“Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will My heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”
The newspaper comic strip For Better or For Worse is cartoonist Lynn Johnston’s take on modern family life as she chronicles the life of the Pattersons.
In a not too recent episode, six-year-old Michael is trying to build an elaborate tower out of his set of blocks. But the blocks keep toppling over . . . again and again and again. In utter frustration, he screams “Stupid, dumb, crummy …” and kicks the pile of blocks across the room. His mother has had enough of his behavior and drags Michael off to bed. “No! Ahh! Don’t wanna go to bed! Waah!!” he protests, but Mom will have none of it. “To bed — now!”
As his exhausted Mom is about to turn off the light, Michael, tucked in his bed, asks, “Mom? Aren’t you gonna kiss me goodnight?’
She responds, “To tell you the truth, Michael, when you act like that… I just don’t feel like kissing you at all!”
“But, Mom,” little Michael pleads, “that’s when I need it the most!“
Today we hear about Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant from St. Matthew’s gospel. And the driving theme of today’s Gospel reading is “forgiveness from the heart.” The Bible is a wise old document. It’s the product of centuries of inspired observation of human behavior and attitudes and it hasn’t missed much. When it comes to the way human beings react to real or assumed offenses committed against them, the Bible records three kinds of response—two that are more common and one that’s quite unusual.
Response #1: Blast away! This is the one Lamech (in the Book of Genesis) was partial to, as reflected in his famous remark: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech be avenged seventy-sevenfold,” or 490 times to be precise. In other words, if someone cuts me, I’ll kill him. Even if he’s but 12 years old, I’ll kill him. Lamech’s is the simple approach to compensation. In modern times his attitude translates into: “You shoot one of our guys, we’ll bulldoze your village to rubble; you cross my property line uninvited, I’ll nuke you—and no jury will convict me—or at least no jury should.” It’s well to remember that something of this “Lamech sentiment” festers, more or less, in each of us. I feel something of it, every time I watch Aaron Rodgers and the Packers run the score up on the Bears.
Response #2: Hey! Take it easy! Don’t get mad, get even instead. Be rational; remember, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Let the punishment fit the crime. Keep things proportionate, otherwise passion will beget passion – sort of a Hatfield and McCoy approach to life – and injustices will simply multiply until no one is safe. If you feel you’ve been taken advantage of, stick to agreed-upon rules and procedures, estimate the appropriate damage and seek that plus the cost of litigation—no more, no less. This is how lawyers make their living, and until the Eschaton arrives we’ll continue to need their services.
Response #3: This response will be found in the Gospel in remarks (if I may paraphrase) like: “If anyone strikes you, turn the other cheek; if anyone would sue you or take your coat, let him have your shirt as well. Forgive your brother not once, not seven times, but 70 times seven times, or a minimum of 490 times to be precise.”
This third response is not as popular as Response #1 and #2, but the Gospel challenges us to try it. Why? Because response #1 is insane and will most likely decimate the innocent along with the guilty. And it will boomerang every time, for if the whole family of a man who offends you is a fair target for your wrath, what’s to prevent the survivors of that family from making your whole nation fair game? And isn’t that what history books and news stories are frequently all about? In regards to the more moderate Response #2, I think it was Mahatma Gandhi who said all that has ever resulted from an eye for an eye resolution to human disputes is a world full of blind men. In other words, even though justice and compensation is the goal of this response, the true healing of the hurt may never take place.
So, says Jesus, why not give creative, imaginative mercy and forgiveness a try, if only because it, too, can have its boomerang effect—in that you, too, may be forgiven all the offenses you have committed and tend to overlook in your relentless quest for compensation from the rest of the world around you.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, I think most of us here, without exception, would agree at least in theory that response #3 is the best alternative. Our Lord states very clearly that to the degree and proportion we extend mercy and forgiveness to others will we experience a similar degree and proportion of His mercy and forgiveness at our personal judgment after we die.
Now, in the practical sense, – “forgiveness from the heart” is quite difficult, especially if the hurt is deep and painful. It’s not uncommon to forgive someone only in our minds, for something they’ve done to us. Resentment may still linger within us in our hearts and fester over a period of time. We may even take some satisfaction in wishing upon them some misfortune. Sometimes, “forgiveness from the heart” is much more difficult and takes a much longer period of time.
But as a practical guide, we should remember three simple rules with regards to forgiving those who have sinned against us: first, we must always and are morally obligated to eventually forgive everyone from the heart (interiorly) in the eyes of God regardless if they are sorry or not; second, we must and are morally obligated to expressly forgive those who are sincerely and genuinely sorry for sinning against us; AND, third, we are NOT morally obligated to forgive someone who does NOT express sincere and genuine sorrow for sinning against us – however, we will be greatly rewarded by Our Lord both in this life and in the next for acting virtuously and heroically if we do forgive them anyway in spite of their lack of sorrow for hurting us. God will be very pleased with us in this case. God is never outdone in generosity!
But what may appear impossible for us to accomplish in this sense, is always possible with God. The initial step to ‘forgive from the heart” is to first forgive in the mind. This is only the beginning of true healing. With the help of God’s grace, we can eventually overcome deep-seeded resentment by praying to God every day for the simple desire to forgive, and also to pray daily for those who have hurt us, with an understanding that those who hurt us are in need of healing themselves, just like little Michael in my opening story. “Forgiveness from the heart” may take a long time, and the memory of the incident may never be forgotten. Time, distance, and objectivity usually helps this healing process. But at least we will be making the effort and showing Our Lord that we need His help in the healing process. And Our Lord is never outdone in charity.
At the conclusion of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus reminds us that if we don’t at least make the effort to “forgive from the heart,” in this life, then we will have to learn to “forgive from the heart” in the next life – in Purgatory, until we pay back the whole debt.
Our prayer today and every day should be, “I thank thee, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and proud and revealed them to the children.”
Mary, Virgin Most Sorrowful, pray for us!