by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Could anyone refuse mercy to someone like himself/herself, while he seeks pardon for his/her own failings?” Sirach 27, 30 – 28, 7
“Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” Matthew 18, 21-35
While today’s gospel reading presents readiness to forgive as a central dimension in the life of anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus, the parable of the unforgiving servant, around which the reading is built, is an object lesson on what happens in the lives of those who not only refuse to forgive but who fail to learn and express genuine compassion.
I had occasion this week to visit a chiropractor here in Rome. On the table of one of his consulting rooms there is a plaque presented to him for some volunteer work in which he had been involved, On it were inscribed some words attributed to the 19th Century American Puritan theologian and mystic, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pale into insignificance in comparison to what lies within you.”
Those words are a fairly accurate description of the message of the parable of the unforgiving servant. The loan the king had given his servant is a symbol of something more significant than money. The parable is really asking us about the way in which we live our lives. Do I give to life and the people I encounter more than I expect in return? Do I really serve others rather than anticipate being served by them? Do I expect everyone I invite to dinner to return the invitation? Do I insist on being thanked for anything I give or do to others? Do I harbour resentment when I think my efforts for others have not been adequately acknowledged? Do I store up in my mind memories of the people who have not danced upon me the kind of attention I thought I deserved? Maybe I had a deprived childhood or a mean and petty boss, and can use them to justify my bitterness and selfishness. Do I hold onto hurts from the past and relive them angrily to others when opportunity presents itself? To the extent that I behave like that I resemble the unforgiving servant. Do I want God to treat me generously and compassionately, while expecting others to give me kid-glove treatment, in accord with the dignity and respect to which I believe I am entitled?
We can all invent our own ways of making that single petition in the Lord’s Prayer that has a condition it – Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us – come back to bite us.
Refusal to act with compassion, failure to reconcile with those whom we have hurt or who have hurt us does not stop God from loving us. But what does happen is within us: something changes in our own hearts and attitudes. Our own inner self rebels against us. From being open and expansive, we notice that our moods change, our words develop an edge of hardness, our hearts become progressively closed. We begin to feel uneasy, we are dissatisfied with ourselves, and find it difficult to put our finger on the cause.
Harbouring resentment and anger affects our emotions, our spirit and even our body. Hostility, turned either inward or outward, prevents us from praying at any depth, and manifests itself in emotional upheaval, difficulty in being present to others, distracted thinking, and an inability to sit still.
In our lucid moments, we recognise that we are made for love. It is the ability to relate that distinguishes us as human. Forgiving and genuine compassion are reflections of God’s love and measures of our humanity.
If we dare to look closely at what it is in others that disturbs and pains us, we quickly discover that we are like them in our frailty, our humanity, our worth. It is then that we can begin to allow understanding to displace our irritations. When we come to appreciate that God extends to us and to others exactly the same generosity and love, we begin to understand what is meant by living compassionately.
This does not mean that forgiveness is ever easy. Shifting the focus from our seething anger or from our outrage at being slighted or wronged and replacing it with concern for the person who has offended us is hard work. It can be a little easier if we have the humility to recognise that, in other times and places, our selfishness and insensitivity have been the cause of hurt to others. But we also know the liberation and healing that can come when we are prepared to forgive or to ask forgiveness of someone we know we have hurt.
The kernel of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness is that nothing is unforgivable. Neither does Jesus allow us to put limits on our capacity to forgive. There is a certain irony about the fact that Peter was the one to question Jesus about measures of forgiveness, as it was he who received forgiveness beyond measure following his denial of Jesus to bystanders during the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus responded to Peter by making it clear that his and our readiness to forgive should mirror God’s limitless forgiveness and compassion extended to all.
Forgiving and seeking forgiveness exposes us in all our vulnerability. But let’s not forget that the Prodigal Son experienced the enormity of his father’s forgiveness only because he had sinned. It was the poet Dante who reminded us that refusing to forgive and to ask forgiveness is a choice we make to distance ourselves from others and from God. It is, as Dante says, like pushing God to say to us: “Thy will be done!” Fortunately for us, however, we will never control God.