Fr. Roger J. Landry
Catholic Online Homily Series for the Year of Faith
March 5, 2013
One of the most difficult aspects of living the Catholic faith is the teaching about loving even our enemies and forgiving those who repeatedly wrong us, hate us and persecute us. When people hurt us, we think it’s magnanimous and generous when we give them a second chance. If we forgive them yet again, we think we’re ready for canonization. But Jesus’ standards for us are higher. He wants us to become as merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful — and thanks be to God, God gives us more than one or two spiritual mulligans.
In today’s Gospel, St. Peter asks Jesus, “If my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?” He volunteers a figure astronomical by our standards today. “Seven times?,” he says, which would be our equivalent of giving someone an eighth chance.
Jesus, taking advantage of the symbolic significance of the number seven in Hebrew, which symbolizes perfection, responds that Peter must forgive not just seven times, but seventy-seven times. If taken literally he would have to give someone a “seventy-eighth chance.” But in Hebrew, the expression Jesus uses means “infinitely.” He says Peter must forgive every time a brother or sister wrongs him.
And what Jesus says to Peter, he also says to us. We, too, must never refuse forgiveness to anyone who has wronged us — even and especially those who have really wounded us deeply. We must forgive fathers and mothers who have hurt us when we were younger, husbands and wives who have betrayed us, friends who have deceived us, priests or nuns who have scandalized us, assailants who have attacked us, and terrorists who have mercilessly killed those closest to us.
Jesus tells us why we must do this by means of the parable he gives us, which I’ve always found among his most powerful. He mentions two people who need to have their debts cancelled. The first owes 10,000 talents. A talent was 6,000 days wages. Therefore, this person owed 60 million days of work — something that would take him 164,000 years to pay off. If we want to quantify it in today’s money and just assumed the person made $12.50 an hour or $100/day, he would owe the equivalent of 6 billion dollars.
Knowing that he and his whole family would be thrown into prison, he went in to the Master and begged, ridiculously, time to pay back the unpayable sum, as if he would live to be 165,000 years old and slowly become a multi-billionaire! The Master, moved with compassion, cancelled the debt in its entirety. The debtor had essentially received his life back.
But he went out and met a man who owed him 100 denarii, or 100 days wages. Again, if a person was making $100 a day, this would be the equivalent of $10,000, which could be paid off in just over three months. But when he fell to his knees and begged for time to repay the debt — just as the first debtor had done — the one who had been forgiven the $6 billion had no mercy at all, even though the $10,000 he had lent had doubtless come from the billions he had himself borrowed. His lack of compassion cost him everything: when the servants of the billionaire Master told their boss, he revoked his mercy and threw the one who owed him into prison until he would pay back every last penny, which, because of the amount owed, was an impossible task.
What’s the relevance for us in the Year of Faith? We owe God far more than $6 billion. We’re always debtors, not creditors, in the forgiveness department. God the Father did not write off our debt, but sent his Son to pay for the debt with his own body and blood on the Cross. Our sins — even every single venial sin — have incurred an infinite debt that Christ needed to pay. Since we have received his forgiveness in baptism and in the sacrament of reconciliation, we are called to go out likewise and forgive others their much smaller debts to us, because nothing anyone could do to us — even if he or she were to torture us or kill those closest to us — amounts to what we’ve done to the Son of God made man through our sins.
This is a very important point for us to get. Very often we can think our sins are light matter. “So I say a few swears,” we can say to ourselves. “That’s not a big deal.” We can have very little compunction if we miss Mass on a Sunday or fail to be charitable, or consent to some impure thoughts, or be dishonest on our taxes. But every sin we’ve committed — even being impatient with others — makes us murderers of the Son of God, because Jesus had to die to forgive even our least venial sin.
This is a hard truth to bear, and I know there will be some reader of this article who will think that I must be exaggerating. I’m not. That’s how horrible our sins are. Our sins led to Jesus’ brutal torture and murder.
If we stopped there, it would be hard for us not to feel infinitely miserable. But God loved us so much that he counted it a bargain to send his Son to die in payment of the debts we incurred by our sins. That’s the first lesson from today’s Gospel.
The second lesson is that God’s mercy toward us — which is infinite and everlasting — can be revoked. In the parable, the Master who had written off the $6 billion debt, revoked it when he saw the one he had forgiven refuse similar mercy to the person who owed him. God makes this point emphatically throughout Sacred Scripture.
In the Book of Sirach, God tells us,“Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins?”
When Jesus taught us to pray the Our Father, he put seven petitions on our lips, but only one had a condition attached to it. “Forgive us our trespasses,” we pray, “as we have forgiven those who have trespassed (sinned) against us.” We need already to have forgiven and to have the intention to continue to forgive. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses,” Jesus tells us right after revealing to us the Lord’s prayer.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus vigorously made the same point: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you” — treat us like the first debtor in the parable — “unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
And none of us should miss the consequence if God revokes his forgiveness. If he does so, we will go to Hell, a prison in which there will never be enough time to pay our debt, because unless God forgives us our sins, our sins will prevent us from getting to Heaven.
I can add, however, that if we fail to forgive others, we will not have to wait until we die to go to Hell, because we’ll already be experiencing a hell on earth. The past pains due to others’ sins against us will always remain in the present, raw and heavy, dragging us down by their weight. Jesus gives us the command to forgive others not just so that we might imitate his merciful love, and not even so that we won’t revoke it by our failure to be merciful to others, but so that we might experience the liberation and joy mercy brings the giver.
It’s always important us to be very practical in applying any Gospel to our lives. Especially in this Year of Faith in which we’re called to incarnate God’s word, we need to make the Gospel concrete. Today I’d like to present four ways Christ is calling us to live out the lessons he is teaching us today.
First, in order for us to be merciful to others, we need to recognize that we, like them, are in need of mercy, that we, like them, are in fact debtors because of our sins. The more we’re aware of our own need for forgiveness from God and the more we receive it, the easier it should be to extend that gift toward others. That’s why it’s crucially important that we examine our consciences daily and go to confession frequently. When we recognize that even our “smallest” sins incur an infinite debt that Jesus had to pay with his own blood, then we want to root out those sins out. Sorrow for our sins, and a healthy self-love, move us to go, like the debtors in the Gospel, to the Divine Creditor and drop to our knees, begging for his mercy in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
The second practical tip relates to our mercy with others. Sometimes we hesitate to forgive others because we think it implies that we don’t consider what they’ve done any longer to be wrong. But this is a false and harmful understanding of forgiveness. When we forgive another, it does not mean that we approve of the wrong they’ve done or won’t try to bring a malefactor to justice if they’ve done something criminal. Mercy is not opposed to justice and to forgive does not mean to be weak and “soft on crime.” On the contrary, a true spirit of forgiveness involves a genuine horror for the sinful quality of the harm sins do and the deep desire to right the wrong and deter others from committing similar wrongs. It involves hating the sin but loving the sinner. Sometimes our greatest mercy toward another is, in a spirit of unvindictive charity, to help them to see the error of their deeds and repent through a just punishment.
The third tip is to recall that Jesus never said, “Forgive and forget.” So many people have told me over the years that they can’t forgive because they can never forget the pain from the harm done by others. Jesus never told us, “Forgive and forget,” because of the simple fact that when another deeply hurts us, there’s no way we could ever forget that. Forgiveness is not some type of psychological or emotional amnesia. It’s something altogether different.
That leads us to the fourth and last practical point: Forgiveness means changing the present significance of a past event, from one that causes pain to one that leads to mercy and love. Imagine your best friend deeply betrays you and you find it difficult even to think about the person, not to mention be in the other’s presence. What would forgiveness look like in that circumstance? It would begin by praying in these or similar words, “Dear Lord, please be merciful to that person and be merciful to me too.” Whenever we do this, we’re changing the present meaning of the person’s past actions from something that opens up the pains of the wounds to something that causes us to pray for mercy for that person and for us too. I call it the “cow manure” principle by which we change the detritus we’ve undergone into fertilizer for growth in holiness. If we can convert all of these past pains into present opportunities to pray for God’s mercy, then we have a chance to become deeply holy, because there are always plenty of people and reasons to forgive. Whenever we come into their presence, if we’re led to pray for them and for ourselves, then instead of doing us harm, they will do us great good. That’s what forgiveness really is. Today Jesus is calling us to recall those whom we need to forgive and to extend toward them the same offer of mercy he extends toward us.
Jesus called us to “love others as I have loved you,” and his love for us is always merciful. Therefore, our love for others must likewise always be clement.
As he was dying to pay the debt for our sins, after his back had been shredded at the flagellation, after his head had been crowned with thorns, and the Roman soldiers were about to hammer his arms to the wood of the Cross, Jesus cried out not in pain but in mercy: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” (Lk 23:34). The “them” and the “they” he was referring to were not just the Roman Soldiers who clearly knew how to crucify someone, but to all of us who when we sin really do not have a clue about how they crucify and kill our Savior. There is a similar consequential ignorance when we sin against others and others sin against us.
Today Jesus is asking us to make his words our own, to make his love our own, to make his mercy our own — by our receiving it from him in the Sacrament of Mercy and by our sharing that forgiveness lavishly, with others.
He who is mercy incarnate has made us rich in mercy like his Father. He’s restored to us billions that we’ve squandered. Let’s spend that merciful love down to the last penny!