Earlier this year, a friend of mine recommended to me a televised crime drama produced in Britain by the BBC. Despite the many cultural differences between the U.S. and the U.K., some things about the crime drama were very familiar. Many of the episodes, for example, featured a particular type of criminal who begged for mercy when caught committing the most merciless crimes imaginable; the intensity of the plea for mercy increased in proportion to the severity of the criminal’s mercilessness.
This sad dynamic isn’t limited to television crime dramas; it occurs routinely in relationships. Those most obsessed with obtaining mercy for themselves tend to behave toward others in ways that are entirely devoid of mercy. There is an example of this dynamic in today’s Gospel reading.
In today’s selection of Matthew’s Gospel, Peter seems obsessed with forgiveness; he asked Jesus to quantify forgiveness with mathematical precision. Peter’s desire to apply mathematics, or accounting principles, to forgiveness is an unmistakable indication of the lack of forgiveness in his heart. In fact, any attempt to apply mathematics or science to interpersonal relationships is as much a guarantee of misfortune as expecting empathy from the inanimate universe.
Attempting to correct Peter’s skewed view of sin and forgiveness, Jesus told an unusual parable. In the parable, a man owing the modern equivalent of a multi-billion-dollar debt asked for an extension to the terms of the loan. Instead of refinancing the loan, the creditor forgave the entire debt. Later, the incredibly fortunate former debtor showed no leniency at all to a fellow debtor who owed him one ten-thousandth of one percent of the debt the king had forgiven.
The ridiculously exaggerated disproportion between the two debts was not intended to affirm Peter’s desire for a finite quantification of forgiveness. Rather, it was intended to describe forgiveness as something that approaches the Infinite. Finite quantities can be measured; finite things can be present or absent in varying degrees. The Infinite cannot be measured; the Infinite is either present or absent. Jesus described forgiveness in terms of the Infinite: it is either fully present or entirely absent.
Peter wanted a manageable limit to impose on the requirements of forgiveness. Instead, Jesus gave him a diagnostic. Jesus said that a reluctance to forgive, or a tendency to mete out forgiveness in measurable quantities, is a warning sign of separation from God. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness, then, is an example of the responsibilities of the watchman used as a metaphor in last Sunday’s first reading (Ez. 33:7-9). The watchman’s task was to warn the army of an approaching enemy; the desire to put reasonable limits on forgiveness is a warning sign of the inability to forgive.
Jesus expressed this warning in the strongest possible terms. He said that just as the generous king handed the wicked servant “over to the torturers until he paid the entire debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you unless each of our forgives your brother from your heart.” (Mt. 18:34-35) The moral of the story is that one’s capacity to receive mercy depends entirely on one’s capacity to grant mercy.
The forgiven debtor acted mercilessly toward his fellow servant because he failed to appreciate the depth of the king’s mercy; he looked on the debt forgiveness as a windfall profit rather than as a grace. It is for this reason that Jesus said that one’s reluctance to forgive others is a warning sign of separation from God: one cannot receive God’s forgiveness unless one grants forgiveness to others. Perhaps, this explains the frequency of some peoples’ practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation; if receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation does not bring one the experience of forgiveness, reform, and peace of mind, it might be the result of one’s lack of forgiveness for others.
Forgiveness is an act that is tantamount to an experience of the Infinite. Consequently, forgiveness that is meted out in measured doses, or limited to a maximum number of instances, is not forgiveness at all.
Today’s first reading states the truth so blatantly that it is almost comical. Sirach said, “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” (Sir. 27:30) The inference is that the appropriate remedy for wrath and anger is to let go, forgive, and find freedom by granting freedom to the offender. If one wants to receive forgiveness freely and fully, one must grant others forgiveness freely and fully.