The Necessity of Forgiveness
(Readings: Ecclesiasticus 27:30-28:7; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35)
Introduction to Mass
According to the teaching of the Bible, every human being is imperfect and in need of God's forgiveness. In today's gospel reading Jesus uses that teaching to show up the importance of being forgiving towards each other. Nobody who has an accurate sense of their own failings and their own sinfulness would feel justified in taking a harsh and unforgiving attitude to anyone else.
To begin Mass let's acknowledge the times when we've hardened our hearts and looked for revenge rather than forgiving the people who've offended us in some way.
The main subject of the readings this Sunday is a basic principle of the Bible's teaching and it's a principle that is summed up by those lines in the first reading, where the author of the book of Ecclesiasticus is saying in effect: if somebody nurses anger and resentment against another person, and shows no forgiveness to other people, who are only fallible human beings exactly like himself, how can he then turn to God and demand compassion towards himself?
And this is the point of Jesus' parable as well: none of the people listening to Jesus could fail to see the wrongness and the double standard of the servant refusing to cancel some debts that he's owed, when he himself has just had his own debts cancelled - debts that were much bigger, into the bargain. You would have to be pretty obtuse to miss the basic moral point that Christ is making here.
Unless we've lived an exceptionally sheltered life, we've all had the experience of being hurt or offended or in some way taken advantage of. Sooner or later in life we all have to confront what you might call the problem of forgiveness: when should we forgive someone, and when are we entitled not to forgive them? How often do we keep forgiving someone who repeatedly lets us down? This is the way Peter puts the question.
And this isn't only an issue for Christians or for people who believe in God: it's a facet of human relationships in general, whether you've got religious beliefs or not.
The deeper the hurt, the greater the injustice - especially if the person who has committed the offence shows no awareness of having done anything wrong, or is even taking pleasure in causing our unhappiness - the more difficult it is for us to forgive the person genuinely and wholeheartedly and to do away with the perfectly natural desire that we feel for revenge or some kind of redressing of the balance.
In the parable in today's gospel Jesus illustrates his teaching by referring to this image of God's Kingdom, God's Reign. This is how things are when God rules in a situation, he says. It's a statement of an ideal, or, if you like, a statement of principle. "The Kingdom of heaven is like this..."
For those of us who are striving to live our lives under God's reign, trying to make our moral behaviour conform to the values of the Kingdom, this is the benchmark which we've got to measure ourselves against, and the general principle that we've got to apply in our own, particular circumstances.
And the point that Jesus wants us to acknowledge and accept is that at the most basic level, standing before God, as it were, we're all bankrupt debtors like the servant in the story. Nobody comes up to the standards of God's holiness and perfection. None of us, in our ordinary relationships with each other, is a perfect example of kindness and patience and love - qualities that God himself has.
So when we're faced with our own weakness and faults, and when we can bring ourselves to acknowledge them honestly, we realise that we've got no justification for taking the high-handed and unforgiving attitude towards anyone else, in the way that the man in the parable does. Or if we do take such an attitude, we're simply guilty of a double-standard - generous and indulgent towards ourselves but hard-hearted and vengeful towards other people.
Both Jesus and the author of the book of Ecclesiasticus would have agreed that there's no room for that kind of attitude in the outlook of somebody who's serious about being close to God and living under his Reign. What happens is that the more open we are to God, the more we genuinely come under his influence, the more we find unforgiving attitudes evaporating.
Perhaps there's something else that we should bear in mind when we're thinking about the almost impossibly high standards of Jesus' teaching: like all areas of our spiritual life and our relationship with God growth usually take place slowly and gradually.
Very often as God's influence on us gets stronger it works against the grain of our more basic inclinations, and it takes a long time to overcome them. Especially when it comes to acquiring this quality of forgiveness, I think for most of us, it's not something we can just decide to do, by a one-off decision.
There are circumstances, as I was saying at the start, where forgiving someone is actually very difficult because of the hurt that's been caused. And in those circumstances, I think, the best way to see this quality of "being forgiving" is to see it as part of the gradual healing that takes place in us as God comes to play a bigger and bigger role in our lives.
Being able to forgive - like every other spiritual quality - doesn't come to us by our own strident efforts, or by us trying to force the pace. It comes - as Jesus implies here - when we admit our weakness, at so many levels, and then turn to God, and rely on him to bring about the changes that we need, in our attitudes and emotions and character, and so on.
So in some ways I would even go as far as saying that we shouldn't worry or get anxious if we find ourselves at this precise moment unable to forgive someone. If we're harbouring unforgiving, aggressive feelings towards someone, or the desire for revenge, there's no point deceiving ourselves.
The first step is to admit to ourselves that we're not in such perfect control of our emotions as we might like to think. The next step is to see these feelings as something we should pray about, asking God to take charge and to heal us and smooth out all the crooked and warped areas of our personality.
Often our emotions lag behind our conscience. Our conscience tells us that it would be right to forgive someone but our feelings produce all kinds of excuses and justifications for not forgiving. If our emotions were free from all negative or destructive tendencies we would be saints: but normally it takes God time to make us perfectly forgiving and turn us into saints.
It's a complicated area, and I don't think it was Jesus' habit to talk in a simplistic way where human relationships and the depths of human character are concerned. But those are perhaps some aspects of this particular teaching of Christ's about forgiveness that we can reflect on as we struggle to put it into practice in the real, challenging situations that we find ourselves.