Both the New and Old Testament readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time teach us a consistent truth about forgiveness. God shows us how it is done in how He forgives us, and we are to do the same to others. We have all had the same questions within our hearts as written in the Book of Sirach (27:30-28:7) and the Gospel of Matthew (18:21-35).
How often should I forgive the same person? Since the injury to me was so great, why can’t I hold a grudge? If I am not as bad as so many other people and God hasn’t had to forgive me too much, do I really have to forgive? What if the person doesn’t deserve to be forgiven? What if the person harmed me on purpose? Isn’t it great that the Word of God is so specific as to answer these very questions that we have?
God is always generous in forgiveness toward others. God never withholds forgiveness when we come with contrite hearts. Even before we approach God, we know that He doesn’t hold grudges or hang on to past sins. We always start with a clean slate with God. God always gives us the new beginning, without having to carry shame or embarrassment. We are even assured that God chooses us, knowing that we are sinners. He uses the greatest sinners to show the greatness of His forgiveness (1 Timothy 1:15). God does not keep count, so then we shouldn’t either.
We get into great trouble and confusion when we start comparing the level and intensity of our sins with those of others. For those of us who have been given the gift of faith, who have every worldly need fulfilled and who have been loved and nurtured all our lives, we are sometimes the ones who feel a right to judge how bad or good others are. We remit our own offenses because they don’t seem as bad as so many other choices we see people make. Remember the image of “whitened sepulchers.”
Is it really true that we have been so good that we can elevate ourselves above others in righteousness? And does that give us permission to not forgive those who we deem as “bigger sinners” than we are? Deepening our gratitude for the graciousness of God’s forgiveness toward us will help forgiveness flow more readily from us to others.
If you really want a selfish reason to be a forgiving person, read again the selection from the Book of Sirach. “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them. Forgive or you will not be forgiven. Anyone who nourishes anger cannot expect healing from the Lord.”
It’s wonderful to give the gift of forgiveness to others for their sake, so that they can be set free from the burden of what they have done against us. But it is also beneficial to us as well. We carry less of a burden of grudges, hatefulness, revenge and anger. Our hearts are freer to live our own lives and not be tied, through unforgiveness, to the past events of our lives. If we forgive others, we might be able to imagine that others will forgive us as well. We all thrive on forgiveness as it flows among us.
Father Wester is pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters.