Today’s readings offer an uncomfortable, but clear challenge to us on this anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks: the challenge of forgiveness. In today’s Gospel, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, we hear the story of the master (representing God) who forgives the servant of his debt (the servant represents us). The message is that God forgives us not because we deserve it, but because God is merciful. Yet, when that servant does not extend the same forgiveness to others, he gets himself into trouble, for he has not acted toward others the way the master acted toward him. We are called to forgive those who sin against us. This message is made clear by Peter’s question to Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answers, “Not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Mt. 18:21-22)
We have probably heard this instruction many times and we can sometimes take it for granted. It may be easy to apply to everyday situations: I will forgive you for leaving your dishes in the sink, being late to pick me up, forgetting my birthday, etc. But in fact, these everyday situations are ultimately about developing an attitude of forgiveness that can define our lives. Without that kind of attitude, what will we do about the really difficult situations in life:
…the close friend who says something hurtful behind your back;
…the spouse who cheats;
…how about the priest who abuses a child;
…the murderer on death row;
…the terrorists who plotted and carried out the attacks on September 11, 2001?
Our inclination may be simply to say that some things are too terrible to forgive. Certainly, it is only human that we must often go through a period of anger, bitterness, and mourning. Perhaps, we will never forget some wrongs.
But there is great wisdom in Jesus’ words about forgiveness. Our human experience tells us that when we hold on to anger and hatred, it eats away at us. It can begin to change us and make us into persons we never wanted to be. In some ways, forgiveness frees the one who forgives from carrying that burden. We can let it go and entrust the other to God who is better able to deal with them. The teaching on forgiveness is about being like God, who is merciful. It is about recognizing something of ourselves in those who commit the greatest evils, for no one is free of sin. Finally, this teaching on forgiveness is about being able to live with the peace of love instead of hate, which tears and destroys.
Jesus is not urging us simply to be passive in the face of evil. We must still work to protect the innocent and to hold those who perpetrate crimes against humanity accountable. But at the same time we are called to forgive even while asking, in love, how we can move forward in truth and love. Forgiveness requires that we address the situation in a positive and loving way, instead of with fear and hatred.
This may be a hard message to hear, but Jesus’ words today are challenging us in a big way. When something that is dearest to us has been attacked, how will we respond? The Gospel challenges us to consider what a Christian response might be. Our response will have long-lasting implications on us as persons and as a society.
What has been your response to September 11, 2001, and how can you act positively and lovingly as we move forward? How about your prayer response?