Reflection of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross by Fr Ray McIntyre
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – Lectio divina on Mt 18,21-35
Only someone who has never been offended could imagine that forgiveness is easy. Whatever our experience in life may be, we know that it is easy to offend and that forgiveness is rare. Jesus does not reflect on the difficulty we have in forgiving but on the one who has offended us. He says that whenever we are offended we should always offer forgiveness. Yet again we have one of Jesus’ demands that is rarely practised. Not only should we forgive one who offends us, but we should set no limits to our forgiveness. Every offence, no matter how serious, should be forgotten and forgiven. This is what Jesus asks of his disciples – no more and no less!
At that time: 21 Peter came up and said to Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. 23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; 25 and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, `Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, `Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; 33 and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
I Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on How it says it.
When Jesus gave his disciples the power, and the order, to forgive, and showed them how they were to forgive, Peter interrupted him (Mt 18,21) with a question, one that introduces a new issue: how far does the obligation to forgive go? We must forgive, yes, but how many times? The whole gospel passage (Mt 18,21.35) opens and closes with the words “forgive your brother”. This is a literary device which is used to emphasize the new theme. He is no longer speaking about correcting the transgressor, but about brotherly forgiveness. There is an obligation to correct but forgiveness cannot be refused. Jesus’ reply comes in two parts, and in it he goes further than the question put to him. First of all, Jesus insists on forgiveness without any limits (Mt 18,21-22). Then he gives the motive in the parable of the servant and his debtors (Mt 18,23-35). The Christian is always in need of God’s forgiveness, and should give to his neighbour what he himself needs from God.
Mt 18,21-22 imposes the duty to forgive our brother without limit. At first sight, the episode does not seem to fit in well with the previous one which lays down a disciplinary procedure that extends to excommunication of the sinner. But if we understand it correctly, there is no contradiction. Fraternal correction is guided by love of the sinner (cf. Lev 19,17-18). The one who exercises discipline in the community must be able to forgive when his efforts to correct are unsuccessful. Bearing this in mind, forgiving a brother, according to Jesus, does not imply disregard for the sinner in the community, which is, after all, the place where the Risen Lord is present. It must therefore live according to the Lord’s will and not by its own arbitrary judgment.
II Meditate: apply what the text says to life
Hearing that he must forgive, Peter was willing to forgive anyone who offended him … up to seven times! His “generosity” was no small thing, but it had a limit. In a society where interpersonal relations were ruled by the law of “a tooth for a tooth” it was exceptional to find someone declaring himself ready to forgive, not once, but seven times. Jesus, however, is not satisfied with that level of generosity! He demands forgiveness, not seven times, but seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven). He does not allow Peter to set any limits to forgiveness. Jesus is asking the disciple who understood him best to be ready to forgive more and to put no limit to his forgiveness. What Jesus demands of his disciples is simply impossible and unthinkable. It could even seem “dishonest”. Does it not seem that if we forgive always, we leave the offence in the hands of the transgressor? If someone who offends a Christian can count on unconditional forgiveness, is this not supporting injustice? Does it not mean that the transgression is perpetuated? And yet, incredible as it may seem, Jesus, without giving thought to the consequences, hopes that his disciples will forgive without measure. He asks for nothing less than forgiveness that is unmeasured and beyond reason, forgiveness without limit.
The parable that follows, by way of example and warning, shows clearly that this is what Jesus wants. One who has sinned but does not forgive others cannot expect God to forgive his sins. We can expect from God what we are willing to grant to others. We should not think that God will forget our offences if we do not forget our neighbour’s offence. One day God will treat us as we treat our neighbour, day in and day out. This is not a pleasant teaching, but we have been warned. The servant succeeded in begging pardon of his master for the huge debt he had incurred. We must learn to do the same, if our guilt is to be wiped out and our sin forgiven. Anyone who has availed of God’s forgiveness, or expects to obtain forgiveness, has no right to demand that his neighbour pay his debts and make recompense. The Christian who is always in need of God’s forgiveness, owes forgiveness always to his brother. To expect that God should overlook what we owe him, while we, at the same time, demand payment from our debtors, is putting at risk the forgiveness we have already received, and our friendship with God.
In the parable, Jesus describes the anger and rage of the king who forgave the debt of his servant, when he discovered that the servant did not follow his example of generosity. We can understand the divine anger and the decision of God to change his mind when he realizes that his mercy and his forgiveness have not borne fruit in our lives. Can we not see that we are already condemning ourselves without remission when we fail to forgive our neighbour, despite the fact that we have been forgiven many times by God. We should take Jesus’ warning more seriously. It is not enough to turn to God and ask his forgiveness, if our neighbour who has offended us finds us unwilling to forgive him. God will withdraw the pardon already granted. God does not show himself our Father if we, his sons, do not treat each other as brothers.
Unfortunately, this is what often happens in our lives. Despite all our efforts to turn to God, whenever we ask for pardon, and whenever we have been shown mercy, we lose his friendship and forgiveness by our unwillingness to grant pardon to those who ask it of us, or those who need it, even if they don’t ask. We make God our enemy, as the servant in the parable changed his master into an enemy, because we are unwilling to become friends of those who have offended us. As long as we regard others as debtors, we remain in debt to God. Our lack of forgiveness towards our brother is more serious than the offences we have committed against God. We can count on God’s mercy for the sins we have committed, but our sins fall back on us if we refuse to forgive those who have offended us. If we want to limit our offences, we cannot put any limit to the forgiveness we offer our neighbour. It is upon this, and not on the gravity of our sins, that our eternal happiness depends. We do well not to forget this!
If we want God’s forgiveness, we must ask for it by forgiving those who have offended us. This is precisely what Jesus meant, when he taught us to ask God’s forgiveness by declaring our willingness to forgive those who sin against us. We will know for certain that God has forgiven our debt, only when we forgive from our hearts the debts that others have contracted with us. God wants the forgiveness he extends to us to generate in us a willingness to forgive and forget the offences committed against us. Forgiveness is not just forgetting the offence but considering it as if it had never happened. Unless it produces in us the will to forgive, God’s pardon remains ineffective. God does not tolerate one who does not learn from his generosity, who thinks only of receiving but refuses to give. When God forgives us he wants to free us from our sin and convert us to forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is in vain when the one he forgives refuses to forgive others. God does not forgive one who does not follow his example of generosity.
It follows then that if we make excuses for not forgiving our brother, and put a barrier of un-forgiveness between him and us, we remain isolated from God and cut off from his love. It is true that the commandment to forgive without limit is almost impossible, but unless we forgive we put at risk the greatest treasure we have, the limitless mercy of God our Father. If we try to forgive we discover that it is not as difficult as we thought. Only one who has been forgiven is able to forgive, and only when we forgive our debtors do we know that we have been forgiven.