A survivor of domestic violence trusted me with her struggle with today’s Gospel. She felt she could not forgive her husband for his abuse toward her:
As a Catholic, I felt I had a moral responsibility and obligation to forgive [my husband] for his violence at the moment he was about to murder me. I believed I had to imitate Jesus’ final act of love during his crucifixion. I worried that rather than feeling forgiveness I might feel hatred in my heart and that my last words would be to condemn [my husband] to hell for all eternity. I feared that if I failed to forgive him completely before I died, then I might end up in hell myself.
There is a dangerous side to Jesus’ teaching to forgive endless numbers of times. What happens when we are not yet able to forgive? What happens when the offer of forgiveness is not met with repentance and restitution on the part of the offender? There are times, as in cases of domestic violence, when endless forgiveness fuels the cycle of abuse and does not bring peace and reconciliation. Processes of forgiveness and reconciliation are complex and cannot be reduced to simple formulas.
Today’s Gospel is a continuation of last week’s, where Jesus outlines a process for initiating reconciliation when there are ruptures within the Christian community. He speaks about moving from one-on-one confrontation to mediation to involvement of the whole community. It is in response to this that Peter asks how often one must forgive. He rightly recognizes the difficulties and complications that accompany such processes. Jesus’ response is that there is no limit to the number of times one must try to forgive. There are endless hurts that require endless offers of forgiveness and endless acts of repentance. One must always be ready to do the difficult work of repairing and reconciling.
In the ensuing parable about the servant who is forgiven a great debt, Jesus shifts the emphasis away from the burden and the difficulty of the work of reconciliation, as he calls attention to the utter gratuity of the gift of forgiveness. The only way to respond adequately to such a gift is to pay it forward. The servant can never repay the king, but he can act in the same forgiving manner to those indebted to him. But as the second act of the parable unfolds, we find him doing the exact opposite. Then, in a disturbing turn of events, the king retracts his forgiveness. Most troubling is that this is likened to God’s reneging on forgiveness if we do not forgive from the heart. This verse recalls the ending of the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples—“Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt 6:12)—with the added admonition that our ability to offer forgiveness is intimately related to our ability to receive it (6:14-15).
The point is not that God is fickle about forgiveness, taking it back if we do not do likewise, nor that God is vindictive if we fail to follow the divine lead. Rather, the parable is a stark warning of the consequences of letting our hearts become solidified in unforgiveness. A heart hardened in revenge sets in motion endless cycles of violence. The parable exposes the way that our choice to forgive (or not) redounds upon us. If we try to forgive and pray for the ability to forgive even when we are not yet able to, we open ourselves all the more to the experience of God’s tender mercy toward us, enabling us to extend that mercy and compassion toward others. Nothing we can do can take divine forgiveness away from us, but we can do things that hinder its powerful effect on us.