24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Our first reading today, from the book of Sirach, is one of the most beautiful passages in the whole book. It sounds as if it might have been written by a Christian, and yet it was written two centuries before Christ, by Ben Sira. The Jewish author sets before us the same standard of forgiveness that Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us the wrong we have done, as we forgive those who wrong us”.
Ben Sira addresses us directly when he says: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.” He concludes by saying, “Hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults”. In between are questions we need to ask ourselves: “If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?”There’s something unreasonable and even malicious in a sinner who will not forgive others.
The same idea is reflected in today’s Gospel of the unmerciful servant: “Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” This is like an echo of the first reading: “Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins?” Both verses refute a fallacy which is very much alive and well in our own day. The fallacy is this: that we have a right to resent an injury, that in refraining from that we are choosing not to exercise our right, and so there’s a limit to our forgiving, and beyond that limit we need not be so demanding of ourselves. Jesus demolishes that self-imposed limit when he says:”not seven times, but seventy-seven times”, meaning don’t even think of counting up the times you should forgive another person.
In the parable he shows us why there should be no limit: all Christians have accepted from God the unlimited forgiveness he has extended to us, and therefore we have a duty to show the same kind of unlimited forgiveness to others. We’re all in the position of the servant in the parable: God let us go and cancelled the debt of our sin, and just as we have been forgiven, we for our part must forgive others.
Whenever we do that, we discover what mercy is all about. As Shakespeare put it in The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d, / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d; / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…In the course of justice none of us / Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy, / And that same prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy” (Act IV, Scene I, lines 184ff: Portia’s speech).
What happens if we do not forgive? Exactly what happened to the servant in the parable: “In anger his master handed him over to the torturers.” And then there’s that terrible closing sentence: “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.” That shows the need we have, not only of unmeasured mercy, but of unmeasured grace. Nothing but the love of Christ can bring us to such forgiveness from the heart.
In our time this duty of unlimited forgiveness is likely to be misunderstood. It’s not that wishy-washy forgiveness which consists simply in letting people sin as they choose. Forgiveness and faithfulness go hand in hand. The forgiveness of the Christian does not come from a wishy-washy indifference to what is wrong. It comes from gratitude and love: gratitude to God who has forgiven our enormous debt, and love for the enemy who has done us wrong.
Only then can we turn to God in prayer. St John Climacus sums it up in Step 28 of The Ladder of Divine Ascent: “When you set out to appear before the Lord, let the garment of your soul be woven throughout with the thread of wrongs no longer remembered. Otherwise, prayer will be useless to you.”