For most people, the most difficult aspect of Jesus’s teaching is that which relates to the requirement that we must forgive those who have hurt or offended us. This seems to be related to the fact that most of us think that by forgiving someone, we are extending to them a favour or a grace that they do not deserve, given the pain and hurt that they have caused us.
This is certainly how I used to think.
It was only after I discovered how much freedom comes from forgiving another person that I discovered the deeper spiritual reasons for Jesus challenging us to forgive others in the same way that we desire to be forgiven by Him.
Think about it. If you are angry with someone, the thought of what they have done to hurt you can have the power to ruin your day every single time you think about them or the event that hurt you. As you think about them, or the hurt they caused you, your entire heart and soul can turn bitter and be consumed with rage. It does not matter what you are doing when you think about this hurt. It can be a beautiful day, you can be with friends and family; and yet the thought of what they did to hurt you can ruin everything.
At the same time, while the thought of what another person did to hurt you can ruin your day, the person who hurt you may not even know that you are mad at them. While you are angry at them, the person who hurt you may be out having a great day. They are not even thinking about you. They may not even care that you are angry with them. In fact, the thought of their happiness might even contribute to you becoming angrier.
In reality, when I remain angry at someone, I am choosing to allow them to continue to have power over me. I am giving permission for the event which took place a month, or a year, or even twenty years ago, to continue to have power over me and my heart. As the first reading from the book of Sirach alludes to this Sunday, we can all have the tendency to “hold on to” vengeance and wrath. By holding on to vengeance and wrath, the person or event that hurt us and made us angry is given power over our hearts in the present moment and we allow it to continue to exercise a destructive power over our lives and happiness.
When we forgive someone, we are setting ourselves free. Forgiving someone who has hurt us is the biggest favour that we can extend to ourselves. By doing this, we are saying that we will no longer allow this event, pain, or person to have the power to take our happiness and destroy our peace of mind. Forgiveness opens our own hearts to receive the love which Christ offers us in our relationship with Himself and others.
Forgiveness should not be mistaken as giving someone permission to hurt us again or turning a blind eye to the past. If a person is going to continue to hurt us or take advantage of us, we should avoid them or learn to have healthy and lifegiving relationships. Forgiveness is not about letting a person continue to do wrong or harm us. Forgiveness is about releasing our hearts from the toxic effects of their past behavior. It is about refusing to allow an event or person to destroy our ability to be at peace and to love God and neighbour freely.
Personally, I am convinced that the reason why Jesus asks us to forgive is so that our own hearts might be free to welcome Him and to love Him and our neighbour in a joyful and lifegiving manner. It is difficult for us to allow Christ to dwell in our hearts and to know His peace, or even to really love others, when we are consumed with vengeance or anger towards another. This is one of the reasons why the sign of peace takes place immediately before we receive the Eucharist. In order for Christ to dwell in our hearts, our hearts must be free of anger or resentment. St. John of the Cross emphasizes this in his writings as he states that the infinite God cannot dwell in a heart that is cluttered with envy, hatred and the desire for vengeance. However, to a finite heart that has been emptied of these, the infinite God is capable of dwelling and bringing infinite joy.
The reality that a heart that cannot forgive is closed to God’s forgiveness and love is a point that Jesus is making in this Sunday’s Gospel.
In the Gospel, Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive a brother or sister who has sinned against him. Peter suggests that seven times might be the limit. However, Jesus says not seven, but seven times seven is how many times a person must be forgiven. As seven is a biblical number that symbolizes completeness, this seven times seven represents as many times as is necessary. But as the parable goes on to show, the reason for forgiving as many times as is necessary, is not in order that we might do the other person a favour. The reason for forgiving is so that our own hearts may be open to receive the forgiveness that God offers us.
In the parable, a servant comes to his master and asks to be forgiven a great deal. The master hears his pleas and forgives the debt. Yet, as the servant leaves the presence of his master, he encounters another person who owes him much less than he has been forgiven. His heart has not been open to comprehend what his master has done for him, and out of envy for what is owed him, he demands that his fellow servant pay him the much smaller debt that he is owed. As a result, Jesus tells us, the man did not receive the greater forgiveness that he had been offered.
This parable calls you and I to understand how much God has done for each of us by sending His Son into the world to redeem us and forgive our sins. God is pure love and mercy. Everything that we have is a gift from Him. On top of giving us life, and all that we have and are, God has also offered us salvation and redemption through the life, death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus. Thanksgiving is the only response that we can have to God’s love for us. From the freedom that God’s forgiveness has won for us, we are called to have the freedom to forgive others. The real challenge that comes with accepting God’s forgiveness and love for us is that it is impossible to really receive it if we hold on to vengeance and resentment towards another. As St. John of the Cross writes, the infinite love and mercy of God cannot enter a heart that is cluttered with envy, pride, resentment and hatred. In order for God’s love and mercy to enter our hearts, we must clear out those things which are not compatible.
For the Christian to possess the peace, joy and forgiveness that Christ has come to offer us, forgiveness of those who have hurt and offended us is not an option. Forgiveness is how we let go of those things, persons and events which are obstacles to Christ dwelling in our hearts and offering us His peace. When we forgive another, we are refusing to allow them to have power over us and inviting Christ and His freedom to have power over us. Forgiveness is something we offer to another person so that we can be free and the love of Christ may dwell in our hearts.
So strongly does Jesus desire that our hearts be free to receive His love and peace that He asks us to pray every day that we might be able to forgive others and receive His forgiveness and peace. This is why in the “Our Father,” Jesus has taught us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In this sentence, the word “as” has the significance of forgive us “in the same way” that we forgive others. As the parable is attempting to tell us, unless we let go of the anger and hatred in our hearts, our hearts cannot receive the love and peace that Christ desires them to know through also knowing His forgiveness.
It is because Jesus knows that forgiving someone who has hurt is not easy that He has asked us to pray to be able to forgive every day in the “Our Father.” And yet, while forgiving someone who has hurt us can be difficult, there is nothing more freeing then letting go of the hatred and vengeance that can hold us hostage when they bind us. When we finally learn how to let go of anger and resentment, it can be like escaping from a prison in which we have condemned ourselves. When we forgive someone, we free ourselves from the power that they or a past event have exercised over us. We claim the peace that Jesus desires us to know and free ourselves to be happy again.
Jesus has come that all of us might know His peace and love. Christ has died to free us from the power of the sins that bind us. By calling us to forgive others, Jesus is calling us to be free not only from our own sins, but from the harm that the sins of others have exerted upon us. Forgiving another person is the most wonderful favour we can grant unto ourselves. By doing so, we release ourselves from the power they exercise over us and become free to allow Christ to fill our hearts with a joy that only He can give us. The servant who was forgiven much was too foolish to forgive and thus was unable to enjoy the forgiveness that was offered to him. May none of us be so foolish to turn down what is offered to us in the forgiveness of Christ, by refusing to offer it to others.
May we pray, each and every day: “Dear Jesus, most loving and merciful Savior, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Fr. Michael McGourty,
Pastor, St. Peter’s Parish—Toronto, Ontario.
This reflection based on readings for Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: Sirach 27:30- 28:7; Romans 14: 7-9; and Matthew 18: 21-35.