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Debt Forgiven (on One Condition)

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By Marc Massery (Sep 15, 2017)
Even though God loves unconditionally, to receive His forgiveness we must meet one condition: We must forgive others.

The readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time confirm this conditional nature of forgiveness. In the book of Sirach we read, "The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven" (Sir 28:1-2). If we harbor vengeance in our hearts and withhold forgiveness from others, then God will do the same to us on judgment day.

The Gospel reading also confirms this condition. Christ tells the parable of a servant who owes the King a large amount of money (about 3 million dollars today). But out of compassion, the King hears the servant's plea for mercy and forgives the entire debt. Still, the very next moment, this servant turns around and demands repayment from a servant who owes him a much smaller debt (about 5 dollars today). Though the second servant begs for mercy, too, the first servant demands justice, throwing the second servant in jail. When the King hears about the first servant's conduct, he becomes angry and not only demands full repayment from the him, but even "hands him over to the torturers" (Matt 18:34). The first servant received mercy hundreds of thousands of times greater than he was asked to show. Still, he would not forgive and was therefore punished. Christ concludes by saying, "So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart" (Matt 18:35).

It may seem harsh that God withholds His forgiveness if we refuse to forgive others. After all, we are merely human, and it's difficult to forgive, especially in a world filled with murderers, thieves, and rapists. Why, then, should our relationship with Him depend on our forgiveness of others?

Saint Paul answers this question in the second reading. In his letter to the Romans, he says, "None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord" (Rom 14:8). We cannot live isolated lives. Our relationship with the Father is bound up with our relationship with each other.

Our unwillingness to forgive, in fact, perpetuates broken relationships. After all, the final goal is to heal; forgiveness is just the first step. The first reading from the book of Sirach says that as long as we refuse to forgive someone, we cannot "expect healing from the LORD ..." (Sir 28:3).

God is never the offender; He is always the offended. In our free will, we offended God and continue to sin against Him. But because of His unconditional love, He sent "Christ [who] died and came to life" (Rom 14:9) to "redeem [us] from destruction" (Ps 103:4). He has the power to cast our sins "as far [away from us] as the east is from the west" (Ps 103:12). First, however, we must do more than seek forgiveness for ourselves. We must forgive others, no matter how much they have hurt us. Doing so gives God permission to not only "pardon all [our] iniquities," but even more importantly, "heal all [our] ills" (Ps 103:3). Then, we can fully experience His compassion and love.

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