Today’s gospel selection is taken from a section of Matthew’s gospel that is concerned with the dynamics of a truly Christian community. It is fairly certain that Matthew’s gospel was written for the church at Antioch, where there were deep divisions between the more conservative Jewish Christians and the more liberal Gentile converts. Peter is featured in this gospel because he was the leader at Antioch who was able to hold these factions together by insisting on the importance of tolerance and reconciliation.
In such a difficult situation, forgiveness becomes a major issue. Jesus tells Peter that we must be ready to forgive others “seventy-seven times,” which really means, endlessly. And the parable that follows is intended to illustrate exactly how forgiveness must function in a loving community. It does not come simply from the goodness of one’s heart. It is possible only when one becomes aware of having oneself been forgiven. It is a splendid gift that has been first received and is then passed on to others. The unforgiving servant of the gospel story is condemned precisely because he refused to forgive a tiny debt after having been forgiven immeasurably.
The Bible is very realistic about human nature. Every child is born yearning for approval and desperate for affirmation. Ir is a tragedy when that love ad affirmation is not available. It is only affectionate touches and gentle words that enable an infant to reach out to the world in confidence and trust. Such loving affirmation continues to be needed all through life and the person who, through a misguided notion of self-sufficiency, claims to be beyond all that, is condemned to a twilight existence of feigned independence.
An important part of this loving affirmation is the readiness to forgive the mistakes and faults of others. Such readiness comes from an awareness of having been forgiven for one’s own faults. Moreover, this forgiveness is not limited to sinful behavior but extends to limitations of all kinds, which means, in effect, forgiveness for not being perfect! For these limitations of nature are also very burdensome and we need the help of compassionate and forgiving people to lift that weight from our shoulders.
It is important to understand what forgiveness does not mean. It does not imply that a fault or sin does not matter. Nor does it mean that the offense is forgotten, for that is often impossible. Rather, it means freely choosing to overlook an offense because one is free to do so, having been loved and forgiven oneself.
There can be no real Christian community without such an exchange of love. The seriousness of this challenge is expressed in the strong words of Jesus indicating that our present unwillingness to forgive will guarantee a harsh judgment at the end. If we are wise, therefore, we will take great pains to be lenient and compassionate toward others rather than self-righteous and hard-hearted, so that we may look forward to meeting a lenient and compassionate divine judge when our own lives are evaluated.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.