Generosity necessary for forgiveness

Perhaps the most difficult moral exhortation in the New Testament is to forgive those who have offended us or to accept forgiveness from those whom we have offended. The first reading from Sirach and the Gospel parable bring attention to the centrality of forgiveness. Sirach says, “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice.” In the Gospel, Jesus says that we should forgive our brother or sister from our heart.

Why is forgiveness so difficult? In many instances, strong emotions reside in any supposed or real hurt. One experiences an injustice and a sense of unfairness. The irony of the situation rests in the fact that the person who has perpetrated the injustice is often a dear friend or family member.

Readers of the parable see two instances where a debt is owed. In the first case the servant brought before the king owed a huge amount of money. In the second circumstance, the servant wanted to collect a paltry sum from a fellow servant. Looking simply at the amounts owed, one sum is gargantuan and the other is miniscule.

When we hear this story, we have a reaction equal to the other servants concerning the injustice of the situation. The king acted generously while the fellow servant exacted what was his due. A sense of right and wrong cries out against the strictness of the unjust servant. The issue is not so much about the incomparability of the money owed as it is the lack of generosity on the part of the servant. He was forgiven so much, why did he forgive so little?

It is now time to look at the second half of forgiveness. How did the unjust servant accept the generosity of the king? If the servant had really understood this generosity he would have been willing to forgive the debt of his fellow servant. Jesus presents the two cases as if they were parallel. That is, the issue is not really about money but our willingness to forgive in the same manner in which we have been forgiven. What is our attitude when we have accepted forgiveness from another? Are we willing to do likewise when we need to forgive? One thing that is evident in the parable is that genuine forgiveness entails generosity on the part of the forgiver and the forgiven.

Sirach exhorts his readers to “remember the Most High’s covenant and overlook faults.” Jesus tells Peter that he should forgive not seven times but 77 times. Or, in other words, without end. Two things are evident in these readings. First, both readings encourage us to act as God acts with respect to forgiveness. Second, true forgiveness is basically an act of bestowing and receiving generosity from another. Lack of forgiveness is one manifestation of self-absorbed non-Christian living and the reading from Romans reminds us that we should not live for ourselves.

Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.