There are only a handful of people who can perfect the virtue of forgiveness. The ones I know about, they go by the first name of Saint. It’s rare the person you will find who will fulfill the perfection that Jesus is seeking in this parable. But this doesn’t mean we don’t put in the effort.
Forgiveness is a virtue that confounds many Christians. We understand why it’s a virtue that Christ commands. We also understand it’s level of difficulty. How do I go about it? Should I meet with them, talk with them, or is it best to avoid them? How can I forgive anyone who has hurt me so strongly? And if by chance I do forgive them from the heart, do things have to be the same way before all the ugliness happened? Do I have to pretend like I want to be their friend, when it’s best for my safety and peace of mind not to be in their presence?
The thing about being successful with the virtue of forgiveness is that there’s not one set blueprint, no one format or process for bringing about forgiveness in a broken situation. We’re all different people, with different ideas, moved by the things of life and love in countless ways. The method of forgiveness for one person, say, addressing a hard issue face to face, may not be possible for another person. Whereas such an approach may be safe for one individual, the same approach may present danger for another.
The one constant with the virtue of forgiveness is what Jesus speaks at the very end of this parable that contains all ranges of emotions: “Unless each of you forgives your brother/sister from your heart.” My visual of these words of our Lord is one of taking place from a distance. The setting of forgiving from one’s heart may be one of being in prayer, in the morning or the evening, reflecting in the quiet of your own home in a spiritual safe space where the noise and craziness of the world are out of your reach, beyond your hearing, where cable and nightly news are shut off, reflecting in the presence of the Spirit on what it takes to be rid of the anger, frustration, or fear that accompanies us, and ask God to remove the hurt so that you may experience some of his peace.
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s some angry people in our world. Sometimes we have the luck of the Irish and they happen to find us. I talk about people who imitate the first servant in the Gospel story who weasels out of not paying back what he owes the king. His pleading was fake. His tears, if there were any, were crocodile. He would have won an Oscar for the acting job he put on in the presence of the king, pretending like he was really worried about the punishment meted out for not paying back what he owed. He was a phony seeker of mercy, a trap we need to avoid in our own lives. The proof, of course, is in how he treated his fellow servant when he, the first servant, was in the position of playing the role of the king.
Much of the virtue of forgiveness is either successful or not successful by how we approach difficult situations when we are in the position of being the king or the queen. When we have power and influence over another person. Do have them thrown into prison until the whole debt is paid, to use the words of Jesus? Meaning, no mercy shown at all. Or, do we have the heart to forgive the entire debt?
Which brings us to the issue of face to face, or from the heart, or both. As I said, there’s no one format where one size fits all with regard to practicing the virtue of forgiveness. There’s big hurt and there’s little hurt. If you call me lazy, I’m gonna be a little hurt, but I’ll get over it soon. But if you speak lies about me intentionally, and try to destroy my reputation, that’s a much bigger hurt that you don’t get over soon. One size does not fit all with forgiveness and moving on. What matters to our Lord is that we put in the effort, have a disposition, to forgive from the heart. And this can be done face to face, or in your morning prayer in the silence of dawn in the chair with your name on it in the comfortable setting of your home.
Truthfully, there are not enough kings and queens in our world, or even in the Church. I’ve read of Bishops and Cardinals getting even with people. Breaking the Curse of the Bambino was a piece of cake when compared to practicing the virtue of forgiveness. Many of the Saints in the Communion did not perfect this fundamental Christian virtue. They were very good at it, but not perfect. They perfected some other virtue, such as humility of caring for the sick, which is why they are Saints. But struggled with perfect forgiveness. Yet, that’s what Jesus commands in this Gospel.
Our Lord calls us to the ultimate form of Christian perfection because he knows that with God’s grace, nothing is impossible. We can be successful with forgiving from the heart. But it takes the will to so desire that possibility.
It doesn’t mean everything has to be the same as it was before. Actions have consequences. You live, you learn, you make changes that need to be made, you move on. We are never to be the first servant, the one who won the Oscar for his false performance of mercy who then shows none in return. We do our best to forgive from the heart, which makes more room for God’s Kingdom here on Earth.
In a number of the Gospels the Church gives to us on any given Sunday, there’s a mixture of both the difficult and the comforting to be found within each story of the Good News. Such can be seen with the Gospel setting where our Lord and Savior teaches his Disciples, thus teaching us, the importance of being proactive against the vice of sin in order to bring about a situation of peace.
It’s necessary to remember that our faith is grounded in the search for peace, for peaceful solutions to life’s problems, as well as the problems of society, be they political, cultural, or otherwise. The Christian is never to settle for anger, or frustration, for hating individuals and groups who attempt to draw us away from the love found in Christ, and toward worldly solutions that solve nothing peacefully, because the presence of God is intentionally absent from any attempts at peace.
Abraham Lincoln came to understand this over the course of four years of an American Civil War. When someone mentioned to him that God seems to be at the heart of much of his thinking, his humble response was that God is always in the right, and we’re not. His awareness of God’s presence and guidance being necessary to bring about peace to national disaster was always before him as President. There is much wisdom in that approach.
“If your brother/sister sins against you, makes Civil War against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” Don’t hold a grudge is what the Lord is saying. Be the mature one and address the situation like an adult, and not like a child in adult clothing. This is the start of the difficult part of this Gospel, as well as Christian teaching. It’s not my job to tell fluffy stories. That’s not what I get paid for. Jesus didn’t get paid for that either. He got paid by his Father for telling difficult stories, and teaching difficult teachings, first of all because he believes in us.
He knows we have the capacity within us to proceed with the search for peaceful answers to difficult problems. And someone sinning against us personally, or offending us personally, or as a community or nation, is difficult.
And second, his difficult teachings are solutions meant to lead to peace. He desires peace for us in our lives. “Peace I leave you; my peace I give you.” At least as much as we can attain in a broken world. For we always carry within us the words of St. Augustine, that our hearts are restless until we rest in God. And he was talking about after death, not in this world.
From the initial difficult teaching of Christ to talk one on one, the Gospel story then gets even more difficult. When your brother/sister doesn’t listen, meaning they’re probably Irish, get 2 or 3 witnesses to assist you in your quest to unsin the sin. 2 or 3 people with good reputation, and not 2 or 3 people you don’t know who hang out at Panera Bread. How many of us have actually tried to proceed with this process of getting 2 or 3 people of good reputation to help solve a personal problem? Maybe a few of us. That’s how difficult it is.
And then the process moves on in the Gospel if they still don’t listen. If 2 or 3 people of good reputation doesn’t persuade your brother/sister, tell the Church. Don’t tell the clerk at Honey Farms. They don’t solve anything. Tell the Church. Who’s the Church? The priest, the deacon, and all you who are baptized are the Church. Why tell the Church? Because we’re meant to be a band of brothers and sisters who are honest with each other, deal with each other respectfully, not favoring one over the other…the wisdom of Solomon. To be a fair judge when asked to be.
I’m sure some of us have gone to the Church – to the priest, deacon, or any of the baptized – for advice and answers to difficult relationships or personal problems. And if you have, then God bless you for doing so. God bless you for caring so much about some difficulty, where you trusted your brothers and sisters in the Lord to be kind and patient enough to listen and offer meaningful advice. Mature advice meant to help and not make worse the difficult portion of this Gospel teaching of Christ.
Then, if they don’t listen after these far-reaching efforts at bringing about peace, you treat them like a Gentile or tax collector. In the 21st century, this means you pray each day for their conversion of heart. A sustained prayer of conversion to be rid of any hardness of heart.
Why all this effort and hard work that Jesus commands his disciples to go through when things are not kosher? A couple reasons.
First, what we heard today from St. Paul, “Love is the fulfillment of the law.” Of the law of Christ. Love is the end goal. If we’re not working towards love in difficult relationships, then we’re working toward Purgatory or Hell, and not towards Heaven. Above all, love is the virtue that defines the Christian. Healthy love, that Paul writes about. Not sinful ways and practices that we define as love in order to satisfy our selfish ambitions. Healthy love is not grounded in emotion. Healthy love is grounded in the Natural Law and the use of our reason.
And second, all this effort to be put forth in difficult relationships, when approached for good reasons, invites a Special Guest into our thinking and process of peace. That Special Guest is Jesus Christ. May we never try to solve any difficulty while leaving the Lord’s presence aside. He yearns to be in our hearts when difficult moments and difficult situations arise. He’s not the reason for them; he’s the solution to them. He’s the way to peace, understanding, and forgiveness. He’s always the good mixture of any difficult Gospel Who is not to be left out.