Forgiveness is a difficult topic to discuss today. Too few of us want to admit that we are wrong or that we have sinned or that we have harmed another person by what we have done, said, or even and especially failed to do or say. Yet at the same time, we do not want anyone else to hold our faults against us. We do not want others to hold grudges against us, even though we are often more than willing to hold grudges against them. It is a strange situation in which we place ourselves, that of wanting forgiveness, yet not be willing to ask for it and also not being willing to forgive others.
When somebody does us wrong, we are sometimes willing to forgive them, but only if they come to us first and explicitly ask for our forgiveness. Forgiveness is something that we like to hold over someone until they have done just what we want them to do and then we may consider forgiving them. In our own minds, the ability to forgive gives us some sort of power or control over other people and we gladly wield it, never fully aware of what we do.
Before we forgive someone, we want to know why we should forgive them in the first place. If they have caused us harm once already, will they not just hurt us again in the not too distant future? Why should we forgive them only to open ourselves up to more pain? Forgiveness, in this way, seems risky and foolish to us and perhaps it even seems silly and so we hesitate to grant it.
When we do finally bring ourselves to forgive someone, after they have demonstrated their sincerity, we feel good about ourselves. “See how loving and humble I am,” we may think to ourselves; worse yet, we may even say it.
My brothers and sisters, this cannot be our notion of forgiveness, nor can it be our reason to forgive. To the question we all ask at some point, “Why should I forgive you?” there is but one answer: because the Lord has first forgiven us. As the Psalmist sings today, “He pardons all your iniquities, heals all your ills, redeems your life from destruction, he crowns you with kindness and compassion” (Psalm 102:3-4). Indeed, the Lord went so far as to say, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The forgiveness of Jesus is without end and he gives no consideration to the reality that we will sin again when he freely offers his forgiveness.
Consider the parable the Lord tells us today. The king who condemned the one who would not forgive did so, saying, “You wicked servant! I forgave your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” (Matthew 18:32-33). The servant was not condemned because of the debt he owed, but because he refused to share the mercy he had been granted, keeping it all to himself and thinking only of himself.
The grandfather of Joseph, the son Sirach, puts it this way: “Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself?” (Sirach 28:4). Put more simply, Can one forgiven sinner refuse forgiveness to another sinner? No. We cannot refuse forgiveness to another person, because we are all sinners and the Lord, in his infinite goodness and love, extends his mercy and forgiveness to everyone. We must do the same because he has first forgiven us and he says to us, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:15).
Indeed, several times each day we pray, “…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Do we take seriously these words? Very often we do not comprehend what we are saying. These are powerful and dangerous words to speak. Sirach tells us today, “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven” (Sirach 28:2). Jesus says to us, “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart” (Matthew 28:34-35). My brothers and sisters, we can never pay back the debt we owe to the Father; only Jesus can do this on our behalf. He makes this sacrifice and ransom available to us each and every day, if only we forgive others as he forgives us.
We often associate forgiveness with reconciliation. Jesus calls us to forgive and to reconcile whenever possible, but he does not demand reconciliation with everyone from us. The difference is this: when we forgive someone we dismiss the grudge we hold against them and we love them by desiring only their good. When we forgive someone we do not wish any harm upon them and we do not take delight in their misfortunes and faults. On the other hand, when we reconcile with each other, we see “eye to eye” with each other. This is what reconciliation means, “seeing eye to eye.” It means that there is nothing between us, that we are again the best of friends and we get along well at all times. We know that sometimes this is, most regretfully, not possible to do. We certainly should always to seek reconciliation, but it takes two parties to reconcile; it only takes one to forgive.
My brothers and sisters, “None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself” (Romans 14:7). “Remember [then] your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin! Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults” (Sirach 28:6-7). Then, when we at last stand before the Lord, his parable will be fulfilled: “Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him” his debt (Matthew 18:27).