In his book, How to Forgive, John Monbourquette ( Cincinnati , OH : St Anthony Messenger Press, 2000) tells the story of a missionary who had dedicated himself, heart and soul, to the evangelization of his adopted people. But not everyone appreciated his methods; some even misrepresented them and spoke disparagingly of him to other people. These tales found their way to the ears of the provincial superior, who got nervous and ordered the missionary to return home as quickly as possible. After years of dedicated, fruitful work, the missionary watched in shock as his career came to an end. He was devastated. Waves of pain and anger, of resentment and bitterness, washed over him.
After a few months of rest and reflection, he found that he wanted to be free of the exhausting resentment that was poisoning his life. He decided to forgive his former superior for the wrong and suffering he had inflicted on him. He began by praying. Several times a day, he would say “I forgive you,” as he thought of his former provincial. But his effort was wasted; nothing eased his bitterness. His determination to forgive only deepened his resentment. Now somewhat desperate, the missionary resorted to the ultimate solution: a silent retreat for the sole purpose of achieving forgiveness. He set about his self-appointed task immediately: he read about forgiveness, spent long hours in the chapel and repeated the formula “I forgive you.” Sometimes he thought he had attained his goal, only to wake up the very next day with the same sting in his heart. (pp.160-161)
What was wrong? Why was he unable to forgive the one who had wronged him? It seems likely that it was because of a mistaken notion of forgiveness — a notion that is, in fact, fairly common and which, unfortunately, often grows out of a misunderstanding of the words in today’s gospel.
The misunderstanding is rooted in those words of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples which ask God to “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (v.12). It is reinforced by the words of Jesus that follow the prayer:
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you” (v.14,15).
The misunderstanding is two-fold. First, it imagines that we must forgive before God can forgive. While there is a deep connection between our own willingness to forgive and God’s forgiveness of us, it is not a relationship of direct cause and affect. To maintain that God’s forgiveness is dependent upon our ability to forgive is to put the focus on human action rather than on the action of God. God’s forgiveness is not conditioned by puny human acts of forgiveness. When Matthew’s Jesus says, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you,” he is not suggesting that we must somehow muster the resources to forgive others before God can grant us forgiveness. In truth it is God who takes the initiative in forgiving, just as it is God who takes the initiative in loving. “We love because he first loved us,” the author of I John tells us. To which we might add, “We forgive because he first forgave us.” Actual forgiveness remains the free gift of God, whether we are speaking of that forgiveness taking place between us and God, or between us and other human beings. It is not, nor can it ever be, the result of our own determination and self-will.
The second misunderstanding results when we hear Jesus’ words, “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you” (v.15). We assume that these words mean that the person who fails to forgive will be punished by being denied forgiveness. As Monbourquette points out, “this approach seems to set us back in the mode of the Old Testament lex talionis, (“an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”) rather than place us within the spontaneous and free circle of love of the Beatitudes.” (p.36) When forgiveness becomes a moral obligation, when it becomes a law which we must either fulfill or suffer the consequences, it loses its free and spontaneous nature, and can no longer be called “forgiveness.” This is what Peter had so much trouble understanding when he asked Jesus, “Lord, when my brother wrongs me, how many times shall I forgive him?” Peter was preoccupied with legalistic concepts, hoping to find precise rules on forgiveness to guide his moral judgment. But this is not the kind of forgiveness God is offering us. In his response to Peter, Jesus makes it very clear that “forgiveness finds its source, not in a moral obligation, but rather in the mystery of the intimate relationship between God and human beings. Far from being a command, forgiveness arises from a conversion of the heart and the choice of a lifestyle that reflects how God acts.” (p.162) Forgiveness is central to the new kingdom Jesus is bringing about in the world; those who are choosing to live by the standards of this new kingdom will manifest in their lives the abundance of God’s extravagant forgiveness that they themselves have received.
When we pray, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” we are recognizing that a deep connection exists between our willingness and capacity to forgive and God’s forgiveness of us. It is not a direct cause-and-effect relationship, as we have pointed out. God is not saying that our ability to be forgiven depends on our own efforts to forgive others. Rather, when we pray this prayer, we are asking that the forgiveness we receive from God may lead us to forgive those who have wronged us. We are praying for the grace to “be merciful, even as [our] Father is merciful” (Lk.6:36). We are asking not only for God’s forgiveness, but for the gift of being able to “forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven [us]” (Col.3:13). We are seeking the capacity to live Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Eph.4:32). We cannot hope to accomplish this in our own strength, or by the force of our own determination. This is exactly where the missionary was running aground; he could not forgive merely by the efforts of his own will.
Forgiveness flows as a spontaneous and free act when we know ourselves to be forgiven, just as love flows freely and naturally when we know ourselves to be loved. This is made clear in a story that Matthew tells later in his gospel of a man who owed a tremendous debt to his master. His master exhibited extravagant generosity by forgiving the man of his debt and setting him free. Whereupon the forgiven debtor came across someone who owed him a small amount of money and, rather than forgive as he had been forgiven, he insisted that this poor man be put in jail until he could pay the sum. When the master heard of the forgiven debtor’s lack of generosity, he was furious and demanded that the debt he had canceled be re-imposed and the man be placed in jail until he had paid every penny of it. (cf. Mt. 18:23-35) The story illustrates two important truths. (p.172) The first is one of which we have already spoken: it is God who takes the initiative in forgiving. Forgiveness comes from God. So do repentance and mutual human forgiveness. Our role is to open ourselves to these divine gifts, to receive them gladly and respond to them readily. The second truth this story illustrates is this: Forgiveness is not just an act of the will (though the will is involved); it is the fruit of conversion. Forgiveness springs from a changed heart, a heart that recognizes the overwhelming generosity of the divine initiative that has forgiven it, and now seeks to respond with a similar generosity by offering forgiveness to others. It is obvious from the story that this kind of conversion did not take place in the heart of the forgiven debtor. Even after he was forgiven an extraordinary amount of debt, he could not find it in his heart to forgive one who owed him a pittance. The two forgivenesses, God’s and ours, go together. If we say, “I will never forgive you!,” we can hardly be forgiven: we are not in the mood. We are not penitently aware of our sins, but only vengefully aware of the other person’s sins. We are not thinking about God; we are intent rather on our prideful self. An unforgiving spirit in us shuts the door in God’s face, even though his compassion still surrounds the house. God is ready to forgive, but we are not ready to be forgiven.
Do you remember the story with which we began, of the missionary who could not bring himself to forgive his superior? As it turns out, the story has a happy ending. “On the fourth night of day (of the retreat), as he was meditating in the chapel, he instinctively picked up the New Testament, opened it at random, and came across the passage about the healing of the crippled man. The Pharisees’ comment, ‘God alone can forgive,’ jumped out at him. At that moment he understood the uselessness of trying to forgive while relying on himself. He finally understood that he was being driven by the desire for power (over his enemy). His great efforts had only served to cover up his humiliation and anger (at what had been done to him). Suddenly he recognized that he had not acknowledged that he really wanted to appear morally superior to his former provincial (superior) and subtly take revenge on him.
“This discovery enabled him to give himself up to God completely. He started by relaxing. Then he opened himself to receive the grace of forgiveness without knowing how, when or where it would be granted to him. Two days later, he had the feeling, a bit confused at first, then more and more distinct, that something had unraveled inside him. From that moment on, he felt peace washing over him; his heart felt lighter, his soul, liberated. Curiously, he no longer felt the need to repeat his incantation: ‘I forgive you.” Resentment had released its stranglehold and forgiveness had finally found a home in him.” (p.161)
Forgiveness is the gift of God. Our role is to open our hearts to receive this gift, and then to pass it along to others. Father, forgive us our debts, so that we, having received your mercy and pardon, may forgive our debtors.
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