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We do harm to ourselves when we refuse to forgive

Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year: Sir 27:30-28:7; Ps 103; Rm 14:7-9; Mt 18:21-35

By on Friday, 9 September 2011

“If a man nurses anger against another, can he then demand compassion from the Lord? Mere creature of flesh, he cherishes resentment; who will forgive his sins?”

The Book of Ecclesiasticus presents a profound understanding of the harm that we do when we sin against each other, and a yet more profound analysis of the harm that we do to ourselves when we refuse to forgive.

In a sinful world it is inevitable that we shall be hurt by the actions of others. Our wellbeing, according to the Book of Ecclesiasticus, depends not so much on the hurt that we have received, but on what we do with that hurt. There is a sinful tendency to hold on to the past, to allow past hurts to dominate our lives. For this reason Ecclesiasticus describes resentment and anger as characteristics of the sinner. We rarely think of ourselves as vengeful people, and yet, if we find ourselves obsessed with putting to rights the wrongs that we have suffered, we should perhaps think again.

Words of forgiveness are easily spoken. The reality that they describe, since it runs directly contrary to our sinful nature, is an overwhelming challenge. Sin clings to the hurts of the past. There is but one remedy for our ingrained resentment. According to the Book of Ecclesiasticus, that remedy is the constant remembrance of our own need for forgiveness. We are exhorted to remember the last things, to overlook the offence of our neighbour, to bear no ill-will. The emphasis moves from a selfish preoccupation with our own hurt to the gracious forgiveness that we have received from God. In the words of the psalmist: “It is he who forgives all your guilt, who heals every one of your ills, who redeems your life from the grave, and crowns you with love and compassion.”

The first disciples, like ourselves, struggled with forgiveness. Peter put their struggle into words. “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?” When Jesus answered “not seven, but seventy-seven times”, he was, in effect, teaching that there can be no limit to our forgiveness.

Jesus went on to illustrate this teaching in the parable of the unforgiving servant. We should not overlook the key phrases that introduce the parable. “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who decided to settle his accounts with his servants.”

The parable began in a world of strict reckoning, where each was treated exactly as they deserved. The first servant could not survive in such a world. He owed 10,000 talents and had no means of paying. The king had no obligation to forgo what he was owed, and yet, moved by compassion, he cancelled the debt. This was pure grace, a grace that went far beyond the servant’s initial request to defer the time of payment.

This colourful story illustrates the gulf between human and divine forgiveness. Human forgiveness struggles to absolve the past. Too often it entraps both the victim and the perpetrator in a debt, which, although deferred, might be called in for payment at any time.

Instead of living by the grace that experienced, the servant, confronted by the debt of his fellow servant, chose to revert to a world of strict justice. He rejected the pleas of this fellow servant and insisted on payment.

We, like the servant, can choose whether to grant or withhold forgiveness. Let us remember that in so choosing we set a gulf between ourselves and the God “who does not treat us according to our sins, nor repays us according to our faults”.

  • Sbvarenne

    A wise priest friend of mine once said that the exhortation to forgive our brother “seventy times seven times’ may mean that we have to forgive the same offense that number of times as we try to get past it in our thoughts and our hearts.

  • Parasum

    How would ben Sira have dealt with terrorist outrages, or the bombing of cities, or Shock and Awe ? (To mention nothing greater.) How would Jesus have dealt with the horrors to which Jews were subjected for 1500 years by Christians ? Are people who’ve been vivisected by Japanese troops during WW2 and before, expected to forgive ? Why should they ? Ther are survivors of the war in Far East during WW2 who hate the Japanese even today, and it is impossible to doubt that that their response is the right one – what the Japs did was unforgivable. Why should the victims of the Christian Brothers, Rosminians and others, not hate those who have destroyed their lives ? Is God on the side of the wicked, the violent, the deceitful & the powerful ? Because that is what it looks like.

    The Biblical injunctions are completely out-dated – they presuppose very different societies from those of today. To be relevant now, they have either to be completrely revised or re-thought, or else, jettisoned entirely. That they are in the Bible, no more makes them than the presence of the Torah in the Bible makes it entirely & eternally  and everywhere valid. So why should the material on forgiveness be anymore entirely & eternally  and everywhere valid ? Yet people take for granted that it is, rather than thinking about whether it is. Besides, forgiving great crimes is arguably a grossly immoral thing to do – unless one is God. To forgive great crimes instead of punishing them severely lets the wicked win, and expposes society to the malice of those evildoers, since they are not restrained by punishment. But if they are punished – how is forgiveness any more than a word ? The Biblical teaching is no good, not in a society of enormous massacres, world wars, and other gigantic crimes. It’s been irrelevant for centuries. It is the one really pernicious and anti-human doctrine in the NT. It has become completely anti-Christian, because the  circumstances in
    which it made sense, no longer exist. Should they return, it will be
    worthy of a place in Christian ethics – but not until then.