Matthew 18:21-35, 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Just a couple of days ago, I witnessed something that made me think even now of how limited our capacity to forgive is, and how much our readings today want to expand our capacity for forgiveness. Outside an apartment building, I saw a young mother screaming at security guards with an infant child in her arms. She was self-righteous, rude, violent. Her large SUV was badly scratched, possibly against the boom barrier which was still down. Perhaps the guards were supposed to lift the barrier before she passed and did not. Perhaps she should have been more alert and careful — between the barrier and the side of the road there was ample berth, which made me wonder how it is she got her car scratched at all; but I digress. In any case, someone made a mistake.
Everyone makes mistakes. However, when there is a lack of common decency in the way we relate to one another, there is no space for forgiveness.
As indicated above, our readings today urge us to expand our capacity for forgiveness. I would like to suggest that they do so in three ways.
First, forgiveness requires imagination. Forgiveness can only happen if like the master, we can imagine a state of affairs that is unlike the automatic application of law, the rigid enforcement of the law of cause and effect which often governs our life together in society. The master can imagine a better alternative than the status quo in which a servant, his wife and children are to be sold in order to repay their debt. He imagines an alternative better even than that suggested by the servant, the repayment of the complete sum. By the way, some commentators suggest that the amount that is owed, i.e. ten thousand talents, is equivalent to the wages of a servant for 200,000 days. Enough to say, an impossibly large amount. The future our master imagines is one where mercy supersedes all other considerations, it is a world where the servant and his family walk as free persons. This is the world that Jesus himself envisioned, the kingdom of God on earth that is articulated in our Gospels.
Second, forgiveness requires memory. This servant who was forgiven so much is unable to recall the mercy he has received. All the other characters in the parable remember — his fellow servants who complain of him to the master, the master who cancelled the debt. If we cannot remember our wrongs and failures as they have been forgiven and healed by one another in God, we are doomed to become self-righteous. The memory of forgiveness is humbling and graced. It teaches us that not everything is earned by our merit, but that some of the most significant experiences in life are those that are experienced as pure gift. The kind of stuff that is just given, poured deep into our hearts. And there they remain as memories that stir us to be forgiving ourselves and to live out those words that Jesus placed as a prayer on our lips: forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Yet, not all memories are to be kept. Some memories consume us: resentment, anger, hurt. As our first reading from Ecclesiasticus reminds us, forgive your neighbour the hurt he does you, and when you pray, your sins will be forgiven. Forgiveness can happen only when we learn to sift through memories, learning which to keep, which to let go.
Third, forgiveness has its limits. Its limit is not in terms of the number of times one must forgive — although the number Jesus gives is not an infinite number it does signify fulness and perfection. Furthermore, if this parable is to demonstrate the limitlessness of forgiveness, it is a poor choice. After all, at the end of the parable the master hands the unforgiving servant to the torturers. Hence, I think this parable teaches us about the limits of forgiveness. It tells us that the limits of forgiveness are not decided based on the frequency of the offence, or the immensity of the debt. Rather, forgiveness is limited to those who are forgiving themselves.
What fuels your imagination? What haunts your memory? What are the limits of your forgiving?