Gospel reflection for Sept. 17, 2023, 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The call to fraternal correction leading, ideally, to conversion and forgiveness that we heard in the Gospel last week seems to have left Peter wondering. Perhaps Peter speaks for each one of us when he asks Jesus just how many times he must forgive his brother before he can just write him off. Surely there must be a limit to forgiving those constant offenses from the people in our lives. Jesus is clear and direct. The seven times that Peter proposed is not even close to the 77 times that Jesus responds. Forgiveness of one another is at the heart of the Gospel and sometimes the hardest command to fulfill.
Likely even prior to the ability to forgive, or seek forgiveness is the realization that forgiveness is necessary. While there are those specific moments in relationships when we realize that a great offense has been committed and the future of a relationship is on the line, most of the offenses in our lives can go unnoticed or undiscussed. Yes, many of us prefer to pretend either that we didn’t commit an offense or that we weren’t offended. In a real sense, the need to discuss forgiveness demands that we first look at other things.
Each day we pray: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The translation as “debts” as opposed to “trespasses” is closer to the original statement and offers a clearer sense of what Jesus is calling us to do.
We think about our indebtedness in the world. Many of us have mortgages, car loans, student loans, contracts and credit card obligations. It can be overwhelming at times. We are engaged in a national debate as to the forgiveness of some levels of student debt.
Clearly, this is a very tense conversation and the various opinions on the issue are intense. We can argue that forgiving debt only encourages people to take on more debt. We can argue that forgiveness of debt is a slap to those who worked hard to pay off their debts leaving them to wonder why they did, this can lead to resentment. We can argue that forgiveness of debt enables the indebted to be free from an unnecessary burden so that they can be more productive members of society contributing more to the overall economy and building up their assets. There are other opinions; all of them are clear, and all of them have their rebuttals.
While we can look at debts as a clear quantifiable reality, forgiveness is not so easily measured. For in this way there is yet another factor to consider, and that is the ability to erase the remembrance of the debt at all.
Our debts to each other must be more than forgiven, they must be erased, and there is a distinct difference between the two.
A forgiven debt can still hang over someone. In financial terms it can lower someone’s credit score for an extended period of time. The burden of the debt is still carried even when the obligation to pay is gone. We can be that way with forgiveness. Being reminded that you’ve been forgiven, or reminding someone else that you have forgiven them is much like not being forgiven at all. The debt is paid, but the promissory note still hangs around as a reminder that it was there in the first place.
Christian forgiveness is an erasure of debt -- there is no paperwork, there is no reduced “credit score,” there is nothing to be said. It never happened.
This is how we hope that God in his mercy forgives us. This is how our merciful God asks us to forgive one another. Forgiveness is boundless, unconditional, and borne of genuine love. In human terms it is difficult. We need to be cautious with some people because in their own sinfulness and weakness they are incapable of conversion or accepting forgiveness at all. Yet we forgive, even if this means that our relationship is changed as a result.
Our ability to forgive or to be forgiven is a reflection of our ability to be humble, and to seek the forgiveness of God as well as the other.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.