How does one forgive someone who is unrepentant, i.e., someone who is not sorry, won’t admit that what they did was wrong or that they are to blame for their action? Perhaps the person is a “repeat offender” who has no conscience and no empathy toward the suffering of others – to the person offended. Can we still forgive such people? Peter must have been thinking about this because he brings this question to Jesus: “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” In other words, Peter is asking, “I know we are supposed to forgive, but, Lord, when is ‘enough enough’”? Today’s Gospel comes right after the teaching of Jesus we heard last Sunday about fraternal correction and what to do if the sinner doesn’t listen to the correction. Can we forgive someone who is stuck in their sin and not willing to change? What Jesus teaches in today’s parable about the unforgiving servant is that not only is such forgiveness possible but it is necessary – necessary for our salvation. “Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” We will suffer endless torture, “unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart,” says the Lord. Forgiveness is not an intellectual or legalistic exercise; for it to be real, it has to come “from the heart.” We can say, “I forgive you” or think we’ve forgiven someone, but if we are still harboring anger or hatred toward the one who has offended us, then we have not forgiven the person, and, in fact, are committing a sin. We hear in the reading from Sirach today, “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” Forgiving another does not deny that we’ve been wounded or put an end to the suffering caused by the offense, but when we hold on to anger, we cut off the possibility of healing the relationship and our own suffering caused by the offense. Sirach continues: “Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord? Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself?” How do we get to the point of forgiving in these difficult situations? How do we forgive “from the heart”? It really is a grace that flows from the experience of being forgivin by the King, i.e., the Lord. The servant is declared “wicked” not because of his big debt, but because he refused to allow the mercy he received from the King to flow through him to his fellow servant who is also a sinner.
The parable mentions several details that are key in the process of forgiveness. 1) The servant owes a debt he cannot repay. 2) The master is “moved with compassion” for the servant carrying the debt. The servant who begs for patience and says, “I will pay you back in full” was either lying or ignorant of his own lack of ability to make things right. But the master still has pity on him, lets him go, and forgives the debt. “Pity” is the feeling of sorrow, grief, or pain aroused by the suffering or misfortune of others. We cannot forgive from the heart unless our hearts feel sorrow for the suffering of the offender. There is a very real suffering in bearing a debt we cannot repay. We have a hard time forgiving when we condition forgiveness on the person’s ability to pay us back or make up for what they did wrong. But that is not forgiveness. We think they should be able to repay, and if they can’t, they don’t deserve mercy. But let’s think about it… Can someone, for example, who murdered another ever bring that person back to life? Can anyone who abused a child do anything to restore the child’s innocence? Can anyone who has been unfaithful in a marriage do anything to make up for the infidelity? Can anyone who has slandered the reputation of another or has falsely accused someone restore the damage done? “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube” as they say. In all of these examples, all the money in the world could not make up for the pain and suffering of what was lost. Punishing the offender severely also will not restore the loss or heal the damage done. The sinner – all of us – always bear a debt that we cannot repay. Divine Mercy and forgiveness is the only thing that can free us from that condition – that debt. Only divine mercy can answer our demand for justice and free us from the prison of hatred, wrath, and vengeance. It is for this reason why we should not give in to the loud demands we hear from many quarters these days for reparations and vindictive policies intended to punish groups or classes associated with historical injustice. Those demands for “justice” will never be satisfied. Whatever is given will never be enough. Monetary payments to the aggrieved group and cancelling out the livelihood of the offender as punishment (all done outside of the legal system) will not bring healing to the injustice. The demand will not be answered because the problem is not primarily in the “system” but in the heart of the aggrieved. And they are operating as if the answer was found in human power.
I heard several moving testimonies at a conference I attended this past winter on the challenge of forgiveness and reconciliation. Jeanne Bishop spoke about her journey to forgiveness from the heart after her pregnant sister was murdered in cold blood by a 16-year-old kid who intended to rob her house. The young man after being convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole showed no remorse for his crime, and, despite all the evidence against him, denied that he was guilty. Jeanne thought that she had forgiven him. She believed forgiveness was important because she was a Christian, but she still hated that man for killing her sister. She got to the point of saying, “I don’t want to hate anymore.” She said, “hating another is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.” She asked herself, “How was hating this man in any way honoring my sister’s memory.” What does forgiveness look like? It looks like Jesus on the Cross. Jesus prayed for those who killed him: “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.” Her breakthrough came when she started to pray for the man. She said God wants us to break down the walls we’ve put up and see the wounds in the people who have done evil and not give up on them. Jesus is still on the cross -still suffering – when he forgives. Forgiveness doesn’t wait for the suffering to stop. Jesus also asks the Father to forgive. This reminds us that we can’t forgive on our own. We need to ask for the grace to forgive others, and that grace comes from God. The other testimony was from an Israeli woman whose son was killed in the Palestinian conflict. She said in the face of her loss: “Do I die with my child?” This is the choice we make if we refuse to forgive. She said for healing and reconciliation, we need to partner with the other side because “we all share the same pain.” When she met Palestinian mothers who had lost children in the conflict, she realized, “our tears are the same.” She said that when she gave up being a victim of this circumstance, she was free. She said “forgiving is giving up your just right for revenge” and that “if you can’t forgive, you will be a prisoner for the rest of your life.” A former Palestinian resistance fighter on the panel said that he grew up hating the Israelis. It was not until he saw a movie on the Holocaust that he was changed. It is easy to justify a struggle against nameless and faceless “military occupiers”, but things change when you know the story of the other and recognize their humanity.
What we have in common with our “fellow servants” – those who have offended us – is that our humanity is the same. We are all sinners in need of God’s mercy. Forgiveness is not easy, but it is necessary. It is necessary to conform us to God. Whoever we need to forgive…. listen to them – hear their story – see them as a human being, and then ask God for the grace to forgive. And, ourselves having been looked upon by Christ’s merciful gaze, as our opening prayer says, may we “feel the working of God’s mercy” in our heart so to be moved with compassion for the one who has sinned against us.