To Forgive or Not to Forgive

Feast of St Myron the Martyr of Cyzicus

Extreme_Humility_Square.jpegTHEN PETER came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:19-22)

Therefore the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents, 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. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, “Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 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.” So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. 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. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me, and should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from the heart. (Matthew 18: 23-35)

How many times should we forgive? When do we reach the last straw? When can we end the relationship, cut the offending persons off and send them to the outer darkness of our hearts and our lives? When can we extract the pound of flesh we feel we are owed?

Jesus’s answer is deeply troubling. Fallen “common sense” sees the world through the lens of our personal definition of justice, or even worse, from a perspective of self-interest alone. The idea that we should be entitled to extract an eye for an eye suits us quite well. But Jesus pulls the rug out from under the most generous human reading of mercy when he tells Peter there is no limit to forgiveness.

Jesus follows this hard teaching with a parable to drive home the point. A king is settling accounts with his servants, and as he begins the reckoning, one is brought before him (he doesn’t appear willingly) who owed him ten thousand talents, a debt far exceeding all the fortunes on earth. It is an absolutely unpayable debt. The servant realizes this and throws himself completely on the mercy of his lord. His offer to repay is not one he can ever hope to fulfill. They both know this. He is prostrate, hoping against hope that his master might have mercy. Then the blessed moment comes. 

We recognize “in the person of this king . . . the Son of God, who held the whole human race guilty in the infinite debt of sin, since through the original sin we were all debtors of sin and death. . . .  This Eternal King come down from heaven, remits the immeasurable sin of the fallen human race and forgives the debt of everyone who believes in Him.” (Chromatius) And at what great cost! Nothing less than the drops of His blood.

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Is it too much to expect the servant to go and do likewise? St. Cyril of Alexandria asserts that we are forgiven our debt with the proviso that we ourselves release our fellow servants from the less serious faults they have committed against us. St. Thomas Aquinas says the memory of so great a gift of forgiveness is sharp and fresh in the parable and should be in our minds as well.

A gift of such magnitude, followed by such vindictiveness towards his fellow servant, whose puny debt is about a day’s wage, reveals the true character of the servant. Theophylact is clear: such a “one who lacks compassion. . . . departs from God and is a stranger to Him.”

When the master learns of what the servant has done, he delivers him to the jailors until he can repay the unpayable debt – in other words, for all eternity. “For what then, can be a more grievous thing than to be vengeful, especially when it appears to overthrow so great a gift of God?” (St. John Chrysostom

This, like many of Jesus’s teachings, may seem harsh. But it is not that God desires that any should be lost. Rather unforgiveness reveals the true inner state of one who prosecutes others to the full extent of the law. Anyone who refuses to share the great mercy he has received from God takes his stand against our Lord and remains permanently outside the Kingdom of God.

The Cross drives a stake through the unforgiving heart. While we frequently think so many other sins are the really serious ones, it may be that redemption turns on this quiet axis. Can it be that forgiveness is really the still point of the turning world? The Lord’s prayer, which we pray everyday, often with terrifying inattention, asks the Lord to forgive us as we have forgiven others. As we have forgiven? Have we really thought about that?

Forgiveness is not optional. It is not a secondary issue. Forgiveness is costly, agonizingly difficult, especially when the relationship is close and the wound deep. But Jesus says it must be so. He showed us it must be so. Even as He hung on the Cross, He prayed for our forgiveness. Can we do any less?

Jeri Holladay writes from Wichita, Kansas where she has been Associate Professor of Theology, Chairman of the Theology Department, founding Director of the Bishop Eugene Gerber Institute of Catholic Studies at Newman University and Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center of the Diocese of Wichita. She has also served on Eighth Day Institute’s Board of Directors.




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