by Lisa Fernandes
“To err is human, to forgive divine” as Alexander Pope wrote. Today’s readings capture this difficult path we all have to travel. We want to be forgiven our human transgressions, as difficult as it is for us to forgive others. As in the first reading: “Forgive your neighbour the wrong that is done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.” (Sirach 28.2)
Today’s Gospel reading tells us more about forgiveness. The parable is about a slave whose debt is forgiven by his king but who does not “pay it forward” and show forgiveness to a fellow slave who is indebted to him but instead tortures him, and thus warns us: “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 18.35)
The difficulty of forgiveness is shown when Peter asks Jesus if seven times is enough to forgive his brother or sister and: “Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18.22)
Seven is a significant number in the Bible usually related to completeness and perfection (God rested on the seventh day after creating the heavens and earth, and seven pairs of clean animals went on the ark etc…) so this is not a literal counting but a lesson about the limitlessness of forgiveness. In the Old Testament, the number seven was more associated with revenge: “Then the LORD said to him, ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ ”(Genesis 4.15) while the New Testament has a contrasting emphasis on forgiveness.
God forgives us unconditionally; how can we aspire to do the same with others? We can start small. If someone cuts you off on the road, instead of road rage forgive them and give them the benefit of the doubt. Or if someone doesn’t hold the door for you, give them a pass. Every week in Mass when we say the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There are role models both religious and secular, such as Nelson Mandela who forgave and reconciled with those who had kept him captive.
As C.S. Lewis put it, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you”.