There are some things in life which we do not like to do but are necessary if we are to live. Things like swallowing a bitter pill in order to healed. Or undergoing a painful procedure or surgery if we are to survive.
Today’s readings speak of one such thing – forgiveness. To forgive is one of the hardest things to do. When we are hurt, our natural tendency is to hurt back which then triggers a series of attacks and counterattacks. Today’s endless quarrels, family feuds and wars will continue to haunt us if we do not learn to forgive. The curse of vendetta will only stop when one party lays down his arms and is willing to forgive.
Forgiveness saves us from the fatal consequences of revenge and retaliation. There is a scene in the movie, Fiddler on the Roof, wherein the Jewish villagers of Anatevka are being agitated by angry protesters for the unjust treatment by the Russian authorities. “We should defend ourselves,” shouts one. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” echoes another. To which Tevye (the protagonist) replies, “Very good. That way, the whole world will be blind and toothless.”
More importantly, forgiveness liberates and saves us from self-destruction. When we release an offender from his guilt by our forgiveness, we release ourselves from the deeper bondage of hate and bitterness that consumes us. The renowned Christian writer, Lewis B. Smedes, rightly comments, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
Forgiveness allows us to rise above our hurt and see reality in the light of truth. We realize that the hurt inflicted on us may not be personal and that the hurt of the offender may even be greater. For often, we are simply victims of collateral damage brought about by the destructive behavior of a person who is deeply hurting.
A refrain that constantly runs in Joseph F. Girzone’s book, Joshua and the Children, is “Do not take offense.” Do not take offense at anyone’s wrongdoing because it may not be intended for you. A mother knows that the tantrums of a child, however mean and abusive, are not personally directed to her, but are merely symptoms of a pain the child is unable to bear or manage. Thus, from the cross at the height of his suffering, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34)
But the deepest reason why we need to forgive comes from today’s gospel. We forgive because God has forgiven us. In the parable, the first servant owes his master ten thousand talents, while the second servant owes the first servant one hundred denarii. A talent is 6,000 denarii and is equivalent to 20 years of daily wage. Converted to today’s currency, the debt of the first servant amounts to billions which is impossible to pay in a lifetime. Thus, what the second servant owes the first servant is paltry in comparison. The hyperbole is intended to show that what we owe to God is beyond our capacity to pay. If God forgives us our debt, how can we not forgive our brother’s debt?
The parable illustrates Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive, as many as seven times?” Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Other texts translate it: seventy times seven times. Whatever it is, Jesus simply means, “Every time.”
Forgiveness is not a one-time act. Often, we may have already forgiven the offender, but when we remember the offense, we also remember the pain and experience it all over again. It is in such times that we are called to forgive once more. That is why the gospel does not ask us to forgive and forget, but simply to forgive… seventy times seven times… every time. Hopefully in time the memory of the offense may no longer carry the pain with it. It is then that we know we are finally healed.