✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
All too often we treat the topic of forgiveness in the same shallow way as we treat a blessing after a sneeze. “Bless you,” we say. But we’re not really offering a blessing from God; we’re just being polite and doing the customary thing. So also with forgiveness. It’s often more a matter of manners than the real, substantial act of forgiving them and the attitude of the heart that goes along with it.
Have you ever noticed how people often respond when someone says, “I’m sorry”? Usually it’s not “I forgive you.” It’s “Oh, don’t worry about it. No big deal. No harm done.” But that’s not forgiveness; that’s just an acknowledgment that you don’t think it’s that bad. It didn’t do any permanent damage. We can forget about it. Too many wrongly think that’s forgiveness. When something is genuinely truly bad in our estimation, that’s when we start thinking about certain things being unforgivable. But the truth of the matter is that you can only call yourself forgiving if you forgive things that genuinely hurt you. Real forgiveness isn’t easy.
It’s sort of like tolerance. I’ve talked about this before. Lots of people like to think of themselves as tolerant nowadays. “Oh, I’m not bigoted against other religions or gay people or female clergy like some people I know. I’m tolerant!” But they don’t really think there’s anything particularly wrong with those groups in the first place. So that’s not tolerance at all. You can only tolerate something which you find to be wrong or distasteful or with which you disagree.
In the same way, if you forgive something you don’t really care about, that’s no real virtue. It’s one thing to forgive and let go of someone’s failure to show up precisely on time for an appointment. It’s quite another thing to forgive and let go of things that others have done which you find to be detestable–betrayal, sexual molestation, alcoholism, abuse, criminal behavior, abortion. The only things that you can forgive are things you consider to be real, actual sins.
I bring all this up because in today’s Gospel, it can be easy for us to minimize the debt that the second servant owed the first servant, the 100 denarii. We say, “Well of course the man should have forgiven his fellow servant! That was such a small debt compared to what he had just been forgiven.” But it was still 100 days’ worth of wages. That’s what a denarius is, a full day’s wage. It doesn’t do us any good to ignore the depth of the debt, to deny the gravity of the sins against us that we or others have suffered. To be sure, it’s not right to hold on to those sins; but neither is it right to pretend like they’re nothing either. They can create very real bitterness and anger and resentment and fear. In fallen creatures like us, they can produce in us the very real desire to grab our neighbor by the throat and say, “Pay me what you owe! An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth! I want payback, now!”
Sins have been committed against us which have genuinely hurt us. But if that is so, think how much more we have committed sins which have genuinely caused pain to our God. If the wrongs we’ve endured are only 100 denarii, imagine how deep our debt toward God is, our countless rebellions and idolatries, which are described as 10,000 talents! Just a single talent, just one is the equivalent of 6,000 denarii, more than 16 years worth of wages–and that’s just one talent! 10,000 talents, in other words, is a way of describing a debt that is incalculable, unpayable. For my part, at least, that means I don’t fully grasp the gravity of my own sin. And you don’t fully grasp the gravity of your sin. That’s how sin works. It blinds us to the utter severity of our own condition. We are all in the most desperate need of forgiveness from God.
And that’s where it all must begin. Without a humble stance as beggars before God, we will never be able to act with lowliness and gentleness toward our neighbor and forgive him. We must all come before our God and King and acknowledge that even if He gave us 100 years, we couldn’t even begin to make a dent in our debt. In fact all our attempts would only dig that hole deeper. We are bankrupt; we are utterly dependent on His mercy to forgive us, or we are lost forever.
All thanks and praise be to God, then, that He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God has taken pity on us and canceled our debt. He didn’t just reduce what we owed and put us on an interest-free payment plan. No, the debt is completely erased. It’s gone. You are debt free.
Now understand, the debt still had to be paid; just not by you. The sin-debt is very real; and so the payment also must be very real. Forgiveness isn’t easy. Someone had to absorb the debt. And that person is the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. God the Son became a human being in order to pay what we humans owed. But since He is also God, the payment He earned was infinite, even as God Himself is infinite. Jesus took on Himself your debt, your sins, and they were crucified with Him. By dying in your place, Jesus settled your account with God forever–not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death. And by rising again to life, He earned eternal life for you and restored your relationship with the heavenly Father. All this He has done without any merit or worthiness in you but only because of His fatherly, divine, goodness and mercy. You are free from the power of sin, free from hell, free from being afraid of God. Forgiveness has overflown to you. Like the servant, you’ve been given a new life, a new start.
Since that is true, since God has answered for all sin at Calvary, since it’s all covered by Jesus’ blood, who are we to act otherwise? Who are we to hold onto what God has let go of and dealt with and done away with, whether it’s our own sin or somebody else’s?
The first servant in the Gospel failed to understand this. He didn’t seem to see the connection between how his debt had been forgiven by the mercy of the king, and how therefore he was also to be forgiving toward others. How could the servant behave so strangely the way he did? Perhaps it was just that he was completely selfish and self-absorbed. Or perhaps it was because he didn’t really trust that the debt was truly forgiven. Still in the back of his mind he was thinking, “This can’t actually be true. Sooner or later, the king’s going to be coming for me, and I better build up as much in the way of assets as I possibly can, so that maybe I’ll have a little bargaining power.” Do you see? If the servant truly believed that the debt was forgiven, he would have been like a renewed Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Day, a new man, giving away and passing on with cheer the same compassion he himself had received. Instead he didn’t believe it; he didn’t walk by faith. And so he put himself outside the king’s mercy by his actions and ended up suffering the king’s judgment.
To forgive is to believe that Jesus really did atone for all sin and pay all debts. Sometimes you’ll hear people say, “I just can’t forgive myself.” It seems to me that what they’re really saying is, “I can’t believe that God could ever forgive me. What I did is so bad. I should be punished or have to make up for it somehow.” And so they still end up living according to the law of retribution, toward themselves and toward others. But God has truly forgiven you, of everything–and not only what you’ve done, but also the sin that has been done to you. He bore your abuse and your humiliation, too, and whatever pollutions you’ve had to endure. All of that He took away from you; all of that He put to death on the cross. You are clean again. You are righteous. To forgive is not to condone the wrongdoing; it’s not to deny the pain caused or the damage done. Rather, it’s to acknowledge it for all that it is, and to place the matter in God’s hands, the hands that were stretched out in death to take away the power of sin. Because of that you are now freed to forgive others in the seventy times seven way of the Gospel–not by your own power but by the power and mercy of Christ.
Just as God has forgiven the whole world through Christ, even those who won’t repent and believe and be saved, so also in Christ we forgive even those who won’t say they’re sorry or be reconciled to us. Forgiveness is not dependent on the repentance of the person who committed the sin but on the actions and the attitude of the one who was sinned against. You can forgive someone even if the other person hasn’t changed. Isn’t that how it is with God? God has forgiven the whole world’s sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s all covered. People may still reject that and refuse to believe that and live outside of that forgiveness; but that’s on them. If they are eternally condemned, it’s because of their own unbelief. But what we are given to do is to stand with Christ and offer His mercy. No sin is greater than God’s forgiveness; and it is by His forgiveness that we forgive others. When someone does us harm, we remember, “Jesus paid for that sin, too. And if He paid for their sin, it’s no use for me to behave as if He didn’t.”
So in your marriages and in your families and with your friends, get in the habit first of all of saying “I’m sorry.” Don’t justify or excuse what you’ve done. Be willing to open yourself up to the truth of what you’ve done or failed to do. And then even more importantly, get in the habit of explicitly saying to the other, “I forgive you.” “I’m not going to hold this over you.” There’s vulnerability there also, on both sides of the equation. But only in this way is there genuine and lasting reconciliation.
Real forgiveness will always be hard. But all the truly hard stuff was done by Jesus, all sins done to death in His body–atoned for, punished, taken away, released and gone. Period. So when you find it difficult to forgive, or when you find yourself feeling unforgiving again towards a person you’ve once forgiven, the way to deal with that is to return to the cross. You can’t forgive someone from your heart when your heart is empty. Fill it with the merciful, debt-releasing words of Christ in Scripture. Fill it with the sanctifying flood that flows to you from your Baptism into Christ the crucified. And be filled once again with Jesus’ body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness and cleansing of all sins.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠