Forgiving those who have hurt us can be one of the most difficult demands of the Christian Gospel. Yet in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And the parable in today’s Gospel embodies this teaching about forgiveness.
Today’s Gospel picks up where last week’s left off. Jesus was teaching the disciples how to respond to fellow Church members who wrong them in some way. What Jesus said was: If your brother sins against you, take the matter up with him privately; if he refuses to listen to you, ask two or three witnesses to help mediate; if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to Church; if he refuses to listen to the Church, then cast him out.
At the beginning of today’s Gospel, Peter replies, “All right, Lord. But suppose he repents and asks forgiveness? How many times must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Doesn’t there come a point, Peter implies, when someone has hurt us one time too many, and we cannot forgive them again no matter how contrite or sorry they are?
Peter probably thinks he’s being generous in offering to forgive as many as seven times. But Jesus says no, not seven times, but seventy times seven. The phrase “seventy times seven” is a biblical euphemism meaning an infinitely large number. For the Christian, there must be no limit to our willingness to forgive.
We need to understand, however, what forgiveness is and what it is not. When someone has hurt us, forgiveness does not mean saying, “Oh, it’s all right, it doesn’t matter.” It’s not all right, and it does matter. If it really were all right, there would be nothing to forgive.
To ask forgiveness is to admit that one has wronged the person whose forgiveness is sought. And for that person to forgive is neither to excuse the wrong nor to pretend that it did not happen. Rather, forgiveness means overcoming our natural instinct to strike back in anger. It involves letting go of our natural desire for retribution, and refusing to be ruled by the hatred, malice, vindictiveness, and desire for revenge that can consume us and contaminate all our attitudes and behavior. (Deliberately holding a grudge has aptly been likened to taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.)
The parable in today’s Gospel teaches us how to become forgiving people. The key to the parable is the difference between the two debts. A denarius was a silver coin roughly equal to the day’s wage of a laborer. But a talent was equivalent to 6,000 denarii. So, the 10,000 talents that the servant owed the king was an astronomical sum. The servant could never have paid off such a debt. The 100 denarii that his fellow servant owed was an infinitesimal fraction of 10,000 talents. So, it cost the king infinitely more to forgive his servant’s debt than it would have cost the servant to forgive his fellow servant’s debt.
Our Lord’s point is that we find the motivation to forgive those who have sinned against us only when we realize how much more it has cost God to forgive us. He gave his only Son to die on the cross that our sins might be forgiven. To become forgiving people, we need to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the cross. Then, and only then, will we know the freedom and joy of being able to forgive others just as God has forgiven us.
Look It Up
Compare our Lord’s teaching in today’s Gospel with that found in Matthew 6:14-15, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:36-37 and 17:3-4, and Colossians 3:12-14.
Think About It
“Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” Is this a trite cliché, or profound wisdom?