In defence of the unforgiving

Published on 10 Sep 2020

Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you? [1]

The parable shares with us no reply from the unforgiving servant.  Silent, he is handed over to the torturers [2].   What could he say?  Forgiven a great deal himself, he refused forgiveness to one who owed him a comparative trifle.  Decency, justice and sweet reason seemed to mean nothing to him.   He had asked for mercy and received it abundantly but could not show it.  Some solidarity with the difficulties of another was demanded and turned out to be shockingly absent.  His fellow servants were deeply distressed [3].  Who would not be agitated by this spectacle of selfishness and hard-heartedness? Surely he saw that that he was under a strong obligation to forgive the debt of the other because of the kindness he had himself received?

Sometimes we are unable to forgive although we would very much like to do so.  The disciples of Christ know his urging to forgive those who trespass against us [4].  Happy to live under the Lord’s authority, loving his commandments, we may nevertheless find it impossible to forgive those who have hurt us.  We may ache to be free of a grievance lodged too long in our heart.  It seems immovable.  God has rescued us from many a pitfall into which we have tumbled. He has steered us away from the edge of precipices on which we were poised.  However, he has not, so far, enabled us to write off the one hundred denarii.  Saved from much wickedness, arguably more serious, we may be prey to our inability to forgive some old wrong, perhaps quite a small offence.  Resentment and anger, these are foul things [5].  The corrosive memory of harm done will not go away quietly.  The hurt of certain injustices cannot readily, it seems, be healed. Even the experience and grateful remembering of the abundant mercy of God does not always dislodge a grievance of this persistent sort.  Anger occupies the heart and we are powerless to displace it.  The sincere desire to be rid of such an unwelcome burden does not remove it.  The eagerness of a disciple to do as Christ urges founders on the stumbling block of deep-seated resentment.

The distress of onlookers may be surpassed the sorrow of the one trapped in bitterness. They need not report the whole affair to the master [6]: the hardheartedness has already been confessed to. Grace is awaited.   There may be some who cherish resentment [7] or who are nursing their wrath to keep it warm [8] but most would like nothing better than to be free of these bitter thoughts and feelings.  He seized him by the throat and began to throttle him, ‘Pay what you owe me’ [9]. Is it inconceivable that such shameful violence and lack of fellow feeling could be found in someone who nevertheless also experienced a sincere gratitude for the forgiveness he had himself received?   Are there lives compartmentalised enough to accommodate such inconsistency?   Perhaps many.   Among the ways in which resentment humiliates those in its thrall is the doubt it casts on the integrity of their own repentance and their pleas for forgiveness.  If only this grudge were not so unshakeable, there would be willing imitation of the extravagant mercy of the One who has overlooked so much that is wrong. Does God forgive our being so unforgiving?  The master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt [10].  However the unforgiving may have long been tortured by their inability to jettison the sour conviction that they are entitled to redress. If a man nurses anger against another, can he then demand compassion from the Lord? Showing no pity for a man like himself, can he then plead for his own sins?[11] These questions may echo the reproaches of consciences powerless against the enduring power of resentment

Is it not also the case that small hurts may prove harder to forgive than great ones?  There might even be a master who, settling accounts, could calmly write off ten thousand talents [12] but then jib at one hundred denarii [13].  Slights are well named, yet their impact is great. Resentment can seem to thwart the wise counsel of Christ. Bitterness does not listen to reason. Remember the last things and stop hating [14]. The grudge can seem immune even to divine authority. Remember the commandments, and do not bear your neighbour ill-will [15].  The sense of proportion, which may enlighten other parts of an existence, may make little impact on resentment, perhaps especially if it is occasioned by something trivial. ‘Give me time and I will pay you’.  But the other would not agree [16]. Anger can flourishes in a heart in which there is also a genuine desire for peace. A sense of injustice, so fruitful in political life, may be corrosive of our soul.  The incongruous mix of love and its opposite is dismaying.

Jesus urges his disciples to forgive many times.  As often as seven times? Jesus answered, ‘Not seven I tell you but seventy-seven times’[17].  But even once is sometimes too difficult!  The Lord has brought about forgiveness in a way which would give anyone else enough wrath to nurse until the end of time.  He has taken all the burdens upon himself.  This includes the burden of resentment.  Is there no comfort in noting that Jesus Christ has by his eternal sacrifice[18] already dealt with that matter which so embitters?  He has forgiven the one who caused the hurt. Can we?  He has forgiven us for our sins, including our grudge-bearing.  He does not treat us according to our sins nor repay us according to our faults [19]. Can we accept this magnanimity?  He, who knows everything, understands that wisdom and grace have until now only washed over our anger without purifying us.   On the cross, he said: Father, forgive them [20]. Where was his resentment?  Yet there are some wrongs so serious that even God would not forgive them were it not for the atonement offered by his Son.

The life and death of each of us has its influence on others [21].  There is the impact on us of Jesus.  This explains why Christ both died and came to life [22]. Can we imitate the Lord in his magnanimity?  Can reproduce his freedom from resentment? Other lives, and deaths, have influenced us positively. Good influences on us push us towards forgiveness and away from anger.  We admire those who do not remember slights. We are aware of our own capacity to affect others.  We know our deep desire to be a good influence. We experience revulsion at our bitterness.  It is a foul thing.  Let us permit that disgust to be, for once, decisive. Jesus forgives: let us forgive also.  It would be a relief to do so.  Anger and resentment are such heavy burdens.  Let us lay them aside. Instead of being resentful, could we be grateful?  Instead of being implacable, could we be joyful? To give up our grudge would leave a gap. Let us fill it with love. My soul give thanks to the Lord, all my being bless his holy name [23].

Homily by Fr Peter Gallagher SJ 

[1]              Matthew 18.33

[2]              Matthew 18.30

[3]              Matthew 18.31

[4]              Matthew 6.12, The Lord’s Prayer

[5]              Ecclesiasticus 27.30

[6]              Matthew 18.31

[7]              Ecclesiasticus 27.30 and 28.5

[8]              Robert Burns ‘Tam O’Shanter’ 1791, line 12

[9]              Matthew 18.28

[10]            Matthew 18.34

[11]            Ecclesiasticus 28.3-4

[12]            Matthew 18.24

[13]            Matthew 18.28

[14]            Ecclesiasticus 18.6

[15]            Ecclesiasticus 28.7

[16]            Matthew 18.29-30

[17]            Matthew 18.21-22

[18]            Roman Missal, Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Prayer after Communion: May the

working of this heavenly gift…take possession of our minds and bodies, so that its effects, and

not our own desires may always prevail in us

[19]            Psalm (103) 102.10

[20]            Luke 23.34

[21]            Romans 14.7

[22]            Romans 14.9

[23]            Psalm (103) 102.1