A Forgiving Heart
Bible Reading for the Twentyfourth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Matthew 18: 21-35
The common theme of most action movies is revenge. The hero has to avenge the torture and death of a loved one. The bad guys have to pay. They too must suffer a violent death.
This is a “popular escape” from the harsh reality, wherein bad guys literally get away with murders. In the real world, countless rapes, murders, massacres, kidnaps, and other criminal activities are still unresolved after so many years. The bad guys seem to be having it so good!
The murder of Ninoy Aquino, Caesar Climaco, and so many less-known people are still unsolved and forgotten. At least in the movies, the bad guys get what they deserve. Just like the Sicilian Mafia, many oriental cultures look to vengeance as a debt of honor, a sacred obligation.
The Old Testament injunction of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” was not meant to demand vengeance, but to put a limit, to avoid excesses in vengeance. For losing a tooth, you cannot knock off all the teeth of your enemy – only one may be allowed.
The modern society, apparently more civilized, also knows such mechanisms even though they usually function more discreetly. To forgive is considered an act of weakness; while to avenge oneself is the normal action of the person. One only has to look at the newspapers to find the sad litany of retaliations and crimes of vengeance.
Without going to such extremes, we all harbor secret resentments and subtle desire for vengeance – be it a colleague, who betrayed us, an arrogant boss, an unfriendly neighbor. Vengeance is our natural reaction, when someone has wronged us. Of course once our desire for vengeance is satisfied, our opponent reacts in turn by getting even with us at the first opportunity. Thus, a spiral of retaliations is initiated and the violence can go on escalating.
Today’s Gospel parable shows us how to break the vicious cycle even before it gets started: through forgiveness. No doubt the king first reacts by ordering the servant with a bad debt to be sold as a slave. His desire for vengeance is also his primary reaction.
But he lets himself be moved by the wretched man cowering at his feet. He changes his mind and crushes his own verdict, thus breaking away from the trap, which threatens to encircle him. His decision is courageous, his generosity royal.
As it is with God, he too would have every reason in the world to demand a vigorous account of our faults and sins. But God chooses to forgive.
The whole history of the relationship between God and Israel is a history of forgiveness. God did everything for the people. A hundred times Israel turned her back on her God, and a hundred times God forgave her.
God never turns back on his commitment to love us. We may think God’s unlimited forgiveness applies more to some horrible crime or some heinously contemptible action; one of those unspeakable deeds, which shock honest people.
But our little sins such as backbiting, uncharitable remarks about others, shady business deals, occasional extra-marital love affairs, negligence at work, fits of anger, are nothing to make a fuss about. We think we simply rank among the reasonable average people: neither saints nor criminals.
When it comes to the pure love of God, those who see things from God’s point of view know the depth of sin. Before the pure love and the absolute tenderness of God, the least rejection is a serious offense. Our mistake when judging our sins is that we look at ourselves instead of looking at God. But as soon as we grasp something of this unutterable meekness, we discover at the same time the hidden face of sin.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells us, “Pardon and you will be pardoned.” Jesus assures us that we find salvation and we find God in our brothers and sisters. We are building our eternal future by the way we treat each other.
The Gospel challenges us to make an act of faith, not so much in abstract truths of dogma, but rather in the living presence of God in every man, woman, and child we meet.
How often can I forgive? How often do I expect to be forgiven? If we understand our own wayward hearts, if we honestly face the sorry record of our lives, we should have no trouble figuring out the answer.
The following true story illustrates what Jesus meant by forgiveness.
Over a hundred years ago in France, a butler attached to a wealthy family knew the family kept all their wealth hidden in a vault underneath the chateau. He methodically plotted to kill everyone in the family and steal the treasure.
One night, when everyone was asleep, he murdered the father and mother first, and then, one by one, the children. Only the youngest escaped because he had heard noises and couldn’t sleep. When he realized what was happening, he quietly slipped out of his room and hid in a closet under a pile of clothes.
For years he wandered the streets as an orphan, and later he entered the seminary and became a priest. Eventually he was assigned to Devil’s Island as a chaplain. One afternoon, a convict came running in from the fields, frantically calling for the chaplain, “There’s a man dying out in the field, Father, come quickly.”
The priest ran out with him and reached the dying man. Kneeling down beside him, he lifted the man’s head onto his lap and asked if he would like to confess his sins. The dying man refused.
“Why, my son?” the priest asked.
“Because God will never forgive me for what I have done,” the man replied.
“But what have you done?” the priest continued. And the man went on to tell the story of how he murdered this whole family he was once serving as a butler so he could have their money and only one little boy escaped because he couldn’t find him.
Then the priest said to him, “If I can forgive you, certainly God can forgive you. And I forgive you with all my heart. It was my family you murdered, and I am that little boy.”
The convict cried and told the priest how he had been haunted all his life over what he had done, though no one else knew about it. Even the authorities never found out.
The two men cried together. And as the priest was giving the dying man absolution, the man died with his head resting on the priest’s lap.
Here is another true-to-life reconciliation: In 1976, the World Assembly of the Christian Life Community (CLC) was held in Baguio. There were more than 200 delegates from about 60 countries from all continents of the world attending.
One of my friends, who was assigned to help in the secretariat came from San Pablo, Laguna, where her family suffered terribly from the Japanese atrocities during the Second World War. Because of her trauma, she had a hidden resentment against the Japanese. She told me that whenever any Japanese delegate would come to the secretariat, she would leave the room.
Then late one night, she went to the chapel to pray. In the darkness, she thought she was alone. Minutes later, however, when her eyes adjusted to the darkness of the chapel, she saw another person there. It was a Japanese woman delegate praying. A voice inside my friend told her, “Look, you are praying to the same God she is praying to.”
That was the moment of conversion for my friend. From that chapel experience, she learned to forgive the Japanese. Her spirit felt liberated. After that time, she was able to work with the Japanese CLC for a number of apostolic projects in Mindanao.
Let’s close with the familiar Prayer of St. Francis:
“Lord, make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
“Grant that I may never seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”