What happens when forgiveness becomes a habit
A Reflection for Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent
“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 18:21-2)
A scene from the movie “Schindler’s List”—granted, a film with many indelible moments—has stayed with me. The prison camp Kommandant describes to Herr Schindler the intoxicating power of instilling fear in Jewish prisoners and executing them indiscriminately. Schindler tries to persuade him that real power lies elsewhere. “Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t,” he says. “A man steals something, he’s brought in before the Emperor, he throws himself to the ground. He begs for his life; he knows he’s going to die. And the Emperor pardons him…That is power.” The Kommandant tries the idea on for size. He stops himself from punishing a few prisoners, instead pronouncing the words with difficulty: “I pardon you,” he says. He even says it to his own reflection in the mirror. But using forgiveness as a show of power does not satisfy the Kommandant. Schindler has not turned him from his murderous ways.
When Jesus teaches us to forgive one another, the act of pardoning is not about power, but about conversion. Forgiveness is about letting go of the resentment or anger or hurt that is poisoning our soul. It is a gift we give another who has wronged us, but it is also a gift to ourselves. Forgiveness doesn’t always come easily—we sometimes can’t help but cling to our sense of righteousness—but not being able to forgive leads to the hardness of heart that holds us back from seeking the good and living our lives fully, a hardness that Jesus counsels us to reject.
The king in Jesus’ parable, unlike the Kommandant, practices true mercy when he forgives the loan his servant owes. The king’s heart is moved to compassion by the anguish of another. The king is only angered when the servant does not follow the merciful example he has modeled for him. When we practice forgiveness, our behavior can affect the people around us and perhaps move their hearts to compassion. Forgiveness can be contagious.
It can also become a habit. The biblical literalists among us will note that in some translations, Jesus says we must forgive not seventy-seven times, but seventy times seven times. While Jesus is not setting the exact forgiveness maximum at 490, he’s making sure we get the idea: forgiveness needs to be unlimited if it’s going to form our life of faith at all. If you do anything 490 times, it’s going to get easier. The habitual practice of forgiveness brings the kingdom of God closer. It can change us. It can change the world.