Forgiveness is not a timed game but an infinite Christological challenge

Homiletics of the Fathers of The Island of Patmos


In the last decades, especially since psychology has become popular, the theme of forgiveness has gone beyond the confines of the religious and the classic places assigned to it such as the confessional, to land in setting psychoanalytic, where conflicts that generate anguish and disturbance are addressed. In that context the person burdened with unbearable burdens is invited to reevaluate forgiveness, often towards itself, especially when the other person who wronged them cannot be reached.










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In the last decades, especially since psychology has become popular, the theme of forgiveness has gone beyond the confines of the religious and the classic places assigned to it such as the confessional, to land in setting psychoanalytic, where conflicts that generate anguish and disturbance are addressed. In that context the person burdened with unbearable burdens is invited to reevaluate forgiveness, often towards itself, especially when the other person who wronged them cannot be reached.

The evangelical page this Sunday offers us the possibility of looking at forgiveness as Jesus intended it, which as often happens, through clear and clear words, presents us with a particular perspective. Here's the song:

"During that time, Peter approached Jesus and said to him: "Man, if my brother commits sins against me, how many times will I have to forgive him? Up to seven times?”. And Jesus answered him: “I don't tell you until seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Because of this, the kingdom of heaven is similar to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. He had begun to settle accounts, when someone was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. Because he was unable to repay, the master ordered him and his wife to be sold, his children and what he owned, and thus pay off the debt. Then the servant, prostrate on the ground, he pleaded with him saying: “Be patient with me and I will give you everything back”. The master had compassion on that servant, he let him go and forgave him the debt. Just released, that servant found one of his companions, who owed him one hundred denarii. He grabbed him by the neck and choked him, saying: “Give back what you owe!”. His partner, prostrate on the ground, he begged him saying: “Be patient with me and I will pay you back.”. But he didn't want to, he went and had him thrown into prison, until he paid the debt. Given what was happening, his companions were very sorry and went to tell their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the man and told him: “Evil servant, I forgave you all that debt because you prayed to me. You shouldn't have had pity on your partner too, just as I had pity on you?”. Disdained, the master handed him over to his torturers, until he had repaid all the debt. So also my heavenly Father will do with you if you do not forgive from your heart, each to his own brother" (Mt 18,21-35).

To try to understand Jesus' response to Peter we have to take a step back in time. Because time is important when it comes to forgiveness. It is necessary to trace biblical history back to the generations following Adam and Eve, in particular to a descendant of the infamous Cain named Lamech. Cain, as is known, killed his brother Abel and, fearing retaliation, received an assurance from God that whoever touched him would incur seven times the same amount of revenge. (Gen 4,15). The text of Genesis will report the words of Lamech a little later who was a more violent man than his great-great-grandfather Cain, capable of killing for nothing, of which he boasted to his wives:

«Ada and Silla, listen to my voice; wives of Lamech, give ear to my words. I killed a man for my nick and a boy for my bruise. Cain will be avenged seven times, but Lamech seventy-seven" (Gen 4,23-24).

Pietro's request which was based on the acceptable quantity, wide and we imagine exaggerated - «Sir, if my brother commits sins against me, how many times will I have to forgive him? Up to seven times?» ― received an answer from Jesus based instead on time: “I don't tell you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven", that is, always. He thus established an immeasurable measure, because as he will explain in the next parable, every disciple will find himself in the condition of that servant who will not be able to repay an unpayable debt, it was so exorbitant. In the Lucanian version - «If your brother commits a crime, scold him; but if he will repent, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day and returns to you seven times, saying: “I am sorry”, you will forgive him" (Lc 17,4b) - even if the malicious action was repeated, at least there was some repentance, but in Peter's question in Matthew it does not appear: no excuses, no regrets. And Jesus responding placed Peter in front of an unconditional situation of such one-sidedness that it can only be accepted by that disciple who will have understood the immense forgiveness received from God, through Jesus. He thus implemented the reversal of the numbered revenge of the book of Genesis in favor of a liberation from the past with its burdens that oppress the heart. The revenge sung by Lamec is in fact the constant re-presentation to the soul of the past that caused wounds, that moment that cannot be forgotten when someone committed evil against me and that brings back the emotions of anger and revenge in my soul, corroding everything inside. To a human eye, the harm that has been done may appear to be unhealable or even forgotten, always comes back. To clear the air, I'll say straight away that the topic here is not justice settling a dispute or attempting to repair a wrong by applying the law, nor the fact that we should forget the evil that has been done.. The answer that Jesus gives to Peter regarding personal sin simply goes in the opposite direction to the past and towards the future. Whether it is seventy times seven or seventy-seven in the words of Jesus, Lamech's mocking purpose is reversed, so does the soul, freed from the pernicious effects of remaining anchored to past evil, will gain new freedom. Unlimited forgiveness, even when the offender does not understand it, in fact it will be a good thing above all for the offended person who will be amazed at having been the first to be pardoned: he was relieved of a great burden and debt, he can look at the future lightly because he is finally free.

The evangelist Matthew he used the verb for Peter's question opium (aphiemia) that the Vulgate translated as “to release” ― «Dominated, how often shall my brother sin against me, and let him go? Up to seven times?» - In fact, its first meaning in Greek is to send away, let go, to set someone free and by extension to set something back, for example a fault or sins and therefore absolve. The same verb will be used by Jesus in his rebuke to the servant who had been forgiven an enormous debt, who however had lashed out against his companion without using that greatness of spirit or patience (macrothymia forbearing) (cf.. Mt 18,29)1 which had previously been used on him: «Evil servant, I forgave you all that debt because you prayed to me. You shouldn't have had pity on your partner too, just as I had pity on you?»2. Paradoxically, with Jesus there is a reversal of perspective: It is no longer I who has suffered an evil who frees the other by forgiving him unlimitedly, but I'm the one letting go of the sin, I get rid of a burden that makes me feel bad, I for one benefit from it. I forgive because I have been forgiven. We can dialogue with these assumptions with modern psychology? I really think so and without fear and I'll stop there. Actually, I'll add one more thing, a combination that might appear strange. The last author of the fourth Gospel told the story of the dead Lazarus (GV 11), of Jesus who lingered for a while and then the intense dialogue with Martha and then Mary's question again, in a growing narrative tension because Jesus wanted to get into the head, or rather he wanted it to be received with faith that He was "the resurrection and the life", because “whoever believes in me, even if it dies, will live; whoever lives and believes in me, he will not die forever"3. Whoever keeps this faith will know that the dead will not 'be left' in the tomb. It is in fact the last word that Jesus will say to the disciples present, but not to Lazarus, Sara: "Let him go" (Aphete auton upageinlet him fall, Pay him off)4; the same verb used in Matthew for sin forgiven. Joining the two stories one could say that if you don't let go of sin, the harm that was done to you, you will never be truly free. Sin is the deadly condition, forgiveness is life and resurrection in Jesus Christ.

In the parable then narrated by Jesus on the king who, wanting to settle his accounts, began as is normal with those who owed him the most, the touchstone of every Christian forgiveness and the source from which to draw in order to be capable of the requested unlimitedness is presented. Because behind the figure of the king lies that of God the Father, the only one capable of condoning so much, a huge number, hyperbolic. Ten thousand talents corresponded to one hundred million denarii, taking into account that one denarius was more or less the average daily wage of a worker: impossible to repay for a servant. Now if the first servant in the parable had understood the gift received he would have had to love more, according to the other parable that Jesus told in the Gospel of Luke (cf.. LC 7, 41-43)5, but he didn't do it because he raged against his companion, arousing sadness in the others and the disdain of the king. Fixated as he was on how much he had been given, he lost sight of his greatness of spirit (macrothymia – long-suffering dei vv. 26) that had moved such a gesture and above all visceral compassion (I'm gutted, splanchnízomai del v. 27) which corresponds in many biblical instances to the mercy of God, an almost maternal trait and the only manifestable aspect of Him as this famous passage recalls when Moses wanted to see God:

"He told him: “Show me your glory!”. Answered: “I will make all my goodness pass before you and proclaim my name, man, in front of you. To whom I wish to be gracious, I will be gracious, and to whom I wish to have mercy, I will have mercy.". He added: “But you won't be able to see my face, for no man can see me and remain alive”… “The Lord passed before him, proclaiming: "The Sir, the Sir, Merciful and merciful God, slow to anger and rich in love and faithfulness, who preserves his love for a thousand generations, who forgives the guilt, transgression and sin, but it does not leave without punishment, which punishes the guilt of the fathers in the children and in the children's children up to the third and fourth generation"" (Is 33,18-20; 34,6-7).

Here then the foundation of every action of forgiveness is revealed: having been forgiven. The Christian knows that he has been forgiven by the Lord with free and foreseeing mercy, he knows he has benefited from an unexpected grace, for this reason he cannot fail to show mercy in turn to his brothers and sisters, debtors to him much less. Eventually, in the parable, it is no longer a question of how many times forgiveness must be given, but to recognize that they have been forgiven and therefore must forgive. If one does not know how to forgive the other without calculations, without looking at the number of times he granted forgiveness, and he doesn't know how to do it with all his heart, then he does not recognize what has been done to him, the forgiveness he received. God freely forgives, his love cannot be deserved, but we simply need to welcome his gift and, in a diffusive logic, extend the gift received to others. We thus understand the final application made by Jesus. The words he speaks are parallel and identical in content, to those with which he glosses the fifth question of the Our Father: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Mt 6,12); the only one he commented on.

«For if you forgive others their sins, your Father who is in heaven will forgive you too; but if you do not forgive others, not even your Father will forgive your sins (Mt 6,14-15). «Even so my heavenly Father will do with you if you do not forgive from your heart, each to his brother" (Mt 18,35).

I would like to conclude with a small anecdote which I experienced first hand. On the occasion of the Holy Year of 2000 among the many initiatives set up in the parish community to better experience that event there was also that of establishing small Gospel groups in the strong times of Advent and Lent. The parish was not large, but the initiative was liked and around twenty small groups were created, each more or less than ten, fifteen people. Basically whoever wanted, individual or family, for some evenings he would open his house and either invite the neighbors or they would come by themselves, also based on knowledge and friendship and for a couple of hours the group reflected on a specially prepared Gospel passage with an explanatory sheet and final prayers. Then each family had fun preparing sweets or things to offer, as is normal. One evening that I still remember he touched the song nail of the Holy Year, the parable of the prodigal son or the merciful Father, as they call it now. Incidentally I add that there had been a pilgrimage to discover Christian Russia and some had been able to see in the museum ofHermitage the painting by Rembrandt depicting the aforementioned evangelical scene which appeared on all the brochures of the dioceses and parishes. So I went to one of these little groups thinking I was walking on velvet, after dinner, all calm. Much to my surprise, when the time came for the discussion on the evangelical passage some, especially men, they showed displeasure towards the attitude of the father in the parable. For them it was inconceivable that a father would readmit his younger son who had wasted everything back into his home and leave the house to bring the older one in as well.. I was stunned, almost offended. Because these were not full-blown atheists, but parish people and some even with responsibilities. I remember the face of some good pious woman, now all deceased, who sent me glances to say: answer something. But I didn't add anything, partly because he was taken by surprise and partly by intuition.

Then reflecting on what happened I thought it was right like this and that the intolerability of that particular evangelical parable should be left that way, like a food that is difficult to digest. In conclusion, to accept it, we needed to have understood that we have been reached by the grace of God which is mercy and forgiveness, a grace received at a 'dear price'. The apostle Paul, who had understood and experienced it, worked with all his strength to make it accessible to many and expressed himself thus in a famous passage from the letter to the Romans:

«But God demonstrates his love towards us in the fact that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Even more so now, justified in his blood, we will be saved from wrath through him. If indeed, when we were enemies, we have been reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, we will be saved through his life" (Rom 5, 8-10).

Maybe who knows, if this episode, like many other different ones, but more or less similar that followed, they contributed to making me discover the hermit life one day?

Happy Sunday everyone!

From the Hermitage, 16 September 2023



[1] “Be patient with me and I will pay you back.”

2 «Sly work, leave all that debt to youA wicked servant, I have forgiven you all that debt, since you asked me» (Mt 18, 32)

3 GV 11, 25-26

4 GV 11, 44

5 «A creditor had two debtors: one owed him five hundred denarii, the other fifty. Since they have nothing to repay, he forgave the debt of both of them. So which of them will love him more??». Simone replied: "I suppose he's the one he forgave the most". Jesus told him: «You judged well»



Sant'Angelo Cave in Ripe (Civitella del Tronto)



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