HOW many times should we forgive our brothers and sisters? Once, twice, thrice? No. Jesus, in this Sunday’s gospel reading (Matthew 18:21-35), tells us to forgive seventy-seven times – symbolic of “unlimited, bottomless” forgiveness.
Human nature makes forgiveness easy if the offense is trivial, or if not trivial, is done for the first time. But how if the trespass involves something serious, or is committed repeatedly or habitually? Then forgiveness becomes a very hard thing to do. The pain, hurt, betrayal, deception, unfairness, injustice, insult, injury, damage, and the loss of trust that accompanies an offense become too heavy to bear.
If we find ourselves in such a situation, we are not alone. The feeling of resentment is natural. And God’s command makes it even harder; Jesus instructs us to forgive our fellow human being each time he asks for forgiveness.
But why should we do that? Because God forgave us first. He who has forgiven us is sinless; he forgave us for such a great debt as sin, the just punishment for which is death. Anything that our fellowmen owes us cannot be as serious as our offense before God, and his indebtedness is to us who are as imperfect as our offender.
This is what the story in the gospel is all about. The debtor owed the king such a huge amount, but because he cannot repay his debt, he begged the king for mercy. Moved with compassion, the king cancelled the debtor’s loan. From there the forgiven man met a fellow servant who owed him a much smaller amount. The man treated his fellow servant harshly, demanding payment in full. The servant begged for forgiveness, but the man refused to forgive him so. The servant was sent to prison until he has paid back the debt.
Witnesses to this unhappy event reported the whole matter to their master. The master summoned the unforgiving servant and said to him, “You wicked servant; I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant as I had pity on you?” Then he handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. Jesus concluded, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”
We see this theme right in the First Reading (Sirach 27:30 – 28:7) when it says, “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Truly, as the Responsorial Psalm declares, “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger and rich in compassion,” and he expects us to be the same. Thus, in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to plead with God, “… and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…”
Relying on our own ability, we may not always succeed in doing this. That is why we ought to pray. Only by God’s grace can we do what is humanly impossible. St. Paul writes, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).