In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive someone who has trespassed against him. Jesus famously answers seventy times seven times, which is in essence to say continually and forever. Jesus then proceeds to tell a parable about a man whose debt has been forgiven by the king, but who in turn refuses to forgive a similar debt that someone owes to him. As it is written, “his fellow-servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.’ And he would not; but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.”
It is important to note that Our Lord refers to the unforgiven debtor who has been cast into prison not as the creditor’s servant, but rather as his “fellow-servant.” He and his creditor are both servants of the king. They are both citizens of what Christ Jesus referred to earlier in the same passage as “the kingdom of heaven.” At least in this context, they are not subjects of Caesar, and are not being called upon to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. They are being called upon to follow God’s example of mercy, to render unto God what is God’s by exhibiting mercy to one another, and in so doing to become more like their king. Notice that though they are already in the kingdom of heaven, they are not without sin. Both men are debtors. Both men have to clean their ledgers, so to speak, first with the king and then with one another.
So we see then that the kingdom of heaven is not an exclusive clique of sinless men, but rather the abode of saints: People still wrestling with their fallen nature, striving to bridge the separation they have with God their King and with one another, but to some degree at least committed to doing so. In this kingdom, it is God Himself who sets the example and provides the grace by which we may follow His course. When we fail to do so, God permits us to suffer the consequences of not having loved Him and our fellow servants enough. As in this parable, when the king goes on to deliver the unforgiving creditor to the tormentors, He inflicts punishment not to balance the scales, for indeed our sins, however great they may be, can never be balanced to the infinitely greater weight of His divine mercy. Rather, He inflicts punishment so that we may learn from our consequences and hopefully return to Him all the more. As it is written in Psalm 25: “For all they that hope in thee shall not be ashamed, but such as transgress without a cause shall be put to confusion.” Why does God punish these sinners? The psalm goes on to say that “gracious and righteous is the Lord; therefore will He teach sinners in the way.” God’s justice and mercy are one, for indeed there is no greater mercy than that divine justice by which we are given the opportunity to open our eyes and to learn how to love.
It is also important to note that the unforgiven debtor acknowledges his debt to the creditor and is asking for patience to pay him back. He wants to bridge whatever is the cause of separation between himself and his creditor. He wants to make all the necessary amends. By tossing him into debtor’s prison, the creditor is stopping the debtor from doing any of this. He would rather see the debtor languish in hell than to see him redeemed. He would rather see the debtor cut off from God’s grace than to see him become more like God. Moreover, as the debtor is in prison, the creditor may seek satisfaction from the debtor’s next of kin. What had been a debt between the two of them now may be spread to others. The lesson is clear: When we refuse to forgive, all we are accomplishing is to spread our own personal hell unto others. It is like watering the weeds in the garden, and then being surprised later that the weeds have spread. Sin is contagious. When Christ Jesus therefore commands us to forgive our trespassers seventy times seven times, He is providing us the means by which we may stop the spread of that contagion. He is commanding us to allow for grace to be more contagious than sin. Water the flowers, and not the weeds, and so see for ourselves which garden we shall prefer.
Before handing him over to the tormentors, the king says to the unforgiving creditor that he had forgiven him his debt because he, his debtor, had desired him. To desire God is the very first step in learning to love Him. Even if we know nothing about Him and have cast ourselves into a dark place far from Him on account of our sins, if only on some level we desire Him, then He will start to draw us closer. He will show us a level of mercy we may not even believe we deserve. He will urge us to do the same, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, so that in time we may move closer to Him as He does to us. God’s forgiveness is transformative. In showering us with His mercy, we are called and empowered to be more like Him. All this happens because in desiring Him, in seeking out forgiveness for our own public and private misdeeds, we are making it clear in our contrition, in our confession, and in our amendment of life that we want Him more than whatever happiness we had hoped to acquire with our sinful behavior. We are negating our sins, but even more so we are affirming Him. Now, if we are affirming God, then we are allowing the Holy Spirit to change us, to disrobe us of the dark vestiges of the Old Adam and to clothe us in the armor and the shield of righteousness, to predispose us toward taking up the cross. In Christ Jesus, our former sinfulness is now the occasion of our present and future salvation. Our sorrow is the occasion of our joy. Our affliction is the occasion of our health. The debts owed to us, the trespasses we have incurred, are the occasion of our mercy to others. The wrongs we endure from others set the stage for the goodness we may impart upon others. We are forgiven our sins for no other reason than that we may forgive others theirs, for God will settle for nothing less than for us to be like Him. Seen in this way, being forgiven is not the end of our redemption in Christ Jesus. Rather, it is the impetus to act as an agent of God’s great mercy to everyone else. Indeed, being forgiven is the beginning of our redemption, the call to be Christ for one another, the vocation to love as truly as we are loved. If we are forgiven, but decline to forgive in turn, then we are declining this vocation, and like the unforgiving creditor in essence handing ourselves to our tormentors.
When couched in theological terms, and backed up with Biblical passages, all this talk of forgiveness is easy enough to digest. We should be mindful, though, of what C.S. Lewis famously stated on the matter: “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea, until he has something to forgive.” Forgiveness is always easier said than it is done. Moreover, when we have been wronged, we have perceived righteousness, or at least our own private rationalizations, on the side of not forgiving the person who hurt us. Surely, we say to ourselves, justice demands we continue to hate the person who has hurt us, for otherwise are we not rewarding his sin? Are we not freeing him unjustly from the consequences of his own bad behavior? This is all very logical, and when the pain is still raw this mode of thinking may be all but unavoidable. Still, we know better from the example of Christ Jesus. He gave His life not only to forgive the sins of those who did not deserve forgiveness, but even unto those who had not yet asked for forgiveness. If we as Christians really believe that we are meant to be like Him, then we must pray for the grace to forgive not just in theory, but also in reality, the people who hurt us.
We have heard that we should love the sinner, but hate the sin. Frankly, we tend to be pretty good at hating the sin, especially when it is one of those sins with which we are personally unencumbered. Loving the sinner, though, in practice is a much taller order. Pray for the Holy Spirit to open up our eyes to the fallen, but shared, humanity underlying that sinner’s actions. Pray to perceive him as a man, and not simply as the instrument of the wrong we have suffered. We may never grow to like that man, but if we may perceive a smidgen of humanity in him we may learn to love him. This is how we walk with Christ. The steps are hard, and we shall stumble upon the way, but as we learn how to forgive others we also pick ourselves up. As we learn how to forgive, so are we strengthened in our walk with one another back home. As we are creatures of mercy, so are we agents of justice; and as we love in our words and deeds, so are we alive in Christ Jesus as He in us.
The ultimate fruit of forgiveness is to worship God in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life. As it is written in Psalm 34:3: “O praise the Lord with me, and let us magnify His name together.” Hatred corrodes the container it comes in. When we hold onto hatred, our self-righteous anger, we are not hurting the sinner so much as we are corroding ourselves. We are keeping ourselves from reaching out in humility to our neighbor, so that together we may worship God in thanksgiving for His mercy and His justice. Forgiveness frees us from ourselves. It allows us to see the stranger as our brethren. It allows people separated by sin to come together in grace into the Kingdom that Christ Jesus has set up for us. Forgive, as we would be forgiven, and in time we shall start to find the peace and joy that God has in store for all His children.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.