Human, all too human…
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) | Fr Gregory Murphy on being able to forgive others because we truly recognise that we have been forgiven and received mercy from God.
Ecclesiasticus gives us a picture of ourselves we can all too easily identify with. When we have been hurt or shamed (especially by those who are close to us or whose regard we seek) it is entirely human to feel anger, to bear grudges, and nurse resentments, refusing forgiveness. Much of our greatest literature, exploring the human condition, examines just these themes. But Ecclesiasticus warns us that if we would keep company with God and walk in his ways, then we must reshape or re-conform ourselves to responding to injury with forgiveness and compassion, suppressing anger (at least on our own behalf), resentment and hardness of heart. But this is not easy. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting – that is nonsense that too easily elides the pain of the injury done – but rather reaching out in reconciliation to the one who has injured us despite the injury done, building bridges, not walls (as pope Francis has recently emphasised), restoring communion.
While we all know that forgiveness is the Christian default setting (it is a message constantly reiterated throughout the Bible) and can even reason that it is psychologically healthier to do so we still might find it almost impossible. In these circumstances, constantly hearing what we ought to do can be counterproductive, imposing a further burden of guilt on the injured person. Today’s gospel helps us see how we might resolve such an impasse. First, in answer to Peter’s question Jesus reminds him (us) that our forgiveness is not quantifiable – it should be limitless, as is God’s. He then illustrates this with a parable. As is typical, part of the parable’s point is made through exaggeration. The debt the servant is forgiven by the king is absurd – representing about 150,000 years of the amount paid to a daily labourer, beyond even the expectations of the most rapacious Roman governor. This throws into stark relief the refusal of the servant to forgive a fellow-slave’s reasonable debt.
The first servant has been granted forgiveness and shown mercy by God but cannot recognise it. He remains delusional – promising to pay back this impossible sum – but then, as he does not recognise forgiveness, cannot show it. The point of the parable is that human forgiveness, our attaining the capacity to forgive, is rooted in divine forgiveness, in our being forgiven by God. God’s forgiveness is unconditional, unlimited, given as often as we need and ask for it. Knowing and confident that we have been forgiven by God then empowers us to reach out in forgiveness to those who have hurt us, or to seek forgiveness from those we have hurt, despite the injury done or the fear of further rejection or rebuff. This is the essence of the petition we make when we pray the Lord’s prayer: ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. Our trespasses have been forgiven unconditionally by God, but this is not a zero-sum game, an entry in a ledger. It is not that God forgives us only to the extent we have forgiven each other – we would be wretched indeed if that were so – but rather that we show we have accepted that we have been forgiven by God by trying to learn, however haltingly, to forgive each other.
Being recipients of God’s mercy we are challenged to become merciful, to transform ourselves, convert our hearts from hardness to compassion. As Paul reminds the Romans the way we live always has influence or impacts upon others. Showing mercy, merciful living is in the first place the result of an inner conversion, of better reflecting the God in whose image we are created. The surprising forgiveness of God in showing us mercy when we expect judgement invites us to move on from the power or blame game of playing innocent versus guilty to recognising ourselves as forgiven debtors, in a fellowship of similar debtors, recognising that there is little difference between us and so in that recognition reaching out to build communion. Our debts have been forgiven so that we can forgive each other, as Jesus, the perfect image of the loving Father showed us is possible by the gift of God’s Spirit. Jesus, the only true human, invites us to become more fully human in building communion.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a stained glass window in the National Cathedral, Washington DC.