HOW TO FORGIVE
Sir 27:30-28:7; Rom 14:7-9; Matt 18:21-35
At some point or another, every one of us has been wronged. People hurt us each day. These hurts can be relatively minor offenses, often a result of misunderstanding. But at other times people wound us deeply. We respond to these wounds in different ways. Some people pretend that it never happened, stuffing the feelings of hurt deep down. Other lash out at the one who hurt them, seeking to hurt them in the same (or worse) way. Some others want to let go of the hurt but continue to nurse it. This may lead them to silently bubble with anger as they constantly replay it in their minds, refusing to let it go.
Jesus knew what it was like to have your spirit wounded deeply. He was betrayed; he dealt with two-faced people; and he was killed by those who did not like what he stood for. Yet through everything he demonstrated a heart of forgiveness. Even as he was being nailed to the cross, he pleaded, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:35). There was something different about the way Jesus dealt with people; he loved people that others would have simply written off. He forgave people who did not deserve it. That may be why Peter asked him, in our passage of today’s gospel, to teach him about forgiveness.
- PETER’S QUESTION
“Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven! (Matt 18:21-22) We tend to look down on Peter, because he seemed to say whatever was on his mind. But, in Peter, we see a man struggling to apply and understand Jesus’ teachings. Often, he did not have the right answer. But he did not shy away or hesitate to ask for clarification. That is commendable. The Rabbis in those days taught that one should forgive a person 3 times for an offense, but on the 4th time one should to retaliate and seek vengeance. Peter probably thought he was being generous by mentioning 7 times! Honestly, most of us struggle to forgive someone even 1 time, let alone 3.
Jesus responds by telling Peter that it is not sufficient to forgive someone 7 times, but rather 70 times 7 times! Jesus was not saying that we should keep a tally sheet of how many times we have forgiven someone (like the umpire of a basketball match) and after the 490th time, then we do not have to forgive and can instead retaliate. He was saying that there should not be a limit to the number of times we are willing to forgive someone. Peter was surely shocked by this answer, because it went contrary to what the teachers of the day said about forgiveness. But Jesus was not yet done with his explanation. He chose to illustrate his point with a parable that drives home not only HOW we should forgive, but also WHY we should forgive.
- THE PARABLE
So Jesus tells a story in order to further drive home the point. (Rather than re-read the story it is better to retell it briefly).
Try to imagine having a debt so large that there would never be any hope of paying it off. Now imagine being called before the king to whom you owed this debt. You feel a sense of dread, complete helplessness, and a crushing guilt! That is what Jesus is trying to help us see in the man in this story. The king did something unexpected: he simply forgave the debt. Those listening had to be amazed at this act of grace, imagining that the king’s actions would have changed this man’s life once and for all, and making him eternally grateful that he had been given the gift of forgiveness. (But Jesus was not done with the story.) Jesus said that as soon as the man left the king’s presence, he went and sought out a man who owed him a sum of money. Jesus said this amount was 100 denarii. It was nothing compared to the debt that the man had just been forgiven for. The man demanded that his debtor should pay the debt immediately. Even though the other man begged for mercy and promised to repay his debt (which was actually possible and easier to pay), the man who had been forgiven showed him no mercy. (He throttles him on the throat, intending to squeeze life out of him.) Finally, he had him thrown into debtor’s prison.
When news of this got back to the king, he was appalled. He could not believe that after he had extended such mercy to the man, this same fellow could be unwilling to extend even a little to a friend. And the king had the man thrown into prison until he would pay off his debt—a debt so large that it could not be paid. He would be in prison forever. Jesus said that this was a picture of what our forgiveness should look like. So let us examine what Jesus meant.
- SOME IMPLICATIONS OF JESUS’ PARABLE
- a) First, as followers of Jesus, we have been forgiven an insurmountable debt. This truth is really the key to understanding Jesus’ teaching. We have a tendency to believe that we are not that bad. We view the things that others do to us as way worse than anything we would do to anyone else. We forget that spiritually, we are just as hopeless as the man who owed his master lots of money. What we need to understand is that despite the great debt we owe to God, despite our inability to ever repay it (or even make a dent in it), Jesus came on earth and died so that we might be forgiven. “God shows his love for us in that while were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) The psalmist of today notes: “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion” (Ps 103:8). Later, the same psalmist adds: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our transgressions from us.” (Ps 103:11-12). What these words tell us is that even though God has no need of mercy, the Lord takes the initiative in showing graciousness and mercy to “those who fear him.”
- b) We are supposed to extend that same kind of forgiveness to others. Alexander Pope’s famous and immortal words come to mind today: “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” When it comes to forgiveness, Christ calls us all to divinity. When we forgive, we act like God does. Every time we forgive those who have hurt us, we let divine life triumph over evil. Regardless of the hurt we have been dealt by others, we are to extend forgiveness. St. Paul’s advices the Ephesians: “Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32) To the Colossians, he also instructs: “Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.” (Colossians 3:13)
- c) When people hurt us, we are to make the first move in extending forgiveness to them—even when (or especially when) we think they do not deserve it. We did not deserve to be forgiven either—so we are to forgive as we have been forgiven. WE MUST REALIZE THAT TO FORGIVE IS A COMMAND OF GOD “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive…” (Mt 6:14). By forgiving others, we are obeying God. Forgiveness of others paves the way for our own forgiveness “Do not condemn and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven” (Lk 6:37). The Lord, Jesus tells us further: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall see mercy” (Mtt 5:7). Again, he teaches: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Mtt 6:12). Those who do not forgive as Jesus did do not receive forgiveness themselves. Jesus said that if we refuse to forgive others, then the same fate awaits us, as it awaited the man in his parable. That fate is eternal punishment.
- FORGIVENESS AND THE LAW: (Here is a caution!) If we always have to forgive, where and when then does the law come in? Imagine, someone breaks into your house and steals your property. The police arrest him. That is because the law is there to curtail the excesses of wayward people and regulate life in society. Everybody sins, but when your sins start to affect your neighbor, when it affects a third party (the state), then it should be treated as a CRIME. And the law of the land is there to handle such. Jesus did not come to abolish the law; he came to perfect it (Mt 5:17-19; 1 Pet 4:14-15). By forgiving, you let it go from your heart, but the law must take its course. Whatever the law decides should be fine with you. If possible, you can request for a milder punishment for the criminal (for he/she is no longer just a sinner). That is where forgiveness interjects. Notwithstanding, it is not a must that we involve the law in every wrong that people do to us.
- IMPLICATIONS OF FORGIVING OTHERS?
Forgiveness, as taught by Jesus entails certain things which we must keep in mind:
- a) Forgiveness does not mean that we keep putting ourselves in a position to be hurt. Just because we forgive someone who stole from us does not mean that we should give them unrestricted access to steal from us again. We need to protect ourselves first, and then work at forgiving them for what they did.
- b) Forgiving is not saying that what the other person did was not wrong. God has forgiven us, but that does not mean that he says that our sin was no big deal. To the woman caught in adultery, for instance, Jesus says: ‘I do not condemn you either, but go and sin no more!’ (Jn 8:11) Forgiveness means giving up trying to punish others for what they did.
- c) Forgiving is not the same as forgetting. It is impossible to forget what people have done to us, but it is possible to stop trying to remember it. We may never forget what someone has done, but we do not have to keep rehearsing it in our heads. There is no text in the bible that says we should “forgive and forget!” However, we should stop remembering the wrong done to us, even though we will never actually forget it! In this sense, therefore, forgiveness means that we have decided that the wrong that someone did to us shall no longer be allowed to stand on the way of our relationship.
- d) God’s forgiveness does not wait for the other person to deserve it. The other person may not deserve our forgiveness, just as we did not deserve God’s forgiveness either. Let us remember that “God shows his love for us in that while were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) We are not supposed to wait around for the other person to ask for forgiveness. Our responsibility is to forgive as God has forgiven us.
- e) Forgiveness takes time. Deep physical wounds do not heal right away (overnight)—neither do wounds inflicted to our spirits. If someone has hurt you deeply, it is going to take you a long time to work through the hurt. But you should choose to set aside those feelings and forgive. The more you try, the easier it becomes. The key is to keep working through those painful feelings.
- f) Forgiveness means restoring the relationship in the best way that we can. It is possible that our relationship may never get to where it was before (because it does not depend only on us), and it may take a long time to get there, but we need to start moving in the right direction. It might mean starting small. It might mean simply being civil to the person who has hurt you. It may mean reaching out to them and talking to them, even though it is hard for one to do so. But over time, we need to move towards restoration.
- g) Forgiveness starts in the heart. Often, we tend to view the other people’s attitude as the greatest hindrance for us to forgive them; but it is not. The prophet Jeremiah writes: “More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9) The greatest obstacle is our attitude. FORGIVENESS IS A CHOICE. It is a choice to move forward, to deal with the feelings inside of us and take them to the Lord.
- h) Avoid bringing an old hurt up every time there is conflict. Doing this shows that we have never really forgiven. All we have really done is store the hurt in our storehouse so we can bring it out as a weapon whenever we need it. True forgiveness lets it go.
We all struggle with forgiveness in some area of our lives. It may be a wound from a friend, an attitude of a spouse, the behaviour of a child, a business deal gone sideways, the way someone treated someone you love. There is probably some hurt in your past that you replay over and over in your head. That is precisely where you must start with forgiveness. In this light, forgiveness is the love of those who have hurt you. There is no greater test of an authentic Christianity than the willingness to forgive others. If you do not forgive, it is not God who punishes you: you punish yourself; you torture yourself by nursing the resentment. You suffer needlessly. A certain saint defines ANGER as: “the punishment you inflict on yourself for the mistake of another person”. There are several medical reports that have proven that a lack of forgiveness hampers physical healing in several cases. How often have we not missed blessings because we refuse to forgive! How much peace and joy we miss because of anger and bitterness! When we are angry with someone, we cannot breathe well. One’s heart palpitates so fast because it is deprived of the right amount and quality of air. Our bitterness can suffocate us eventually. Forgiveness is good not only to our spiritual health, but our mental and emotional health as well.
Let us conclude by praying in the words of the Psalmist (Please, you may repeat after me): “If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord who would survive? But with you is found forgiveness, for this we revere you.” (Ps 130:3-4). Amen.