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Forgive—Always

Jesus couldn't be more clear: we must forgive those who hurt us without conditions or limits

Homily for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
‘Pay back what you owe.’
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused.
Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?’
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.”

– Matthew 18:21-35


When I have been offended by another, the Lord is categorical and unrelenting about how I am to respond to the offense—whether intended or not, whether real or imagined.

I must forgive.

If I hope to be forgiven my debts, I must forgive my debtors.  This is the precise language of the Greek and Latin versions of the Lord’s Prayer. The Master in today’s parable is God himself, and the servant who has been forgiven a great debt, but who will not forgive a lesser one to himself, is you and I.

How can we forgive even repeated faults? And forgive them endlessly, since the “seven times seventy times” is a numerical symbol of fullness. There can be no limit placed on our disposition to forgive. Someone, even someone very close to us may have offended us, but we also tend to relive the wrong done in our imagination and feelings. This continuation of the harm done in our inner life is our own doing. We accuse our enemy again and again and so inflict the wrong on ourselves many times more than it was done to us by another.

First of all, we must stop defending ourselves internally. Every wrong done us is a slight to our dignity, a sign that the other does not think we are worth the time or consideration or rights or possessions that are ours. It is an injustice. The natural response to this attack on our dignity is to defend ourselves against the low opinion of us shown by the one who offended us. If we begin a dialogue with the one who has hurt us, whether in a real conversation or in our mulling over things in our thoughts, with an attitude of defensiveness, then we are bound to lose the argument and the offense will stand.

Instead we must forgive the other and not defend ourselves; we should even try to excuse the one who wronged us. The Savior from the cross prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He was bearing all the evil and malice and cruelty of the whole world of sin, and yet he chose with his sovereign freedom to forgive, even before his enemies repented. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” the apostle teaches.

The Lord Jesus commands us, “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.” What is harder than to love an enemy, and what is easier than to pray? Prayer is a work of love that is mercy in the face of another’s misery. Your enemy has made himself a wretch by mistreating you; he needs merciful pity and kind prayer, not accusation and condemnation. Perhaps he has already begun to repent, or is unable to see what he has done. Our job is to bend down to this state and pray for our brother that he may be forgiven, as we hope to be forgiven.  Then we will be like God himself reigning from the cross, the throne of the triumph of mercy.

Yes, sometimes we have to seek objective correction of an injustice. But even if this is the case, we need to forgive first, otherwise our correction will not be like Christ’s. The reality of purgatory, which is taught here, is based on this: justice must be served in the case of the hypocritical servant, but he is still to be forgiven, even if he must suffer for his ungrateful lack of mercy to his brother.

The Savior teaches in the Gospel that sometimes “a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.” The arena of the struggle of forgiveness starts at home. Those closest to us are usually the ones we have to forgive the most habitually, since we are constantly confronted with their faults and defects. Living with others up close should make us wise. This wisdom is shown in our not concentrating on the personal hurt and shame that others have caused us, but on their often excusable weakness and our awareness of this. Our domestic enemies are never as bad as we feel them to be in the heat of our own self-defense against them. We should seek peace and pardon for them and for ourselves.

The crucified Savior in his agony knew each of us through and through, and keenly felt our every fault, and it was because of this full knowledge that he excused us and asked for his Father’s forgiveness. If we fully knew our oppressors near and far, we would find a thousand reasons to excuse them, and we would feel in ourselves the power of Christ crucified who lives and reigns forever and ever.

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