‘Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.’ (Matthew 18:21)
Is there any sin which cannot be forgiven? Or more to the point - is there someone who you just cannot forgive for what they have done to you or to someone you care about? It is not unusual, in families, and after the breakdown of relationships, for people to claim that there is no way that they could possibly forgive someone for what they have done.
I remember many years ago at an RCIA/Journey in Faith group the parish priest was speaking about this very subject. God, he said, can and will forgive any sin, however great, if the sinner is truly sorry, truly contrite. One group member was a bit alarmed by this: “What?” He said. Do you mean that he will even forgive Hitler?” It wasn’t the question which the priest was expecting, but nonetheless he said “Yes, God can even forgive Hitler”. “Well,” the man replied to the whole group, “if I meet him in heaven, I won’t talk to him!”
It is a similar sort of question which Peter asks Jesus at the beginning of today’s Gospel: “How often must I forgive someone? As many as Seven times?”
And, not for the first time, nor even the last, Jesus replies with a story which turns our usual expectations on their heads. You see, the man in the story, the “unjust servant”, far from being unusual, or particularly wicked, is just like the rest of us. He is very good at repenting but absolutely hopeless at forgiving.
We teach our children to say sorry if they have done wrong. We know that we must be genuinely contrite to receive absolution. We know that when we have done wrong we should apologise. We only find it hard to say sorry - if we do - if we find it hard to accept what we have done was wrong. But we do know that when people do bad things they must apologise. And Nowadays we even expect politicians and leaders of institutions to apologise for things done many years ago by those they now represent.
And this means that we think of forgiveness only as a response not as an initiative, something that we might give or withhold, not something that we would ever want to offer.
If we have been hurt our natural response might be to get our own back, to seek revenge, a form of justice, or just some nastiness that we think will make us feel a bit better. This all seems very natural. And even sensible. We see it on the world scene, especially in the way the US threatens North Korea - sow the wind, Trump says, and you will reap the whirlwind. It has a logic to it. We apply it also to our own lives, often without thinking. It just seems right.
We taught our children not to fight - not even to hit back - because Jesus said we should turn the other cheek. Nevertheless, our oldest son got into a fight with one of his friends. When he took his to task, he said in protest “But he hit me back first!”
Ah well “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” (http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/revenge-is-a-dish-best-served-cold.html) as the saying goes.
But there is another saying, which more closely follows the teaching of Jesus “an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind”. (https://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/12/27/eye-for-eye-blind)
In fact, Jesus does not so much disagree with the “an eye for an eye”, but instead radically shifts our perspective. His focus is not upon faults, but on forgiveness - not on the sin, but upon the reconciliation - he puts the initiative not with the one who has done wrong, but on the one who has been hurt. What is most important is not contrition, but conversion.
We see this not just in this parable, but throughout his teaching, and indeed his life.
In today’s Gospel, he says We should forgive, because we have been forgiven. In Sermon on the Mount, he warns us against seeing the speck in other peoples’ eyes, but not the log in our own. As we have already noted, he tells us to “turn the other cheek”, and in the prayer which he taught us to say, we say so frequently “Forgive us our trespasses - as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And of course, from the cross, he declares in the moments of his sacrifice: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
No - we should think not about how and why we may refuse forgiveness, but seek instead ways we can offer it.