By Sr. Elizabeth Ann, SSJD
The readings today all speak to seeking forgiveness for harm we have done and forgiving others for the harm they have done. Joseph’s brothers seek forgiveness for selling Joseph into slavery. Joseph shows that he had already worked through the hurt and pain this caused when he replied to his brothers, “Do not be afraid! Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people” (Genesis 50: 19 – 20). The harm caused was turned to good by God for the whole house of Israel. The brothers are forgiven and freed from fear by Joseph’s love poured out from his heart. The Psalm gave a wonderful image of how God removes our sins from us, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our sins from us” (Psalm 103: 12). We rest in the peacefulness of that assurance, and through our life in Christ, seek to pass that forgiveness along. We are reminded in the letter to the Romans that ultimately all of us will be accountable to God, so we are to not despise nor pass judgment on our sisters and brothers. Finally, in the gospel passage from Matthew, Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness. Jesus replies with a parable showing the necessity of forgiving our sister or brother from our heart, otherwise we could end up imprisoned and held in chains by our lack of forgiveness.
To quote Archbishop Desmond Tutu from The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World, “Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound with chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness; that person will be our jailor.
When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberators. Forgiveness, in other words, is the best form of self-interest. This is true both spiritually and scientifically. We don’t forgive to help the other person. We don’t forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves.”
Maybe this is why Jesus said to Peter that we are to forgive, “Not seven times, but, seventy-seven times” (Matthew 21:22). Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes. We need to continually practice forgiving others and ourselves. We forgive others to loosen ourselves from chains of irritation, resentment, anger, bitterness, and hatred that enslave us as we ruminate on the hurts we have suffered. We forgive to be free so that we can choose to not hurt in return when we’ve been hurt. We need to practice forgiving so often until we can be like Christ who prayed, “Father, forgive” (Luke 23:34) as he was dying.
Perhaps this is why our practice at Conference of acknowledging outward breaches of the Rule remains so helpful in the building up of our common life. When we say, “I am sorry,” for being late to chapel, or for breaking something, or for speaking in a place or time of silence; whatever infraction we need to acknowledge in front of our Sisters; we do so seeking their forgiveness, and granting forgiveness of them when it is asked.
In Archbishop Tutu’s words again, “The only way to experience healing and peace is to forgive. Until we can forgive, we remain locked in our pain and locked out of the possibility of experiencing healing and freedom, locked out of the possibility of being at peace.”
These words of Archbishop Tutu have helped me see the gospel passage in a new light. I equated the king with God in this passage, but the king seems to me to be capricious, at first forgiving the debt of the slave who owed the ten thousand talents, then taking it all back and having the slave tortured until the debt could be paid back entirely. That is not my experience of God’s love and forgiveness. My experience of God’s love to me is more like the passage from the psalms that our sins have been removed from us as far as the east is from the west. Had the slave truly been forgiven?
Forgiveness is an invitation to change the heart and become as merciful as the one who has shown mercy. In the gospel according to Luke there is another telling of a story of two debtors told to Simon the Pharisee in whose house Jesus had gone to dinner, and a woman came and sat at Jesus’ feet and washed them with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with ointment from an alabaster jar. Jesus used the story of two debtors forgiven to show Simon the Pharisee how someone who has been forgiven much, loves much, “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (Luke 7:47). In that passage, it is not until after the woman had shown much love that Jesus says to her, “your sins are forgiven,” and further, “’Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’” (Luke 7: 48, 50)
The message is consistent, forgiveness should change our hearts. The king had said to the slave, “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18: 32-33) We risk being imprisoned anytime we withhold forgiveness from each other. We are to forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven times, and each time we forgive, know that it is changing our heart to love much, then we will have accepted forgiveness freely offered. May we know the peace that forgiveness brings as we practice both giving and receiving forgiveness in our lives.
Let us pray: God of peace, forgive us as we forgive each other for all the hurt we have brought into our lives. Let your healing love rest upon the wounds we have caused by our anger. Deepen our love in a new understanding for each other and for you. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ who carried on his cross our discord and our grief. Amen. (B.A.S. page 697 For Reconciliation in a Home)