In this chapter of St Matthew's Gospel Jesus reveals to us a God who is intensely keen on forgiving us and who is overjoyed when we turn back to him for forgiveness. And so when we forgive others, we live out in our own relations with others how God already relates to us. By forgiving others we come to share in God's transcendent freedom that manifests itself in unrestrained mercy and unbounded love.
Jesus's words to Peter's question about how many times he is expected to forgive makes it clear that there is simply no limit to this, just as there is no limit to the number of times that God forgives us. And in the parable of the master and servants Jesus gives us a vivid picture of how what we are being asked to do fits into the wider context of that divine mercy. The sheer immensity of God's mercy to us should encourage us out of to show a little mercy to our fellow human beings.
As St Thomas Aquinas states in his commentary on this passage, at the heart of where the servant goes wrong is his staggering ingratitude for the mercy shown to him. And St Thomas points out how the details of the story are designed to make clear to us just how shameless this ingratitude is: the servant has only just been forgiven by the master, so it is not as if he has had time to forget; the debt of hundred denarii pales into insignificance against the ten talents forgiven him; his petty-minded hardness and cruelty against his fellow servant are the polar opposite of the immediate and kind hearted generosity and kindness shown to him. Could his unwillingness to forgive be more outrageous?
Nonetheless, the servant who refuses to forgive is just how we are, most of us, most of the time. It is just how our human history has been down the ages. In reality, we find it very hard to forgive. People struggle to forgive once, let alone forgive a second time or a third time. Sooner or later we come to the last straw, when enough is enough. We harbour grudges. We nurse old wrongs. We feel that if we forgive we will loose face and appear weak. We seek revenge. This is the all too familiar story of our fallen humanity.
So, the parable that Jesus tells is one that exposes us just as we are. Why do we keep on behaving like the ungrateful servant? Fundamentally, because we do not in fact see the wider picture in which our actions are set. This is the reason we do not feel the overwhelming gratitude we should have and which should impel us to show mercy to others as a result. So, every time we do not forgive, we are brought face to face with a deeper shortcoming in our faith in the reality of God and of God's mercy and love for us.
Sirach – and Jesus himself in the Gospel passage – make it clear to us that if we do not forgive our fellow human beings, we cannot really expect God to forgive us. As Sirach puts it: Does a man harbour anger against another and yet seek for healing from the Lord? Does he have no mercy toward a man like himself, and yet pray for his own sins?
There is a simple logic that is undeniable here. And yet, this is not a matter of God becoming like us, petty-mindedly refusing forgiveness just because we refuse to forgive each other, nursing anger against us just because we nurse anger against each other. Rather, our unwillingness to forgive each other is more deeply our refusal to accept the offer from God to receive the love and mercy he very greatly wants to give us. God is intensely keen on forgiving us and overjoyed when we do ask for it.
By not forgiving others we bind ourselves more
fully to a way of living that is opposed to that of God. It is we who hand
ourselves over the 'jailors' mentioned at the end of the parable in the Gospel.
It is not just wrong when we fail to forgive. It does not just mean that we
cannot expect God to forgive us. Rather, forgiving others is our way of sharing
in the transcendent mercy and love of God. Forgiving others is our way of
sharing in way God lives. Forgiving others is our way of realising the
salvation that God offers to us which is to share in his divine life. It may go
against the grain for us to forgive. We may struggle with it. But if we do
forgive others, it will make us as God is. It will set us free as God is free.