“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”.