Matthew 18:21-35, 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
You must have heard about the story of, or at least the name, Ingrid Betancourt. She was a prominent politician in Colombia, a former senator and anti-corruption activist. At the height of one presidential election campaign in which she was a candidate, she was kidnapped and held in the jungle by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The kidnapping took place in 2002.
The psychological and physical ordeal was difficult to even speak about. In an interview, she said that there was always the threat of getting killed by the rebels. She lived one day at a time without the benefit of certitude that she would survive to see the next sunrise. She was stripped of family, friends, status, and comfort so that at some point she almost lost her mind. Physically she was beaten by her captors, and had a chain tied around her neck. She talked about being brutalized – a term that can very well mean rape although she never used the word. When asked about it, she said that it is more elegant to leave certain things undiscussed.
She was rescued by government forces 6 and ½ years later, 2321 days to be exact, after she was kidnapped. In an interview she said: “It was a battle, not only with the guerrillas, but with ourselves. With the inner us. Because we lost the compass of what was good and what was right. In captivity, everything is upside down. I still today have nightmares, of those kinds of situations we went through. You’re completely naked. And then you have to face who you are.”
When asked how she survived, she spoke about her faith, how she made rosary beads from wood and twigs, and prayed while in captivity. And then she spoke about forgiveness. She talked about how forgiveness can be given more easily to some of the captors compared to the others, but that she has decided to forgive them all because she didn’t want her spirit to remain a captive in the jungle. She thinks of hatred as a self-imposed prison that harms you more than the person you detest.
This story comes to mind as I reflected on the seemingly impossible demand of unlimited forgiveness. We love the word “unlimited” when it comes to rice and beer. But it doesn’t sound realistic when it is attached to forgiveness.
But no matter how much we struggle with the thought, the imperative to forgive without limit is set without ambiguity here. It is unclear whether the number is 77 or 70 x 7, but it doesn’t matter, since it is not about reckoning. Forgiveness, Jesus is saying, must be beyond reckoning.
The numbers are off the scale in the rest of the passage too. Ten thousand talents (other translations say “ten thousand pieces of gold”) would be equivalent to the salary of an average worker for 275,000 years. Clearly, full repayment is impossible. The point being made is that we are in infinite debt to God and we can never settle that debt by ourselves. And yet, God is able to forgive us. The rhetorical question then arises. Are we not able to extend the same forgiveness to another who had offended us?
Ultimately, I believe, forgiveness goes beyond the test of will. Unlimited forgiveness involves a test of faith and an operation of grace. The capacity simply escapes the nature of the wounded human heart. It has to involve the assistance of Someone beyond who heals and empowers us. The story of Ingrid Betancourt comes to mind. If God bestowed upon her the extraordinary grace to forgive, humbly we can beg that it be granted to us as well.