Matthew 18:21-35
'Struggling to Forgive' by Rev. John De Celles
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

Then Peter approached Jesus and asked him, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?  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 him 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 his brother from his heart."

In today's Gospel text Peter asks Jesus: "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive?"  And Jesus responds, "seventy-seven times."  In the Scriptures, the number seven symbolizes perfection, so the number 77 stands for an infinite number - i.e., "always."  Jesus' instruction here, along with the parable of the unforgiving servant, is one of the hardest for us to read, much less live out.  To forgive every transgression against us, by anyone, seems impossible.  But that is what Christ demands, so much so that He makes it a condition of God forgiving us: "his master handed him over to the torturers . . . So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother."

Many people feel great sorrow and confusion over their inability to forgive someone in their lives.  Some offenses seem just too much to forgive: for example, of child abuse, or rape, or terrorism.  But some of the offenses hardest to forgive are the smallest - we cling to the pain of a father missing our "big game" when we were a child.  And sometimes it's not just one offense but a whole lifetime of offenses we have to forgive - think of the man who has verbally abused his wife for 30 years.

But God looks at us and sees the very same offenses.  He sees the heinous crimes, the petty slights and the lifetimes of sins, in every one of us.  But He forgives us because He loves.  And He calls us to love in the same way.

Why can't we do this?  Unfortunately, a lot of people think it is impossible for them to forgive because they equate "forgiving" with "forgetting."  But as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us: "It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense" (No. 2843).  Not even God forgets the sins He forgives - if He did, how could He give us the grace to avoid them in the future?  Like the master in the story.  He forgives the debt, but remembers it was once owed.  So it's not necessary to pretend that a person hasn't offended us in order to allow ourselves to forgive him.

What is necessary for forgiveness, though, is love.  Sadly, too many people keep themselves from forgiving because they confuse "loving" with "liking."  Loving someone involves genuinely wanting the best for them, but "liking" someone is merely enjoying their companionship.  Jesus did not enjoy being with the soldiers who nailed Him to the cross.  But He loved them, and He forgave them.

Still, some think that they are incapable of loving those who have hurt them: the offense was too deep, too long ago, or too longstanding, to let go of.  This may sometimes be true - sometimes it may be impossible for us, "but . . . all things are possible with God" (Mk 10:27).

Like the parable of the debtors, every sin is like a failure to pay God the love He was rightfully due.  But God has so much love He doesn't need to worry about what we owe Him from the past.  And His love so generous that He not only forgives our debt to him, but gives us enough of His love so we have more than enough to give to others - enough so we won't need to worry about what they owed us from the past.  And so acceptance of His loving forgiveness makes possible passing that loving forgiveness on to others.

Sometimes we feel it is impossible to forgive as Jesus commands.  But with the love of Christ, nothing is impossible, even forgiving our brother "not seven times but seventy-seven times."

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