24th Sunday, Year A: Sirach 27:30-28:7; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35
In today’s parable, it’s very clear who needs mercy and forgiveness. In our actual interactions with one another, that clarity often vanishes.
Isn’t it more usual for both parties to feel wronged, requiring amends from one another? That’s not to say that this parable is unrealistic; as opposed to a certain kind of “Christian” piety, more influenced by the children’s book, Pollyanna, than by the Gospel, Jesus never claims that forgiveness will leave everyone living happily ever after. In fact the forgiveness of first servant precipitates the parable’s crisis.
That servant, so ready to plead for his own forgiveness, but disproportionately inflexible with a fellow servant, may be driven by fear. He’s gained a good measure of grace from his master but is so insecure from that encounter—perhaps he’d never before humiliated himself to beg for mercy—that he exerts muscle to secure his territory. Perhaps his finances are in such bad shape that he grasps at every penny he can get. And so he overplays his hand and topples into the fate he so acutely fears.
No, this parable describes a very realistic profile of the challenges of forgiving.
How often have we been told by the Gospels, “Fear not”? Isn’t fear at the root of so many of our problems with one another? It is easy to quote the Epistle of Saint John that love casts out fear, but how do I introduce that love into my fearful heart?
What even I, for all my fallibility, can recognize in the Gospel, in the life of Jesus, is that there is no love without self-sacrifice and self-sacrifice necessarily entails suffering. That is certainly a first step I—or any of us—can choose to take or escape: the responsibility of suffering. I’m not advocating masochism, the burdens I tailor for myself, but the uninvited sufferings that present themselves, arising from my choices or my personality.
I begin by suffering consciously my own contradictions, my own reluctance to forgive, my clutching at resentments. That’s the antidote to self-justification. I suffer the unresponsiveness of the other person, recognizing his or her fears, experience, upbringing—all those things I don’t know. I suffer the lost opportunities, the bad advice of others…and so forth.
Then couldn’t this attempt carve out in me that capacity for God’s love and begin to train me in releasing fear, learning the little habits of loving capable of forgiving?