ColumnsSunday’s Word

The Lord is rich in compassion

September 13, 2020


Sir 27:30—28:7

Forgive your neighbor’s injustice

Ps 103:1-4, 9-12

The Lord is rich in compassion

Rom 14:7-9

We live or die for the Lord

Mt 18:21-35

Forgive 77 times


Toward the end of his Gospel, Matthew includes a number of parables, many of which are not found elsewhere. Today is an example of this. The theme is forgiveness, a virtue that is prominent in Matthew’s work. The point is made with a memorable saying and a parable that follows it.

The saying is often quoted. One should forgive another, “not seven times but 77 times.” Of course, that number is outlandish. There is no way that you could count the occasions and say on the 78th time, Aha, I don’t have to forgive you his time. No, the point is that forgiveness has no limit. But that seems impossible.

Following the saying, the parable speaks to unconditional forgiveness. A servant of the king, a servant who himself has some status, has a debt to his master that amounts to a considerable sum. He begs forgiveness, and is given it. But in stark contrast, he fails to forgive a fellow servant of a small amount. This is naturally brought to the attention of the king, who revises his previous decision, and holds the indebted servant to account.

There is a problem here in that the king, who forgives the servant, then reneges on his forgiveness. He demands unconditional forgiveness when he himself puts conditions on it. It suggests that God demands unconditional forgiveness of us, even when he doesn’t do so himself. This doesn’t seem to make sense.

But this is a parable. Jesus’ parables typically have a knot in them. It brings us up short and causes us to consider more closely. In reacting to Jesus’ seeming exaggeration, we find ourselves arguing, defending what we think is a more reasonable position. And in so doing, we are forced to think it through; at least to some extent. Today we get to think about forgiveness and what it means to say it should be unconditional.

Forgiveness is a radical act. The human impulse is to wreak revenge. Or more likely, plot revenge that is not really available, or ever realized. But to forgive is to lay aside this vindictive impulse. It takes deliberation and courage. And it is also
powerful — as powerful as vengeance itself. When faith communities forgive vicious acts, their forgiveness is often met with outrage in our society. When, some years ago, an Amish community in Pennsylvania forgave the outsider who murdered one of their members, the national response was outrage. How dare they forgive! When the Emanuel AME church in Charleston publicly forgave the shooter who killed nine black members at a bible study, social media was aghast that they should do this. Forgiveness, it was said, was an outrage. Their reaction certainly testified to its social power.

Hannah Arendt, the Jewish political philosopher and chronicler of the Nazi holocaust, has said that Jesus has contributed to the international conversation about conflict resolution the notion of forgiveness. She saw it as one of the most useful and powerful of moves. It allows us to leave behind the pattern of reciprocal attempts at injury, and begin anew. It means to swallow our need for satisfying revenge, and move on.

It likewise produces objections by those who want vengeance, in the name of justice. See, for instance, the idea that impoverished nations should be forgiven their outrageous debts. Or that student loans should be forgiven. But again, this only demonstrates the power of the act.

The parable illustrates both the power of the act and how it contradicts human nature. It highlights how we want forgiveness for ourselves, but not for others. It points to a twist in our human nature that we otherwise tend to ignore. Parables are like that.

For reflection: Who do I not want to have forgiven? And why not?

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.