Breaking the Chain – John Foley, SJ

Matthew 18:21-35, 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time


This Sunday is all about forgiveness. The Gospel illustrates in stark terms what this word means.

First, look at the initial readings, which are preliminaries. The First Reading, from the Book of Sirach, tells how awful wrath and anger are, but how the sinner “hugs them tight,” a wonderful image. Release them, it commands us, and let them go.

The Psalm speaks beautifully about God’s absolving love: God is kind and merciful, slow to anger and rich in compassion. The Second Reading says we ought to live not for ourselves but for others. We should imitate God, not one of us living for our own self, but living for the Lord. And if we die, we would die for the Lord.

Forgiveness is a major ingredient of imitating God in this way. People do not always do right, and we need to forgive them. This is the gift and the goal.

Our culture has some pretty diverse understandings of what forgiveness means. For some it is a condescending act performed only by one person who is higher than another—a King or Queen or judge, who leans down to grant pardon. Or a boss, or a media star.

For others it means “I can forgive but I can never forget.” Perhaps this means, I will remain angry forever but will never act upon it. Such a stance includes an uncomfortable attitude: “I will choke back my hurt and anger by a sheer act of the will. I may have been attacked by someone, but I will suppress my reaction.”

Maybe these are parts of the road to true forgiveness, but there is much more. On Easter Sunday of 1960, the great seer of truth and lover of God, Dag Hammarskjold, wrote an interpretation that moved me greatly:

Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who ‘forgives’ you—out of love—takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness, therefore, always entails a sacrifice.

In other words, there is a price you must pay for your own liberation. Since that liberation has come through another’s sacrifice, you in turn must be willing to liberate in the same way, in spite of the consequences to yourself. You absorb these, out of love.

Let us apply these insights to the Gospel.

The story is an involved one. It involves a servant who is pardoned by the master but then goes out and refuses vigorously to forgive his fellow servants.

At about six lines from the end of our reading, the owner of the Vineyard says, “Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?”

Underneath this is the point we concluded to above. The real motivation for forgiveness is gratitude based on love. If someone has had pity on me out of love, then my authentic reaction will be deep appreciation. I will want to pass the gift on. Especially if it is God who has forgiven me, I will want to pass on to someone else the liberation I have received. Especially if that person has hurt me.

So can we halt the chain of causality and pass along love instead of hate?

As you and I receive Christ’s presence this Sunday in the Eucharist, let us sense his forgiving love signified so deeply in this sacrament. Let us allow our gratitude to flow in the same way toward others.

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