Sept. 11, 2011
First we have to notice that Christ's teaching is holistic, complete and universal. This is especially visible when we see the Gospel of the last Sunday and today's teaching of Christ. Jesus is teaching us seriously and talking honestly in the universal way. He is not just skipping the difficult topics to please to his disciples. For this reason we cannot take one part of His teaching which is pleasing to us and forget or reject the other part which is less nice or demanding. And this is –most probably- the biggest problem of the contemporary Christians. We are accustomed to "choose", to "pick-out" and to select. What is agreeable I accept, what is not I reject. I am choosing and selecting, I am deciding according to my wishes or caprices.
Last Sunday Jesus was teaching about our mutual responsibility, about our mutual duty to help each other in the situation of sin. Today He is teaching about the duty of forgiveness, mercy and compassion. But I cannot be merciful, I cannot forgive you, I cannot be compassionate if:
(and there are two NECESSARY CONDITIONS) …
- I don't see that something was wrong in your behaviour, so I CANNOT FORGIVE without judging, or assessing
- And secondly - if you don't recognise your errors and faults, if you claim that everything is OK and you don't do anything wrong,
If there is no sin, no error, not offence so …? What to forgive, what to excuse, why to be merciful and compassionate?
Fr. Alex McAllister SDS
In the Gospel today we hear Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. Peter poses the question, an entirely practical one, by asking how many times we must forgive those who sin against us.
What was being taught at the time in the Synagogues was that one had a duty to forgive someone three times and so we can see that Peter by putting forward the possibility of forgiving seven times probably thinks he is doing very well. In giving the number seventy-seven Jesus is essentially saying that there should be no limits to the number of times we forgive those who have offended us.
In the parable that Jesus gives to illustrate his point there are two different currencies used. The servant owed the king ten thousand talents, a huge sum; but the man who owed the servant money only owed one hundred denarii. Since one talent was equal to six thousand denarii we can see that the man only owed the servant a tiny amount in comparison.
Jesus clearly intends the King to represent the Father and is by means of a parable is making the point that the debts we owe to one another are just chicken-feed in comparison to what we owe God.
Nothing we can do, can ever pay the debt we owe to God. Yet he offers his forgiveness freely to all. Somehow though, this extraordinary generosity seems to offend our human sensibilities. We find it difficult to cope with such unrestrained generosity. It goes against what we think of as natural justice. We feel that sins must be paid for; that recompense must be made for serious offences. We feel that justice must be done and seen to be done.
The willingness to make restitution is an important factor in establishing true repentance. But sometimes this can be difficult to achieve and this is why in confession these things are discussed with the priest who will determine what is appropriate in the given circumstances.
I was once in the prison a while ago saying mass and on my way out a young man came up for a chat. He had only arrived there the previous week from another prison. I asked him how long he had already served but was astonished at his reply: nineteen years.
It seems he had been given a life sentence. I asked him when he was due to be released. He said that he didn’t know as it was entirely in the hands of the parole board who he said were sure to knock him back. His best guess was another two years or so.
Now I have no idea what that man did to deserve life imprisonment; but we can guess that it must have involved murder perhaps with some aggravating circumstances. All I do know is that his crime was committed when he was quite young because he only looked about forty years old.
There are all kinds of things that have to be taken into account by a judge when he determines a prison sentence. He must consider the seriousness of the crime, the state of mind and personal circumstances of the criminal as well as other factors such as the potential danger to the public.
Sentencing policy is always controversial and governments are constantly adjusting the guidelines as a way of showing themselves to be sensitive to the wishes of the electorate.
But human justice can never be compared to God’s justice. And the fundamental difference between them is that only God can see into the very heart of man. Only God truly knows all that has to be taken into account. Only God can know whether someone is truly repentant. Only God can determine whether appropriate restitution has been completed.
Our problem is that we think that God is too lenient. We think that God will let major sinners off the hook if they express some slight repentance. And we frequently don’t think that this is right or just. We would be harsher; we tend to believe that punishment is the true expression of justice and that most criminals get off too lightly.
When it comes to our turn things get more complicated. There are two common approaches. One is the tendency think that our sins are relatively minor when compared to those of some others and God can’t or won’t withhold his forgiveness. And the other is the opposite, it is the surprisingly common belief that our sins are so bad that God can’t or won’t forgive us.
Of course, in both of these positions there lies a heresy and we realise that they are just plain wrong. On the one hand God certainly does not overlook our sins. But then neither does he withhold his forgiveness from those who truly repent.
And this is the key as far as God is concerned: true repentance. In thinking about what repentance consists in, I realised, just the other day, that it must be an aspect of love. We love the other person and through this love we come to realise just how much we have hurt them. Love then motivates us to make appropriate restitution and to seek forgiveness.
Sin is quite the opposite; it is the expression of lack of love. Selfishness is the real motivation for sin. Greed, abuse of power, hate –all these things are the opposite of love.
So the human project, the very aim and purpose of the Christian life, is to grow in love. And the best and most straightforward way to do this is to imitate Christ, the Lord of Love. The solution then for every sin, for every crime, is to grow in love. This is what brings about repentance both in this world and in the hereafter.
In talking to that man in the prison, I asked him how he had coped over these nineteen long years. He told me, only two things have kept me going –the love of my family and the fact that I found God. Without those, he said, I’d never have survived.