In The Rapture of Canaan, by Sheri Reynolds, Leila was the matriarch of a large rural family. Her husband was not only patriarch, but also the leader of the church to which the family belonged, the Church of Fire and Brimstone and God’s Almighty Baptizing Wind. He ruled with an iron hand, meting out reward and punishment as if from the hand of God, and his punishments were severe. He also regularly used his wife as an illustration of a sinner in his sermons, subjecting her to that humiliation in front of the whole family and community.
Leila, though not very pious, was always supportive of her husband, and really the truly religious one of the two. One day she was talking to her granddaughter Ninah: “Grudges are bad things, Ninah… There’s only so much room in one heart. You can fill it up with love, or you can fill it with resentment. But every bit of resentment you hold takes space away from the love. And the resentment don’t do no good no way, but look what love can do.”
Forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel. It’s the purpose of the coming of Christ. We’ve been baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Every celebration of the Holy Eucharist re-presents the sacrifice of Christ on the cross—for the forgiveness of our sins. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel, and thus, the heart of our faith.
Peter asks the question, “How often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
Poor Peter, wrong again! Jesus responds, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” That works out to 490 times, but he was really saying, “Your forgiveness must be boundless.”
Peter wasn’t prepared for that answer and neither are we. Throughout my ministry I’ve known many people in many different circumstances. One of the great privileges and responsibilities of being a priest is that people trust me with the deep secrets of their hearts, the wounds that haven’t healed. One theme recurs again and again and again, and that’s the difficulty of forgiving someone who has truly hurt you.
It’s relatively easy to forgive the small transgressions, but when you’re really deeply hurt, forgiveness is difficult. A lying friend, a cheating business partner, a child who continuously disappoints his parents, an unfaithful spouse—these are just a few of the wounds that are difficult to forgive. If there’s one thing that each of us understands, it’s when someone says to us, “So and so did such and such to me, and I’m having trouble forgiving.”
Jesus knows how difficult it is for us to forgive, but he won’t let us off the hook. In fact, the hardest aspect of his teaching on forgiveness, which is found scattered throughout his teachings, is that God’s forgiveness of us depends upon our forgiveness of others. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.“
And there’s the parable in today’s Gospel, which gives the clearest reason behind our Lord’s teaching on forgiveness. A servant owed the king 10,000 talents. A talent was the equivalent of about 20 years’ wages. The king summoned the servant, and since he couldn’t pay such a debt, ordered that the servant be sold, along with his wife and his children, and all that he had, and the money given to the king. The servant begged for mercy, and the king simply forgave the debt. What unimaginable generosity!
Then the servant came upon a fellow servant, who owed him 100 denarii. A denarius was a day laborer’s wage. In today’s figures at minimum wage, 100 denarii would be about the equivalent of $5000– not a small sum, but certainly a debt that could be paid overtime. His fellow servant fell down and begged him to have mercy, and give him some more time to pay his debt, but the man had him put in prison. He had been forgiven an amount that would run a small country, but he would not forgive a much more reasonable amount.
The irony of the situation didn’t escape the king’s other subjects. Greatly distressed, they reported the incident to the king, who summoned the servant, and said, “You wicked servant. I forgave all that debt because you besought me, and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” Then he sent him to prison until he could pay off all his debt, which meant forever, for he could never begin to work off that debt in prison.
The parable really is a metaphor in which the king stands for God, and the unmerciful servant, for any of us who chooses not to forgive. God has forgiven us, and continues to forgive us our countless transgressions of his law. We confess those transgressions generally at every Eucharist: “We have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. We have not loved God with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
Again and again we accept God’s forgiveness. The parable asks us and the faithful of every generation, “How can you, who have been forgiven so much by your heavenly Father, have the audacity not to forgive anyone else for any transgression? It’s the height of ingratitude and hypocrisy.
I once confessed to a close friend that I was having difficulty forgiving another friend who had deeply hurt me. My friend to whom I made the confession was surprised. She said, “How can you, a priest, indulge yourself in holding a grudge?” She continued, “You have no choice. If you’re going to be faithful, you have got to forgive. How can you choose not to forgive?” I felt duly chastised, but she was right, but not just because I am a priest, but because I am a Christian.
Do you have a broken relationship in your life because you choose not to forgive? Don’t wait even one more day. Free yourself of that burden and accept our Lord’s teaching. Besides, as Leila so wisely put it, “Resentment don’t do no good, no way, but look what love can do.”