Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
“Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. 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.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison until he paid back the debt.
“Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.” –
The Gospel of the Lord.
“To die is nothing; but it is terrible not to live.” ~ Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
The Medieval Latin word for “forgive” originated when a writer tried to translate an expression from a Greek fable that spoke of the gift by which the life of a person condemned to die was returned to him. The translator perceived that this gift, that is to give life back to someone who did not deserve it, could not be compared to any other type of gift. It is an extraordinary gift and so he had to invent the word “for-give.” It’s clear then that, from the beginning, forgiveness causes a break in the ordinary course of justice and is presented as an exception.
To forgive refers to the capacity of man to give back a life. Looking closely however, we see that it is to give back life not only to he who would be justly condemned, but that life is also given back to the one who does the forgiving. Spite and vengeance lead to a dynamic of death in our relationships; they become empty and wither.
But life never has clear boundaries and cannot be contained by our predictions. Life gets away from us and is never truly under our control. In this passage of the Gospel, Peter is the voice of the man that wants to control life, keeping it in a glass case. Peter wants to know exactly when forgiveness has been exhausted. As many as seven times?! Forgiveness, for Peter, ought to have some sort of limit; there ought to be a point when things are clear.
Jesus teaches Peter that forgiveness, like everything else in life, inevitably has uncertain outcome: as many as seventy-seven times… meaning that it never reaches a limit. Just as you must not stop breathing in order to stay alive, you must not stop forgiving. Every relationship will live only as long as both continue to forgive without limit.
For this very reason, forgiveness is a path towards ever-uncertain outcomes: we never know if the other will accept our forgiveness, if it will be returned to us; we don’t know if the other will ask for it or even want it. But these questions do not concern forgiveness, just as we never ask if we should still breath in order to stay alive. Forgiveness is efficacious if it creates a freeing dynamic in a relationship, not if it achieves a certain outcome.
With this parable, Jesus invites us to recognize what is fundamental in forgiveness: the servant whose debt has been forgiven should build his life on that freeing experience and do the same for his fellow servants. The first servant has been forgiven an unimaginable amount: ten thousand talents. If we think of the parable of the talents, the servant that received more received five (one talent was equivalent to more than 50lbs of silver).
If forgiving means giving back someone their life, at the foundation of forgiveness is the experience of gratitude towards life. Only he who recognizes that life is a gift and that we are always in debt to life is able to truly forgive. In other words, forgiving means always asking oneself what I should do with the life I have been given so freely.
It is no coincidence that the first gift given by the Resurrected Christ is forgiveness (Jn. 20:22-23): return life for life, or resurrect and be resurrected, it is the same as forgiving. Forgiving means allowing oneself to be resurrected, to come back to life so that others too may have the same experience.
The parable Jesus tells shows how the inner dynamic of any community can break down for lack of forgiveness: conflicts between generations, divisions in the Church, and tensions within any group. When there is no forgiveness, love is lost.
Matthew uses a specific term when talking about the servants of the parable that literally means “servant-together”: we share the same human condition, we are servants in the same way, and we are companions in this common mission that is life. The servants-together are not mere spectators, for they must endeavor towards justice. They reveal the situations in which life has been blocked and they denounce those who do not imitate the king. If God is the one that gives life, his servants are called to do the same. And we have been entrusted with the mission to give life through forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not only an obligation; it is the only way we have to be fully alive.
Questions for personal reflection:
- What do experience when you are unable to forgive?
- Have you felt what it’s like to be forgiven?