“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?”
Peter’s question is one that passes through our hearts multiple times every day. We encounter coworkers, neighbours, family members even who have hurt us in some way, who have serious visible flaws, who are maybe just annoying. Rather than being a small chance for purification, this frequent encounter with them becomes to the soul like the clawing of nails on a board. We ask ourselves in a holier than thou attitude how much more we should bear.
Christ answers with the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in which He reveals to us the worth of Repentance in purifying us of sin. The servant had a debt of 10,000 dinaris and was being made accountable for it. Being unable to pay, he falls to his knees and begs for extra time to fulfill the entire debt. In this act the servant displays to us the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a beautiful Sacrament through which we, too, fall to our knees, admit our debt against God, and promise to pursue our sanctification. However, as both the Catholic penitent and the servant would have known, there is no means for us to pay back all this debt. What human act can fulfill the wound of the smallest of sins against the Image of God within us? None. Still, the Parable strengthens us by proclaiming that Nothingness IS what fulfills our debt. We, like the Servant, have only to accept, admit, and offer our nothingness and utter inability to the Merciful King, and He will not only give us time to pay the debt, but rather forgive it entirely. “A crushed and humbled heart,” a heart completely emptied of itself by recognizing the burden of its sin in honesty, is the nothingness that will erase the debt.
The Master “let him go”, as He lets us go upon receiving absolution, upon weeping before our Icons true tears of Repentance, when we humbly offer acts of love… He turns to us and says, as He said before: “Go, and sin no more!”
But we do sin again. And our debt would still be forgiven if we return once more in humble repentance. Take a moment and try to calculate how many times you have been to Confession in your life? If you are leading a healthy spiritual life, the number should be immeasurable to you! And still, Christ speaking through the priest and the Church never says: “This time, your debt is too great.”
However, as we leave the Master’s house and run into our neighbours and “fellow servants,” we remember their minor debt, their 100 dinaris compared to the 10,000 we were just forgiven. We, too, take them by the neck with all our bitterness, pride and anger (as I spoke of in the last Musing), and DEMAND they pay us back the respect, the obedience, the love, the money, the debt we think they owe us.
We who pray “forgive us our ‘debt’ as we forgive those ‘indebted’ against us” finally receive the answer to our prayer. The Master sees our wickedness and asks: “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” Indeed, in a sense the Master punishes the servant not for his own debt per se, but for his brother’s debt which he held on to. Christ contrasts this with His encounter with the sinful woman. He says: “She was forgiven much; hence she loves much.” Indeed, her love is a fruit of the forgiveness she encountered. Unlike the Unforgiving Servant, she has received the Master’s mercy and gone out to share it with the world. It is a testament that her repentance has been true. She was shown and forgiven her brokenness, and thus she humbly sees and forgives that of others. She sees her brother who owes her 100 dinaris and gently embraces him.
Is this not what the Church asks of us when we are given acts of Charity to perform as a sign of repentance and penance after Confession? Our priests and spiritual fathers assign to us acts of Charity according to the gravity of our sins, not so we can “fix” them! Our debt is too great to pay! It is the Master’s mercy that already forgave our sins through taking our debt on the Cross, and offering this mercy through Absolution. We do acts of love to heal the lack of love that first led us to sin. We pray, we fast, we give aid not because we are scrupulously paying our debts and crossing off sins. We do these things because we have encountered Love Himself in the Sacrament of Reconciliation/Confession, He has forgiven us much, and in that has taught us to love much.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, but also teach us to forgive those who trespass against us as You forgive us our trespasses.
As such, let us have mercy on sinners in the same way we ask for it, saying:
“Lord Jesus Christ Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Glory be to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and always and unto the ages of ages. Amen.