Year A, sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 17, 2023
Year A: Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
The dialogue between Peter and Jesus in the Gospel sheds profound light on the nature of forgiveness. Peter poses a question that seems simple but is deeply rooted in human psychology: “How often should I forgive?” The answer from Jesus, “seventy-seven times,” is equally complex, symbolizing not just the act of forgiving but the mindset that must accompany it. This interaction tells us that forgiveness isn’t a finite resource to be measured but a boundless grace to be freely given. But how does society grapple with this notion of limitless forgiveness?
In society, the call for forgiveness often meets resistance. While people may eagerly accept the idea of a merciful God, they hesitate to extend the same mercy to others. This hypocrisy is counter to the ethos many of us claim to follow, encapsulated in the prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We ask for divine forgiveness, but we often hesitate to extend human forgiveness, revealing a dissonance in our spiritual lives. Jesus uses storytelling to further elucidate this point.
Jesus unpacks this complexity through the parable of an unforgiving servant. In the story, a servant who owes an astronomical debt to his king is forgiven, yet refuses to forgive a minor debt owed to him. When the king finds out, he withdraws his mercy. The parable serves as an allegory, illustrating that the grace we extend to others should reflect the boundless grace we receive from God. While the Gospel offers spiritual wisdom on this matter, modern psychology also provides valuable insights.
Psychological theories, including the pioneering work of Everett Worthington, offer insights into this complex issue. Worthington proposes a model of forgiveness known as REACH: Recall the hurt, Emphasize empathy, offer an Altruistic gift of forgiveness, Commit publicly to forgive, and Hold onto that forgiveness. Hold onto the forgiveness, not the grudge, not the anger.
Worthington’s framework straddles both spiritual and psychological domains, allowing us to see the multifaceted nature of forgiveness. It addresses both emotional healing and spiritual growth, underscoring that forgiveness is not an isolated act but an ongoing process.
Worthington’s insights into forgiveness aren’t merely academic but are derived from personal experience, as he had to forgive the man who took his mother’s life. This dual perspective makes his work invaluable for anyone struggling with forgiveness. His research is not just a scholarly pursuit but a lifeline to those drowning in a sea of unforgiveness. It lends authenticity to his research, grounding it in lived experience.
But what is it in human nature that complicates the act of forgiving?
While Peter’s question may seem straightforward, it exposes our innate need to quantify grace. We want to know the minimum requirement for divine approval, revealing our human tendency to measure the immeasurable. It’s as if we’re trying to turn the spiritual journey into a balance sheet, where debits and credits of forgiveness are carefully tallied. The Gospel, however, encourages us to transcend this mindset. Our forgiveness should not be about tallying points or meeting quotas. In doing so, we only risk becoming self-righteous, forgetting that God’s grace is not a reward but a gift.
Importantly, these teachings also emphasize the boundlessness of divine grace.
The numbers in the parable are meant to be unfathomable, drawing attention to the incomprehensibility of divine grace. This makes it abundantly clear that God’s forgiveness cannot be quantified or restricted by human limitations. We, in turn, are asked to reflect this infinite forgiveness in our interactions with others. However, understanding the full scope of forgiveness also requires considering the relationship between forgiveness and justice.
The Gospel’s call to endless forgiveness does not imply that justice should be ignored. The two can co-exist. While forgiveness involves letting go of the desire for vengeance, it does not negate the need for legal and societal repercussions for wrongdoings. In the biblical narrative itself, divine forgiveness often goes hand in hand with divine justice. Likewise, forgiveness does not always mean reconciliation. Reconciliation involves mutual consent and may not be possible or even advisable in some cases. But despite these complexities, the imperative to forgive remains paramount.
In our daily lives, forgiveness is often easier said than done. When the person we must forgive is someone close to us, the act becomes even more difficult. Nevertheless, the act of withholding forgiveness has dire consequences. It can create spiritual roadblocks that prevent us from experiencing God’s full grace and can have tangible impacts on our mental and emotional well-being. Therefore, despite the enormity of the challenge, Jesus calls us to forgive ‘seventy-seven times,’ emphasizing the idea that there are no limits to forgiveness. Ultimately, forgiveness transcends mere ethical duties and reflects deeper spiritual commitments.
In light of the teachings of Jesus Christ—his life, death, and resurrection—we find not only a model for forgiveness but also the fortitude to enact it in our own lives. Through this covenant, we participate in a cycle of grace that not only liberates us but also brings us closer to the divine, sustaining us at every turn on our journey toward boundless forgiveness. This serves as a potent reminder that forgiveness is not an isolated act, but a continual journey of spiritual growth and renewal. When we pray for forgiveness, we are also making a pledge to extend this same grace to others, fulfilling the Gospel’s imperative to express boundless compassion and mercy in our interactions.
The complexities of forgiveness may weave a challenging path, but we are not left to navigate it alone. The Gospel equips us with the insights and the strength to forgive, even when it seems insurmountable. This divine guidance serves as a beacon in a world often shrouded in conflict and resentment, reiterating that forgiveness is not just a moral duty but a spiritual covenant. Through this covenant, we participate in a cycle of grace that not only liberates us but also brings us closer to the divine, sustaining us at every turn on our journey toward boundless forgiveness.
Remember: forgiveness is not a one-time act but an ongoing journey, challenging yet vital for our spiritual and emotional well-being. The teachings of Jesus and modern psychology provide us with frameworks to not just understand but also to enact this boundless grace in our daily lives. This serves as a potent reminder that forgiveness is not an isolated act, but a continual journey of spiritual growth and renewal.
We forgive, then, because God forgives. The forgiveness that we are to pass on to others is the forgiveness we have in union with Christ.
And the good news is that despite our inability to ever give back to God everything we ought, God forgives us anyway, completely. We are completely, irrevocably, utterly forgiven and healed by Jesus. Amen.