Forgive, and Don’t Forget

For 13 August 2009, Thursday of Week 19 in Ordinary Time (Year 1), based on Joshua 3:7-17, Matthew 18:21-19:1

Joshua 3:7-17

The LORD said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.’” Joshua then said to the Israelites, “Draw near and hear the words of the LORD your God.” Joshua said, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.”

  When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.

Matthew 18:21-19:1

Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

  “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

  When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.

Text of Homily:

The gospel challenges two pieces of popular wisdom. The first is that someone who has had a particular negative experience will automatically be sympathetic and understanding towards another person having a similar experience. A lot of pastoral care and counseling support operates on this basis, and it seems reasonable. We expect that those who have experienced a particular loss or anxiety will be better placed to help others undergoing that loss or feeling that anxiety. So we expect that the servant who was in debt, will understand his fellow servant who is in debt to him.

But the servant in the gospel parable has no sympathy for the man who owes him money even though his own creditor had just released him from a much greater debt. His action is astonishing to those looking on, and it remains astonishing to us, to the point where we may well be unmoved by the torture to which he is subjected at the end. We might even find ourselves rejoicing in that torture and saying ‘Well serves him right’.

And this is the wonderful trap set by this parable: because we then find ourselves behaving just as he did. Who is he except a character in a story with a fictional debt, and who are we except real sinners who have been released by God from a real debt, the consequence of our sins?

We might imagine the wicked servant turning his head on the rack, looking towards us with bloodshot eyes, and saying ‘So you think you are different from me? Which of you, even though you have been released by God from the debt of your sins, has not sometimes refused to forgive others, which of you has not borne grudges and nursed hurts, has not maneuvered to get away with things yourself while calling others strictly to account?’

The other piece of popular wisdom challenged by the gospel is that human beings make progress by forgiving and forgetting. Once again it seems reasonable to offer such advice to people who cannot leave behind some sad experience or painful betrayal: ‘Try to forgive and forget, you’ve got to move on and not allow this thing to continue to poison your life’.

But the readings today tell us that forgiveness is possible not by forgetting the past but by remembering it, by remembering more about the past, and by remembering our present situation, and by remembering our future destiny. If popular wisdom says ‘Forgive and forget’; biblical wisdom, coming to a high point in Christ, says ‘Remember, and so learn forgiveness’.

The wicked servant’s colleagues are astonished that he could so quickly forget the mercy he had been shown. If you or I find it difficult to forgive somebody, then we can begin here, by remembering the times we have been forgiven. It is not reasonable to expect forgiveness and mercy if you are not prepared to show them. It is absurd to continue to ask mercy of God if you are not prepared to show mercy to others. We need to remember that much at least.

But there are other things we ought to remember as we try to forgive. Remember the end of your life, the Bible tells us, remember destruction and death. How will it seem looking back, if you have not been able to find a way to forgive. Each of us must give an account of himself or herself to God and where will we be then, anxious to be forgiven but not understanding what forgiveness means because we have not practiced it ourselves.

Remember, and forgive. Remember the covenant of the Most High, the new and everlasting covenant, sealed not by a (fictional) heartless servant stretched on the rack, but by the (real) Son of God nailed to the cross. If you want to learn forgiveness remember how the human heart of the Eternal Word was pierced. Remember how that blood dissolved the walls of hostility between people, and established peace. It is not a case of forgiving and forgetting. It is a case of remembering, remembering many things, and so learning what forgiveness means.

Those who believe in Jesus are to be ambassadors of forgiveness in the world, and messengers of reconciliation. But forgiveness is not easy to do and the capacity to forgive is not one that is achieved by a mere act of the will. No matter how powerful we consider our willpower to be we cannot force ourselves into forgiveness. In the end it is a gift from God, as the popular saying goes, ‘To err is human, to forgive divine’.

Because forgiveness is not about forgetting, but remembering, forgiveness on our part does not depend on the worthiness or contriteness of the one who has wronged us—whether it is someone who has told us a white lie, or bombed our city. Forgiveness is something we must do because it primarily changes us, it frees us first of all. And because forgiveness is a gift from God, strictly speaking it is not something we ‘do’ but something we find ourselves entering into, a fruit of the Holy Spirit in us, a sign of the life of Christ in us, a sharing in the divine nature, a way of relating to others in which we find ourselves—by God’s grace—becoming compassionate as the Heavenly Father is compassionate.

Scripture passage from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.