Fr. Michael McGourty is the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Toronto.
The most difficult aspect of Jesus’s teaching for most people is the requirement that we must forgive those who have hurt or offended us. Most of us think that by forgiving someone, we are extending them a favour or a grace that they do not deserve given the pain they caused us.
This is how I used to think.
It was only after I discovered how much freedom comes from forgiving another person that I discovered the deeper spiritual reasons why Jesus challenges us to forgive others in the same way that we desire to be forgiven by Him.
If you are angry with someone, the thought of how they hurt you can have the power to ruin your day every single time you think about them or the hurt you experienced. As you think about them, or the hurt they caused you, your entire heart and soul can turn bitter and be consumed with rage. It could be a beautiful day, you could be with friends and family; and yet the thought of this hurt can ruin everything.
At the same time, the person who hurt you may not even know you are mad at them. While you are angry at them, the person who hurt you may be out having a great day. They are not even thinking about you. And the thought of their happiness might make you even angrier.
Thus, when I remain angry at someone, I chose to allow them to continue to have power over me, regardless of whether the harmful event took place a month, a year or even twenty years ago. As the first reading from the Book of Sirach alludes to, we can all have the tendency to “hold on to” vengeance and wrath. By holding on to vengeance and wrath we allow it to continue to exercise a destructive power over our lives and happiness.
When we forgive someone, we are setting ourselves free. Forgiving someone who has hurt us is, in fact, the biggest favour that we can extend to ourselves. By doing this, we are saying that we will no longer allow this event, pain or person to have the power to take our happiness and destroy our peace of mind.
Forgiveness opens our own hearts to receive the love which Christ offers us in our relationship with Himself and others.
Forgiveness should not be mistaken as giving someone permission to hurt us again or turning a blind eye to the past. If a person continues to hurt us or take advantage of us, we should avoid them or learn to have healthy, lifegiving relationships. Forgiveness is not about letting a person continue to do wrong or harm us. Forgiveness is about releasing our hearts from the toxic effects of their past behavior. It is about refusing to allow an event or person to destroy our ability to be at peace and to love God and neighbour freely.
Personally, I am convinced that the reason why Jesus asks us to forgive is so our own hearts might be free to welcome Him and to love Him and our neighbour in a joyful, lifegiving manner. It is difficult for us to allow Christ to dwell in our hearts and to know His peace – or even to really love others – when we are consumed with anger towards another. This is one of the reasons why the sign of peace takes place immediately before we receive the Eucharist. In order for Christ to dwell in our hearts, our hearts must be free of anger or resentment.
St. John of the Cross emphasizes this in his writings as he states that the infinite God cannot dwell in a heart that is cluttered with envy, hatred and the desire for vengeance. However, to a finite heart that has been emptied of these, the infinite God is capable of dwelling and bringing infinite joy.
A heart that cannot forgive is closed to God’s forgiveness and love, as Jesus tells us in this Sunday’s Gospel.
In the Gospel, Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive a brother or sister who has sinned against him. Peter suggests that seven times might be the limit. However, Jesus says not seven, but a person must be forgiven seven times seven. Seven is a Biblical number that symbolizes completeness, so this seven times seven represents as many times as is necessary.
But as the Gospel’s parable goes on to show, the reason for forgiving as many times as is necessary, is not in order that we might do the other person a favour. The reason for forgiving is so that our hearts may be open to receive the forgiveness that God offers us.
In the parable, a servant asked his master to be forgiven of a great debt. The master heard his pleas and forgave the debt. Yet, as the servant left his master’s presence, he encountered another person who owed him much less than he has just been forgiven. His heart has not been open to comprehend what his master has done for him and he demanded his fellow servant pay him the much smaller debt he was owed. As a result, Jesus tells us, the man did not receive the greater forgiveness that he had been offered.
This parable calls you and I to understand how much God has done for each of us by sending His Son into the world to redeem us and forgive our sins. God is pure love and mercy. Everything that we have is a gift from Him. On top of giving us life – and all that we have and are – God also offers us salvation through the life, death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus.
Thanksgiving is the only response we can have to God’s love for us.
From the freedom that God’s forgiveness has won for us, we are called to have the freedom to forgive others. The real challenge that comes with accepting God’s forgiveness and love for us is that it is impossible to really receive it if we hold on to vengeance and resentment towards another. In order for God’s love and mercy to enter our hearts, we must clear out those things which are not compatible.
For the Christian to possess the peace, joy and forgiveness that Christ offers us, forgiveness of those who have hurt us is not an option. Forgiveness is how we let go of those things, persons and events which are obstacles to Christ dwelling in our hearts. When we forgive another, we are refusing to allow them to have power over us and inviting Christ and His freedom to have power over us. Forgiveness is something we offer to another person so we can be free to have the love of Christ dwell in our hearts.
So strongly does Jesus desire that our hearts be free to receive His love and peace that He asks us to pray every day that we might be able to forgive others and receive His forgiveness and peace. This is why in the “Our Father,” Jesus has taught us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In this sentence, the word “as” has the significance of forgive us “in the same way” that we forgive others. As the parable is attempting to tell us, unless we let go of the anger and hatred in our hearts, our hearts cannot receive the love and peace that Christ desires them to know through also knowing His forgiveness.
It is because Jesus knows that forgiving someone who has hurt is not easy that He has asked us to pray to be able to forgive every day in the “Our Father.”
Jesus has come so that all of us might know His peace and love. Christ died to free us from the power of the sins that binds us. By calling us to forgive others, Jesus is calling us to be free not only from our own sins, but from the harm that the sins of others have exerted upon us. Forgiving another person is the most wonderful favour we can grant unto ourselves. By doing so, we release ourselves from the power they exercise over us and become free to allow Christ to fill our hearts with a joy that only He can give us.
The servant who was forgiven much was too foolish to forgive and thus was unable to enjoy the forgiveness that was offered to him. May none of us be so foolish to turn down what is offered to us in the forgiveness of Christ, by refusing to offer it to others.
May we pray, each and every day: “Dear Jesus, most loving and merciful Savior, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
This reflection based on readings for Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: Sirach 27:30- 28:7; Romans 14: 7-9; and Matthew 18: 21-35.