In the Gospel given for today we hear Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. Peter poses the question, an entirely practical one, by asking how many times we must forgive those who sin against us.
What was being taught at the time in the Synagogues was that one had a duty to forgive someone three times and so we can see that Peter, by putting forward the possibility of forgiving seven times, probably thinks he is doing very well indeed.
In giving the number seventy-seven as his reply, Jesus is essentially saying that there should be no limits to the number of times we forgive those who have offended us.
In the parable that Jesus uses to illustrate his point there are two different currencies used. The servant owed the king ten thousand talents, an enormous sum; but the man who was in debt to the servant only owed one hundred denarii. Since one talent was equal to six thousand denarii we can see that the man only owed the servant a piffling amount in comparison.
Jesus clearly intends the king to represent the God the Father in the parable and is making the point that the debts we owe to one another are just chicken-feed in comparison to what we owe God.
Nothing we can ever do can cancel the debt we owe to God. He created us and everything we have comes from him. He gave us the world as our home and provided us with the possibility to flourish in a good environment. Despite all this we find ourselves sinning and turning our backs on him.
Nevertheless he offers his forgiveness freely to all. Somehow though, this extraordinary generosity seems to offend our human sensibilities. We find it difficult to cope with such unrestrained liberality. It goes against what we think of as natural justice.
We feel that sins must be paid for; that recompense must be made for serious offences. We believe that justice must be done and seen to be done.
Some years ago I was saying mass in a local prison, it was an open prison where there were many men serving the last part of a long sentence. After the mass a prisoner came into the office for a chat. He had only arrived there the previous week from another prison. I asked him how long he had already served and was astonished at his reply: nineteen years.
It seems he had been given a life sentence. I asked him when he was due to be released. He said that he didn’t know as it was entirely in the hands of the parole board who he said were sure to knock him back. His best guess was another two years or so.
Now I have no idea what that man did to deserve life imprisonment; but we can guess that it must have involved murder, perhaps with some aggravating circumstances. All I do know is that this crime must have been committed when he was quite young because looked as though he was well under forty years old.
There are all kinds of things that have to be taken into account by judges when determining prison sentences. They must consider the seriousness of the crime, the state of mind and personal circumstances of the criminal, as well as other factors such as the potential danger to the public.
Sentencing policy is always controversial and governments are constantly adjusting the guidelines as a way of showing themselves to be sensitive to the wishes of the electorate.
But human justice can never be compared to God’s justice. And the fundamental difference between them is that only God can see into the very heart of man. Only God truly knows all that has to be taken into account. Only God can determine whether someone is truly repentant.
Our problem is the tendency to think that God is too lenient. We imagine that God will let major sinners off the hook if they express some slight repentance. And we frequently don’t think that this is right or just. If we were in his position we would be much harsher because we are inclined to believe that punishment is the true expression of justice and that most criminals get off too lightly.
However, when it comes to our turn to need forgiveness things get more complicated. There are two common approaches. One is the tendency think that our sins are relatively minor when compared to those of some others and God can’t or won’t withhold his forgiveness. And the other is the opposite and surprisingly common belief that our sins are so bad that God can’t or won’t forgive us.
Of course, in both of these positions there lies a heresy; and a after few moments consideration we realise that these two beliefs are just plain wrong. On the one hand, God certainly does not overlook anyone’s sin. But then neither does he withhold his forgiveness from those who truly repent. And this is the key as far as God is concerned: true repentance.
In thinking about what repentance consists in, I realised, just the other day, that it must be an aspect of love. We love the other person and through this love we come to realise just how much we have hurt them. Love then motivates us to make restitution and to seek forgiveness.
Sin is quite the opposite; it is the expression of lack of love. Selfishness is the real motivation for sin. Greed, abuse of power, hate; all these things are the very opposite of love.
So the human project, the very aim and purpose of the Christian life, is to grow in love. And the best and most straightforward way to do this is to imitate Christ who is the Lord of Love.
The solution for every sin, for every crime, is to grow in love. This is what brings about repentance both in this world and in the hereafter.
In talking to that man in the prison, I asked him how he had coped over these nineteen long years. He told me, only two things have kept me going, the love of my family and the fact that I found God. Without those, he said, I would never have survived.