Chapter Talk – 24th Sunday of the Year – September 13, 2020, cycle-A
Peter asks Jesus: “If my brother or sister sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” We all know by heart Jesus’ answer: “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:21). What is Jesus saying? The obvious answer is there is no numerical quantity to forgiveness. We must always forgive or be ready in heart to forgive. To go deeper: what is this saying about the nature of God and Jesus’ embodiment of who God is? If this is how magnanimous the heart of God is, does this not indicate how we are to be in heart and action? The Divine heart is ready to forgive us ‘seventy-times seven’ and we are to do the same towards one another. This, as we know, is not easy to live. Hurt and resentment can be so strong that the concomitant response is to push the neighbor far away from any forgiveness. What can transform this unforgiving attitude within the human heart?
The parable that Jesus relates to bring forth his message is simple and clear. By exaggerating the huge amount of money that the first servant owes to the King, ie: it is nearly impossible for him to ever pay it back in his lifetime, shows the extravagant, unconditional extent of God’s forgiveness. Then, this same servant goes to another servant who owes him three months of wages, a sum much easier to pay back, and he ‘chokes’ him with his anger and his stony heart that has not an ounce of forgiveness. This parable depicts in a dramatic fashion what can happen within all of our hearts: we have experienced God’s forgiveness and yet when our sister or brother does the same thing or, something even less than what we did, we are not ready to forgive.
Hans Urs von Balthasar emphasizes how cut off from God’s compassion and mercy we can get with these words: “Almost no other parable confronts us so dramatically with the extent of our of our sinful lovelessness: we demand incessantly from our sister and brother what we think they owe us, without giving a moment’s thought to the immensity of the debt God has forgiven us” (Light of the Word, p.126). He expresses then what the gospel pattern of our lives is called to be: “If we owe ourselves entirely to Christ, then we owe ourselves to divine love that has loved us ‘to the end’” (p.127). ‘Loving to the end’ means there are no limits to how far, how wide and deep, this loving forgiveness is to extend.
In offering the parable Jesus presents two attitudes: one is a heart magnanimous in forgiving…a heart moved to change and to forgive. The other attitude reveals a heart that is so hardened towards his neighbor that he will not even consider forgiving a debt. The forgiveness of the first slave’s immense debt was not truly received by him…He had his debt wiped away, but it did not change his heart into becoming more like his Master’s heart. If we are to be an authentic Christian community one of the predominant attitudes is to be a forgiving one. Let us not forget that the ultimate reality and enduring image of forgiveness is Jesus on the cross. He forgave those who put him on the cross…he took to himself their actions and the evil act became transformed with the offering of his life. We are not being asked to literally die. But we are being asked to be a forgiving people. This means we take up the cross of hurts done to us, or debts owed to us and refuse to lash back or demand we be paid back for a deed done.
Fr. Simeon in his commentary on this gospel writes: “The ability to forgive our brother and sister unceasingly and from the heart should be one of the primary concerns of our prayer, one of the most earnest pleas we make before the Throne of Grace…A forgiveness that leaps up spontaneously from the heart, just as the king’s mercy flowed forth from his royal viscera, is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit” (p.655-656). Here lies a response to my earlier question of what can change an unforgiving heart. Prayer, praying for a forgiving heart…praying for the sister or brother, praying for the grace to forgive, praying that my heart may soften, remembering my own debts and sins that God and my neighbor have forgiven. Forgiveness comes as a gift from the Spirit. Just the act of praying to forgive begins to change the heart and our attitude.
Two final comments: what prepares the heart to forgive is prayer. And, secondly: there is no forgiveness without the cross. There is forgiveness asked when someone apologizes…Still, forgiveness is to extend even further: that is, when one suffers the act done to one, where the person or persons are not apologizing…this is Jesus on the cross. The extraordinary message of Christianity is forgiveness…a message so needed today. We are not Christ, but we are to be Christ-like in heart, word and deed.
And here are words from a disciple who understood forgiveness in its breadth, height, depth and width: “I would like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down” (How Far to Follow, Christian de Cherché, Final Testament, p.127)
Sr Kathy DeVico, Abbess