The first Reading, (Sir 27:30-38), reminds us that resentment and anger lead to sin. It cautioned that those who exact vengeance on others will experience the vengeance of the Lord. Hence, one should forgive one’s “neighbour the hurt he does you, and when you pray, your sins will be forgiven.” It was wondered how one could expect the Lord to be compassionate to him if he is unwilling to be merciful to his neighbour. Thus, we should be mindful of the commandments of the Lord and not bear ill-will against our neighbours.
Building on the themes of resentment, vengeance and forgiveness as espoused in the first Reading, Peter asked Jesus, “’Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?’” The number seven symbolises completeness in Jewish culture following the seven days of creation, (Gen 1:1-2:3), and the number of candle holders contained in the candelabrum for worship as instructed by God to Moses, (Ex 25:31-39).
In Peter’s worldview, if one has forgiven an offender seven times, then one should be at liberty to retaliate. In some cultures, like the wider Australian culture, one may let go of an offence up to the second time, but one is at liberty to retaliate on the third offence.
In pre-Mosaic and Mosaic times, people avenged for every offence committed against them. During the pre-Mosaic time, the retaliations were disproportionate to the injuries received, (Gen 4:23). Moses’ “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”, (Ex 21:24), was to moderate the extent to which one can exact revenge.
To Peter’s suggestion that the offended party should seek vengeance after the seventh offence, Jesus replied that the offender should be forgiven seventy-seven times, which implied infinity. This Jesus’ reply runs contrary to our human nature. Some offences and the injuries they inflict upon us are so deep that they affect the fibre of our being in such a manner that we abhor the perpetrators. Think about the state of mind of Christians undergoing persecution, being massacred just because they profess Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour, or a woman who has been gang raped.
Forgiveness does not exclude the probability of the perpetrators facing prosecution if they had committed criminal offenses or making amends for the harm they had caused. There are three constituent parts of the Sacrament of Reconciliation: contrition, confession, and restitution. Restitution requires us to restore what we have damaged, like the good name of somebody. It may also include undergoing imprisonment for one’s reformation.
To help us articulate the concept of forgiveness, Jesus narrated a parable about a rich king whose servants owed him large sum of money. One of them who had an outstanding debt of ten thousand talents, an equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in modern day currency, was unable to repay the debt, and as was customary in that era, the king ordered that the servant and all the members of his family be sold slavery to recoup his money. However, the servant knelt and pleaded with the king to give him more time to offset the debt. The king realised that the servant would be unable to repay the debt and cancelled it as bad debt. The servant thanked the king for lifting a huge load from his shoulders.
When this servant left the palace, he accosted another servant who owed him one hundred denarii, an equivalent of 100 days of a labourer’s wage, and demanded that he be repaid immediately. The other servant pleaded with him to give him more time to raise the money, but he would not hearken to his fellow servant’s plea. He had him held in custody until he should repay the debt.
Other servants were appalled at the behaviour of this servant and brought the matter to the attention of their master. The king was disappointed by this servant’s greed and his unwillingness to be compassionate to his fellow servant. Hence, he revoked his cancellation of the servant’s debt and had him placed in custody until he repaid his debt in full.
In the “Our Father”, we pray that the Lord should forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Jesus concluded this Sunday’s parable by insisting that the Lord will not pardon us if we are unwilling to extend such pardon to our brothers and sisters who offend us.
As I stated above, forgiveness does not preclude the offender experiencing some punishment, but it means that the offended party is ready to let go – to move on, to turn a new page. The underlying principle is that the offended party has come to the point whereby the hurt and the bitterness of one’s past experiences are no longer allowed to be eliciting hate and anger in one’s life,
We should always remember that God is totally the other and he lives in an unapproachable light, yet he forgives us our sins. He so loves us that he sent his only Begotten Son to redeem the world. If we reflect on the infinite love God has lavished on us, then we may have a perspectival approach to the hurt inflicted on us by our neighbour’s unruly behaviour. We must not forget that to sin is human, but to forgive is divine.
Fr Chinua Okeke CSSp