The Reverend Patricia Catalano
September 13, 2020
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.” Matthew 18:21-35
As the bishop said in her reflection from this week, today, most preachers will be talking about the topic of forgiveness. It is the theme of today’s gospel. We all know the story well: Peter asks Jesus how many times should one forgive. “Is it seven, Lord?” But Jesus is not focusing on the numbers. His message is clear—forgiveness is not about keeping a tally of how many times you have to do it. It is about going to that place in your heart where kindness and compassion reside and connecting with the divine source within. Forgiveness is not about math, but about generosity, love and maturity.
After the initial exchange with Peter, Jesus then goes on to compare the kingdom of heaven to a generous king and an ungrateful servant: The extreme largesse of the king who forgives a huge debt in its entirety is not matched whatsoever by the meanness of spirit of the servant who refuses to pardon a debt a million times smaller owed him by a fellow slave. The other servants were so distressed that they went to the king to tell him what had transpired. The king became enraged and punished the ungrateful man severely. The parable ends with Jesus’ admonition that a similar fate will befall those who don’t “forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
The reversal of fortune of the ungrateful slave is dramatic. Reflecting on this parable, I imagine the audience who listened to these stories as they were shared back in the early days. I’m sure that the people must have been shocked through and through, not only by the mind boggling generosity of the king but also by the fact that he not only reversed his pardon but also had the man tortured until he paid the entire debt, which would be physically impossible for him to do given the absurdly large amount that he owed. They must have been quite chastened hearing that they, too, could be punished harshly for their lack of generosity and kindness.
When Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a generous king, I initially like the idea very much. I imagine that the king is God and hope this God will generously forgive my debts, my transgressions… But then if I’m the slave whose debt is forgiven, I have to face my own meanness of spirit—my inability to pardon even the smallest debt from a fellow servant although I have just been granted enormous generosity. And where did God’s initial mercy go? Did the king-God decide that my sinfulness is so great that I do not deserve any more generosity but rather to be tortured? It’s a hard lesson to take. How can I apply this to my own life and come out a better person on the other side?
I agonized trying to make full sense of this parable. How to interpret it in a way that is meaningful to me? Then I remembered that parables are like koans: you have to sit with them until they make sense to you. Little by little, I began to get an inspiration: maybe I’m both the generous king and the ungrateful and mean spirited servant. I’m just two sides of the same coin. This makes more sense to me. Maybe what Jesus meant was that the kingdom of heaven is a place where we are always struggling to get things right; to hit the mark. If we understand that our actions all have consequences, then our ears become increasingly open to hearing this message about forgiveness.
If I can sometimes be merciful and generous to a fault and then turn around and be quite mean and ungrateful, then there is hope for me. If I can understand that what I do, all my actions, generate consequences, both intended and unintended, then I can have compassion for myself and for those who travel this journey with me. So, am I also the angry king who tortures the ungrateful servant? Well, if I can be the generous king and the ungrateful servant, then I can certainly be the king who tortures and punishes and shows no mercy, too. I AM ALL OF THEM. We are all of them. We all carry in ourselves the potential for great goodness but also for great evil.
Becoming better at the art of being human requires us to mature and to be able to live in the tension, in the paradox of being both good and bad.
The kingdom of heaven is not a physical place but a spiritual space where we struggle to find our center, where we struggle to discern who God is and how to relate to the divine. When I hear the words “God has forgiven us”, I have trouble understanding what that really means. It’s hard for me to understand because it sounds distant, abstract. How can we know that God has forgiven us?
As human beings, our experience is limited by our senses, by our mind, by our feelings. How can we know God and God’s forgiveness? Well, as the mystics throughout the centuries have taught us, the way is by going deep into our hearts and realizing that that quiet place is where we must begin. That’s where we find the still, small voice that should guide our actions, the spark of divinity that resides in us all.
But we constantly battle this idea thinking that it is too simple. We want things to be complicated, but they are not. Simple I say, not easy. The mystics also tell us that God has no body but ours to be in the world. Therefore, each and everyone of us is the vehicle of God’s forgiveness. And that forgiveness has to start with ourselves. Charity begins at home, as the saying goes. But, boy, is that hard!
It’s hard because we humans have a tough time accepting the reality of our erring ways. We are inconsistent in our self-understanding. At times we find so much fault with ourselves and become so dramatic about it that we cannot find it in our hearts to forgive even the silliest mistakes we make. We can often be cruel and harsh with ourselves. At other times, however, we are offended when someone even insinuates that we have done something wrong. In those moments we deny, we posture, we point fingers and try to blame anybody but ourselves.
We must acknowledge that this is how we are—that this is human nature. This is the beginning of maturity. Being human is a flawed condition. And we need to live with that fact. Only then, can we begin to heal and remove the burden we feel from trying to live up to impossible standards of perfection that we can’t meet because we are human. Ours is a messy kind of perfection, never fully complete.
That’s why we are in such great need of self-forgiveness, but we let pride get the better of us, and we end up denying ourselves the joy of feeling forgiven. We know how good it feels: a heavy heart is replaced by one that is light and clean. A burden is lifted and we can breathe easy.
Once the process of self-forgiveness starts, we are on our way to growing into our full humanity. We’ll never fully finish this process in our lifetime, and that’s alright: remember that we’re only human. It is ongoing. But with it comes maturity. Only when we make it a habit of forgiving and being kind and compassionate to ourselves will we be ready to fully live into what Jesus asks of us, to love our neighbor as ourselves; to forgive our brother or sister from the heart. We cannot expect to even begin the process of forgiving others if we don’t start with us.
The Hebrew Bible reading today reminded us of how Joseph forgave his brothers who had hated and envied him so much that they sold him to some merchants and told their father that he had been killed. We know the story well: Joseph, thanks to his good judgment and talent for interpreting dreams, earned the favor of Pharaoh by saving his people from the famine. He also saved his father and the rest of his people by bringing them to Egypt. But now that his father had died, his brothers feared that Joseph would not continue to help them.
Without denying the evil his brothers did to him, without minimizing it, Joseph showed that he had continued to grow in humanity. He says to them that something good came out of the evil done to him and now he was in a position to help. “He reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”
I would like to leave you with a passage from Richard Rohr’s book Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, that I happened to read yesterday during Centering Prayer and which is quite fitting for today:
“When a student comes and says, “Should I pull out the weeds?” Jesus says, “No.” He says to let them both grow together until the harvest (Matt. 13:29). Then, at the end of time, he will decide what is wheat and what is weed. This idea has had little effect on Western moral theology. But we are a mixture of weed and wheat and we always will be. As Luther put it, … we are simultaneously saint and sinner. That’s the mystery of holding weed and wheat together in our one field of life. It takes a lot more patience, compassion, forgiveness, and love than aiming for some illusory perfection that is usually blind to its own faults. The only true perfection available to us is the honest acceptance of our imperfection. If we must have perfection to be happy with ourselves, we have only two choices. We can either blind ourselves to our own evil (and deny the weeds) or we can give up in discouragement (and deny the wheat). But if we put aside perfection and face the tension of having both, then we can hear the good news with open hearts. It takes uncommon humility to carry the dark side of things. It takes a kind of courage to carry the good side, too.”