Reflection on the readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter asks a great question here. How often, how many times, should we forgive our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors…our enemies? Is there a limit, a cut-off point past which we simply give up on the other?
Peter’s question here reminds me of middle school football practice, when we might on occasion ask the coach how many times we would have to practice a play. “Do it until you get it right” was the usual answer.
What would it mean to “get it right” when it comes to forgiveness? It means changing our hearts, re-orienting our focus away from the sin the other has committed and back toward the sinner him or herself. It doesn’t mean ignoring or even forgetting the very real sins we commit against one another, nor does it mean that it’s an easy or quick process. It does mean repentance as well as recognition of the image and likeness of God in one another. Forgiveness should open our hearts to the possibility of restoring the broken relationship, to the chance to build something authentic and loving; in a word, it should ideally create an opportunity for reconciliation.
In Jesus’ response, he sees Peter’s seven and raises him another seventy. Following this poker metaphor, you might say Jesus goes “all in.” There’s not some projected point in the future when we give up on forgiving our sinful brother. Jesus calls us instead to keep our hearts open and to work towards restoring right relationships with any who have wronged us. It’s possible the other will reject those efforts. Perhaps your brother doesn’t want to be reconciled with you. Indeed, we might even have relationships that were broken to begin with – enemies, you could say. Even then – especially then – Jesus calls us to love them, to pray for those who persecute us. Even if reconciliation is impossible, forgiveness is. We can let go of the anger, the desire for revenge, the thirst for satisfaction…our hearts can be transformed.
But Jesus isn’t finished. He illustrates his response to Peter with the story of the servant who was behind on his bills to the king. That servant begged forgiveness from the king, who in turn graciously forgave these debts and let the servant go. That servant was so devoid of gratitude that, rather than forgiving his fellow servant (who likewise begged for patience), the first servant had the second one thrown in prison. On hearing this, the king withdrew his prior mercy, called the first servant wicked, and had him turned over for torture and imprisonment.
Peter’s question is about forgiving those who sin against us. Jesus tells him he should be like the king at the beginning of the story and forgive, not like the servant who punishes his fellow. Yet I think Jesus had a subtle, further point for Peter (and us) to consider. We shouldn’t just see in our lives and in this story the problem of how to deal with those who sin against us. We should also think about how to deal with those we ourselves have sinned against.
The servant already owed a debt to the king, but he incurred a further debt with his fellow servant by rejecting his plea for the same grace. By his very refusal to forgive the other, he sinned against him. What’s more, by holding onto the offense, he sinned against himself. Jesus ends the story by telling Peter (and us) that God will forgive us, but we must then forgive each other. Jesus calls us, not only to forgive (even 77 times or more), but to recognize our own need for forgiveness. And in a culture that I think tends to blame others without serious regard for our own responsibilities, this is a call we should all listen to more attentively.