"Lord, if my brother wrongs me, how often must I forgive - seven times?"
The inspiring British Christian writer C.S. Lewis made this comment about forgiveness:
Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it. That we can always have from God if we ask for it. (C.S. Lewis – The Weight of Glory).
Our Lenten Mass readings for this Tuesday seem to say the same. In fact, I believe this is the way God deals with our sin. The Book of Daniel speaks: “. . . For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation, brought low everywhere in the world this day because of our sins . . . Do not let us be put to shame, but deal with us in your kindness and great mercy . . .” (Dn 3: 34-43). God knows our sin. There is no doubt about that. To say he doesn’t or that we can hide from him is to reduce God to our level and that is foolish. That’s what Adam and Eve attempted to do once they felt shame in their nakedness after their sin.
Although we all know there are degrees of sin, what we traditionally call venial and mortal, it is all offensive to God and does harm to ourselves. God sees it and he knows it as Lewis states, in all its “horror, dirt, meanness, and malice . . .”
But the Gospel of this Tuesday’s liturgy (Mt 18: 21-35) reminds us what God does with what he sees. At the same time, Jesus clearly implies what we are to do with what we see. Peter and Jesus engage in conversation: “Peter approached Jesus and asked him, Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times . . .” (Mt. 18: 21-22). This does not imply that once the 78th offense happens, forgiveness is no longer offered. We shouldn’t play a game of “Gotcha!” with each other. It is clear that Jesus implies, an infinite number of times since the number seven represents perfection.
Lest we think, however, that we get off scott free Jesus goes on to tell a parable about a King (God) who dismissed the enormous, unpayable debt of his servant (us) out of compassion. The servant seemed to repent and plead for mercy. The King (God) did not recommend the servant file bankruptcy or Chapter 11 reorganization still expecting some payment. No, he forgave the entire thing! Divine mercy is not human mercy.
But, this also implied some responsibility on the part of the servant. He must do nothing less than the same. Forgiveness is a two way street and God hands us the keys to see what kind of driver we are! But, this servant flunked drivers ed:
“. . . When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe. . . .” (Mt. 18: 28). The end result was not pretty for the ungrateful servant as is found in the Gospel above.
The point Jesus is making, it seems to me, is that God’s generosity will never be outdone. There is no act of selfless giving, no work of charity or even extension of compassion we will do that will ever equal what God does for us. It certainly would never be more than what the Divine can do. But do it we must if we are followers of Christ. We forgive as he forgives. But, forgiveness also implies justice. As God has done for us, so we must do for one another.
No one ever said forgiveness is easy. Sometimes it is if the offense is small and between friends or family members. But, sometimes it isn’t. It may be very hard, very painful to forgive a grave offense. It may take months or years. (Hopefully never that long). But, Lewis also reminds us that true forgiveness also means I come to a point that I wish no harm to the offender. I may not like them or want to be around them but I wish them no harm. In fact I can and will pray for them and wish a blessing upon them. Yes, it is a standard that high since Jesus calls us to reach beyond our limits - and we can.
Christ himself is the prime example of just how far forgiveness can go. Much here to ponder.