HOMILY: Mt. 18: 21-35

HOW OFTEN SHOULD I FORGIVE MY BROTHER? SEVEN TIMES?If we made the same proposal Peter did, I believe most of us would do so feeling very generous indeed. And to others we would appear quite foolish. In human affairs and in personal relations as well many find it is risky to offend even once. In many occupations of public trust even a single of fense is more than can be tolerated by authorities. Doctors can and do lose their license to prac tice by a single serious act of faulty judgment, without consideration of their good intentions. Even a first failure by the appropriate authority to impose such a penalty is itself a crime of non-feasance, of which a conscientious physician administrator was convicted not long ago. Recently it was reported that a number of army officers of proved ability, because of a failure to act decisively in a compromising situation were heavily punished. Nature too can be quite unforgiving. It happens not rarely that a person does irreparable damage to health by taking drugs just once and then falling into a serious psychotic state that became chronic. I have seen such a case. It would be easy to multiply instances where a single failure is treated, by society and by nature, as unpardonable and in one way or another, sometimes at the cost of life itself, is heavily punished.

What is the appropriate attitude then to offenses? Obviously Peter has in mind personal injuries of various kinds: insults, injustices, betrayal of trust, neglect, deception- the list is a long one. When does a person become a fool by continuing to forgive such injuries? Seven does seem quite a generous, if not even foolish, number of injuries to forgive before giving up on somebody. What does it mean then that the Lord does not accept such an offer, but rather insists that there is no limit to the forgiveness we are to extend to others?

It seems helpful here to make a distinction between trust, actual forgiveness and readiness to forgive. Our Lord showed by his example that we are not to interpret his words to mean that we are to show equal trust to everyone. He himself acted with great circumspection in his dealings with many people and chose not to put his trust in them "for he knew what was in man." Some he chose as his intimates, treating them as more worthy of trust than others. He advised his disci ples to have nothing to do with those religious leaders who did not practice what they preached. They should neither be trusted nor forgiven until they should display appropriate dispositions. In fact, that is precisely what happened when, after Pentecost and Peter's first great sermon, many Pharisees were converted, forgiven and warmly welcomed into the Church.

Thus it appears that what Jesus is telling us here is that we are not to set limits to our willingness to forgive others when such forgiveness is appropriate as estimated by common sense, informed by dispositions of mercy. Jesus teaches here that if some one has often injured us or has betrayed a public trust, once he or she is disposed to correct that behavior that person is to receive our forgiveness. That does not necessarily mean we are to show the same trust as before. People have to earn trust by their actions; but they can be given the chance to do so when they present us with reasons for thinking they are sincere and have the capability of carrying the burdens of trust. What Jesus condemns in this passage of the Gospel is the failure to show mercy in circumstances when it is clearly called for from considerations of humanity as well as from past mercy received. ""Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy", Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount. We are reminded that during this holy season we are not only to deny our carnal appetites by fasting and acts of self denial, but are to show mercy to others in our actions, in our thoughts and judgments by deeds of kindness and by being reconciled with our brothers and with all God's children, from the heart.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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