Following the celebration of All Saints Day at the beginning of November, our Trinity-tide lessons begin to examine the four last things – death, judgment, heaven and hell, and direct us to a more particular examination of those things we have done and those things we have left undone.
This morning’s Gospel lesson opens with St. Peter asking Jesus, how many times do you have to forgive someone who has sinned against you? The short answer to St. Peter, and by extension to us as well, is that we must always forgive others. It is one of God’s non-negotiables.
Jesus then illustrates this short answer by teaching a parable of a King and his servants. The King represents God and the servants represent humanity; all those who have been created in the image of God. Jesus next fast-forwards the parable to a future day of reckoning – a day of judgment. We find a servant brought to account for his debts – sins committed against the King.
There is of course, Original Sin inherited from Adam, as well as the myriad of sins we chose to commit over the course of our lifetime. This should come as no surprise as St. Paul reminds us, (Rom. 3:23) “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
The Scriptures teach us that sin is a debt that we are incapable of paying and reminds us that (Rom. 6:23) “the wages of sin is death.” It is not a situation from which we can extricate ourselves. The first sin recorded in the Bible, that of Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden, occurs in the third chapter of Genesis. In the same chapter, we have the first promise of God, that the seed of the woman, the Messiah, will crush the serpent, sin, and death. This promise is called the ‘Proto-evangelium,” the very beginning of the good news of the Gospel. All creation patiently awaited this redemption (Rom. 8:22).
“When the fullness of time was come, God sent forth His Son.” (Gal. 4:4) Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, became man. He lived a perfect and sinless life. Upon the Cross, He took upon Himself, every sin that had been or would be committed in the history of the world. Jesus has paid the debt of our sins in full. It is only through faith in Him that that we receive mercy and forgiveness from God.
The first servant in the parable received the grace of his enormous debt being forgiven by the king but was still incapable of forgiving a fellow servant who owed him a mere pittance. The living out of our faith within our families, our church, and our community is never an easy task.
How does forgiveness work in our relationship with others? Are there guidelines we should follow in attempting to extend mercy to those who have wronged us? Pop psychologists and talk radio would have us believe that forgiveness should not be extended unless the awareness of fault exists, guilt is admitted, and responsibility taken to make amends. Following these guidelines, mercy and forgiveness is proffered in a business-like contractual manner. Would that life were always that simple and straightforward!
How would God want us to deal with those who wound us deeply and then go blithely along on their merry way unaware or uncaring? Worse yet, how do we respond to someone who deliberately does us wrong and plans to inflict the worst scenario possible? To take a phrase from many Christian youth, “What would Jesus do?”
For answers, our faith instructs us to look at the Cross and our Lord’s Passion which preceded it. On the night He was betrayed, Jesus readily engaged in dialogue when the person might potentially grow in his understanding of God’s purposes, as with Pilate. But Jesus remained silent in the presence of Herod who had already hardened his heart toward God.
When someone hurts us, there may be times when they are open to discussions about what happened. At other times, dialogue is useless. We need to pray for discernment and guidance in how to approach each opportunity for reconciliation. Sometimes we are called to unilaterally forgive, regardless of the response or lack of it from another.
Jesus ultimately forgave his oppressors from the Cross. Quote, (Luke 23:34) “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.” This did not happen at the beginning of the Passion, but only at the end, after enduring much suffering, solitude, and repeated acts of cruelty.
We are all too aware of the violence and brutality in our country and the world, but see too few instances of what forgiveness looks like in real life.
Recently in the news, in a small western Pennsylvania rust-belt community, adjacent to where I went to seminary, a heinous crime was committed. One morning last December, an eighty-five year old nun was severely beaten and sexually assaulted behind her Church.
At the sentencing hearing of the young perpetrator earlier this month, one of the sisters in the victim’s religious order read a statement to the court, prepared by this innocent elderly nun.
In part, it read, “You are my brother, and you, like me, are a beloved child of our heavenly Father. And our Father asks of his children to love one another and forgive one another. And this I do, by God’s merciful grace. I pray that one day both of us can look back upon what happened and understand more truly, that as Scripture says: ‘All things work together unto good for those who love God.’”
Despite her very real pain, this nun continues to live her faith and teach by example what forgiveness should look like in our lives.
Forgiveness is an act of the will. It is not a one time decision, but an ongoing and continuous commitment as we process through our pain, our anger, and occasional thoughts of revenge. Our willingness to continue the struggle, our hope in the healing power of God’s love, and our efforts to grow more “Christ-like”, is the mark of a true Christian.
May each of us respond to the challenge of God’s calling to us – His explicit commandment that we forgive those who have offended us from our heart today, as we remember how much He has forgiven us.