24th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Jesus was truly the greatest of teachers, for He taught with the greatest mastery the greatest truths of human life. The crowds hung upon his words and delighted in the way he could make the deepest truths about God and man available to their understanding, and they were awed by the way he taught these truths with such authority. Recall how the temple guards reported to the chief priests when they failed to arrest Jesus: “No man ever spoke like this man.” (Jn. 7:46) Indeed.
In today’s Gospel we see His mastery and His authority when He teaches us the Christian duty of forgiveness, a difficult truth to understand and even more difficult to carry out. Peter asks Jesus how often he must forgive his brother, and suggests what he thinks is a most generous number, perhaps seven times. Peter wonders just how often the sinner is to be forgiven, if he continues to offend. And notice how Peter specifies a brother, which in this case means a fellow Christian disciple, but it could also be extended to brothers in the broader sense of the human family.
At any rate, Jesus gives a rather shocking response when he says not just seven times, Peter, but seventy times seven, which clearly implies that there must be no limit to our forgiveness. This must have been a shock to Peter and the other apostles, another seemingly impossible demand of Jesus. How can anyone be expected to be unlimited in his willingness to forgive? Here we see the unique character of Jesus and the New Covenant, in another radical demand, the duty to be ready to forgive one’s neighbor wrongs without limits.
Now, Jesus knows how demanding this duty is and how difficult to understand why this is a duty of the Christian. And so he immediately uses a parable to explain that the basis or ground of this duty is found in the Christian’s relation to God. The foundation of this duty can only be established in the fact that the image of God is being renewed in the baptized Christian in such a radical way that the Christian now shares the likeness of God nor only by virtue of grace, but also in his way of acting.
It’s a kind of syllogism of Christian logic: God’s mercy and forgiveness know no limits; but every baptized Christian is being remade in God’s very image and likeness; therefore every Christian has a duty to act like God, and that includes the forgiveness of all wrongs.
Jesus uses the parable to explain this point. The King is obviously meant to represent God in his unlimited generosity. The servant is meant to represent every man, for every man is a sinner, and even after Baptism he is in need of mercy whenever he commits serious sin. Sin is so evil an offense against God that the sinner acquires a debt which is absolutely impossible for him to pay. The debt of Original Sin as well as any mortal sin is infinite in its consequences since it offends God. Thus, we, like the servant in the parable, can only cast ourselves on the mercy of God and seek His mercy and forgiveness. God is so generous, because of what Jesus did for us on the Cross, that so often as we seek His forgiveness with genuine sorrow, God’s compassion will move Him to forgive us, and wipe out the debt.
But then there is the second lesson in the parable, and this one pertains to Peter’s question. We must imitate God’s generosity since we are God’s children, and if we fail to imitate God’s mercy toward ourselves and refuse to forgive our neighbor, when he genuinely seeks our forgiveness, then we shall find ourselves with an unpayable debt to God once again. We cannot share God’s life if we do not imitate his generosity in forgiving us all our debt.
The lesson should be clear. The basis of our duty to forgive others, then, is the duty we have as Christians to imitate God, in whose image we have been recreated through Baptism. If we refuse to imitate God’s mercy toward us when it comes to the wrongs our brothers commit against us in this world, then we in effect reject our Baptismal grace.
Moreover, the parable also teaches us that no debt anyone owes to us, because of some wrong they have done to us, can even begin to compare with the infinite debt caused by one single mortal sin in our lifetime, or the debt of Original Sin we inherited from Adam. So, if God freely remits an infinitely greater debt that we owe Him, how can we possibly hope to share God’s image and likeness, though the life of grace, if we refuse to forgive another’s wrong to us that is always incomparable to the gravity of the sins for which God has forgiven us.
Indeed, what Jesus is teaching us here is even anticipated by Sirach in today’s first reading, though he does not yet understand the full truth about this duty and its ultimate ground in Christ. Nonetheless, the great prophet makes the duty to forgive our brother quite clear:
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. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD? Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins?
Sirach already understands that the desire for vengeance, which is at the root of our refusal to forgive, is incompatible with our seeking God’s mercy for our own sins. And the Gospel of Jesus teaches us why this is true. This duty follows from what God has done for us through Jesus, wiping out the absolutely unpayable debt of sin we bear. Thus, we prove ourselves un-Christ-like, false images, if we fail to forgive what by comparison are infinitesimal wrongs of our brothers.
Such a failure to show mercy is in fact a rejection of the grace of Baptism and a rejection of God’s mercy and forgiveness toward us. It is for this reason that we pray daily in the Lord’s prayer, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Indeed, without denying the role of prudence in safeguarding our lives and our families, we should forgive the wrongdoer in the heart even if he fails to seek forgiveness. It’s for our good that we avoid all desire for vengeance and we do so by carrying no grudges or anger against wrongdoers. Those who wrong us must seek forgiveness from God to be restored to Life, but we can help with that conversion by our own forgiveness and bearing of no grudges. In this way we can be God’s instruments in leading the sinner to true conversion of heart.
This is a primordial duty of our Christian faith and our Baptismal conversion, and we must pray every day that we will have the grace to forgive our brother without limits, just as we trust that God’s mercy toward us knows no limits, so long as we do not fail to seek His forgiveness and to imitate his own mercy.
One last bit of wisdom from Sirach is in order, and of course this wisdom too is from Christ, the Wisdom of God. These words take on the full import only when read in light of Jesus’ parable. They are good advice for all of us whenever we might be tempted not to forgive a wrong.
Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin! Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor;remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.
Our Christian Life must always be lived against the horizon of our death – your last days – and our final judgment – cease from sin. And there is no better remedy for the terrible temptation to vengeance and refusing to forgive wrongs than to “remember the Most High’s covenant,” sealed in the blood of Jesus, that is, “and to overlook faults.”