To be a Christian is to live a forgiven and forgiving life. It is to extend to others the liberating mercy that God always extends to us.
That’s the message of today’s gospel, a passage that begins with what may well be the most famous question posed in the scriptures. Peter asks Jesus if it is ever permissible to stop forgiving. Can we put a limit on forgiveness? Can we cease being merciful? As he often does, Jesus responds with a parable. It’s the story of the unforgiving servant, the man who had been saved by mercy but who brazenly refused to show his fellow servant the same mercy that had been shown to him. Each servant’s future absolutely depends on the gift of forgiveness because neither can pay back his debt. Each servant falls to his knees and begs for mercy. But the one who had received it, instead of forgiving his fellow servant’s debt and imitating the mercy that he had received, throws him into prison. The parable ends with the unforgiving servant—having been stripped of the mercy he had been given—imprisoned as well. Jesus concludes with the ominous warning that the same fate awaits us if we withhold forgiveness to anyone.
Pope Francis declared 2016 “A Year of Mercy” to remind us that mercy should be a defining characteristic of every Christian, of every truly religious person, and indeed of every human being. Each of us has a mission of mercy. Each of us is to be a living sacrament of God’s merciful love in the world. It is the fundamental calling of our lives. And that is because God has been endlessly merciful to us. God’s mercy is the gift that makes all of us equal and all of us one. God’s mercy is the foundation of our lives. This is why to withhold mercy—to refuse to offer it whenever we can—is not only unjust to another, but also a blasphemous insult to God.
Paul J. Wadell is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and a member of the extended Passionist family.