The telling of the parable is occasioned by St. Peter’s question: “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” Peter, sensing that the new law of love which his master had been teaching extended beyond the regulations of the old Law, suggested seven times, rather than the three times laid down in Amos 1.3, and generally accepted by the Jews. No, says Jesus, your brother who offends you is to be forgiven an infinite number of times, seventy times seven, because the mercy and forgiveness extended to us by God is that deep.
Jesus tells the story of a king who decides to call in some of the debts owed him by his subjects. He demands repayment of one who owes him 10,000 talents, which is a great deal of money. The man cannot pay him, and as a result, he threatens to sell him and his family into slavery, which in those days was allowed. (Leviticus 25.39) But the debtor falls down and begs for mercy so convincingly that the king wipes the debt out altogether. The same man, once he was forgiven for his debt, goes out to a fellow-subject of the king and demands of him the tiny sum of 100 pence. In turn the one owing 100 pence asks for time to pay, but the fellow has no mercy and has the debtor thrown into prison. The word gets back to the king, who, like his subjects, is appalled at the unmerciful servant’s behaviour. He throws him into prison, reinstating the original debt of 10,000 talents.
The interpretation of this parable is clear. The king is God. We are his subjects and we are his debtors, because we have sinned against him. It is a large debt indeed that we have incurred, and if God were to call it in, there is no way that we would be able to pay it. But we know that when we in sincerity ask God our Father for forgiveness, we receive forgiveness, not because we deserve it, but because he is a merciful Father. We have no claim, no right to God’s consideration, but he hears us and has pity.
Second, we must forgive our fellows the sins which they commit against us, which are minuscule compared with the sins we have committed against God and yet have been forgiven. In the Lord’s prayer, we pray: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive them who trespass against us.” Another translation which is sometimes used of this model prayer makes the message even more clear: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
If we are not willing to forgive one another, the forgiveness which we seek from God will be of no effect, no benefit whatsoever. Saint Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans says: If we live according to the precepts of the old Law, we will be judged according to the old law. And Jesus himself said:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for any eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5.38-39)Forgive seventy times seven. Because we ourselves have been forgiven, we have no right whatsoever to demand our ‘pound of flesh’ from others.
Think: Whom have you refused forgiveness, either openly, or secretly in your heart? And conversely, whom should you ask for forgiveness that you have offended? With whom should you be reconciled today? This is serious business. Your refusal, your stiff-necked refusal to forgive and really forget may be the stumbling block which prevents you from entering the Kingdom of Heaven, and may rather be the reason for which you are delivered to the tormentors The American writer Henry Ward Beecher said: “I can forgive but I cannot forget is only another way of saying, I will not forgive. Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note which is torn in two and burned up, so that it never can be shown again.”
It is true that old hurts cut deep. Like a well-travelled road, the longer they are borne, the deeper the ruts become. It is even harder when those who have hurt and betrayed us are dear to us. Someone once said, “It is easier to forgive an enemy than a friend.” Those who are able to wound us most are those that we love. Yet, as George Herbert said, “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass if he would ever reach heaven; for everyone has need to be forgiven.”
Week by week, day by day, we pray that God will forgive us our sins. Let us make a special point today to ask God for the strength and courage to forgive others, and to ask for forgiveness, knowing that if we ask in faith, God will grant us grace to do both.