgiven. Doesn’t that turn God’s forgiveness into a business transaction? Where’s the gratuitousness? And more importantly, where is the Good News?
Indeed, we risk ending up disconcerted if we lose ourselves in small details instead of grasping the message Jesus is putting across through the parable.
Forgiveness as personal decision to move on
Jesus is not threatening us, neither is he coercing us to forgive –certainly not. Besides, God’s forgiveness is not conditioned by our action.
Forgiving is a personal decision that we take only when we are ready, and it’s not something that goes by order. All we can do is accompany one another toward that point of cease-fire where one can say, yes, I have lived a painful experience with this person but I don’t want us to remain prisoners; I choose to move on. It’s all about giving chance to life. Such process can’t be forced or hastened. However, Jesus invites us to dare put ourselves onto this road of forgiveness no matter how long it may take us to reach the end.
When we look at forgiveness as giving chance to life, moving on even after a painful experience, then, we realise that it’s not about how many times I forgive but rather the attitude I assume vis-à-vis the pains in life. I admit that at times I meet situations that cast me onto the ground and yet I choose not to remain lying; I pick myself up and move on. It’s in such perspective that I give a second chance to others knowing that I too need similar largesse of the others. Hence, when I forgive someone I don’t see myself as a hero of kindness; I do it with humility fully aware that I too have debts to pay. In forgiving I only hold out my hand to another person recognising that together we need to get on our feet and move on. We pray, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us; in other words, give us another chance as we give chance to others.
Seventy-seven times upset tables
By forgiving Seventy-seven times, Jesus invites us to turn upside-down the tables of vengeance so that forgiveness can thrive. We replace revenge without limit with forgiveness without limit. In Genesis 4:24, Lameck boasts of revenging, not seven times, but seventy-seven times seven. We too at times wish to have others punished several times more than what they did to us. That’s the Lameck in us, and in the world at large. The Gospel invites us to move from the logic of revenge to the logic of forgiveness; from the logic of a closed tomb to an open tomb –resurrection.
To forgive, see first what you have received
How many times should I forgive my brother who wrongs me? This question of Peter probably resonates in us, evoking sentiments of pain and fatigue as we think of that person who offends us again and again. And possibly we are not satisfied with Jesus’ answer, especially if we feel we have forgiven enough and we have it up to the neck. In such moment, if we can dare to reframe the question, instead of: how many times should I forgive but how many times do I want to be forgiven?
The parable invites us to open our yes to what we have received. It’s hard to forgive others if we don’t appreciate how much we ourselves have been forgiven. If we see ourselves as strong and independent we risk being hard and intolerant towards others, but when we face our own fragility and our need for mercy, then we can look at others with compassion.
We pray, once again, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who offend us. Considering the actual relationship that exists between me and my neighbour, my brother or my sister who wronged me; do I have the courage to pronounce these words to God: treat me as I treat that neighbour who offended me? That’s why Ben Sirach wonders: “Does anyone harbour anger against another and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins?” It means we need to bring our brick, as our contribution, to the common building of a community that is humane and forgiving.
Just think of it…
At the beginning of mass we beat our chest, confessing that we are sinners and imploring God for forgiveness. But just think of it: what will be your reaction when that neighbour who offended you comes saying: I’m sorry?
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