None of us makes it through life without having to offer or receive forgiveness. Most of us cannot make it through a single day without having to say, at least once, “I’m sorry.” That is why the readings for today are so important. Together they show us exactly how Christians should think about forgiveness.
In the first reading from the prophet Daniel, Azariah prays on behalf of all of Israel that God will be merciful to them and forgive them of their sins. His prayer is full of hope because Azariah knows that even though God may be angry and disappointed and sometimes exasperated with them, God will never forsake them or give up on them. God will always forgive them because there is nothing they can do that would make God stop loving them.
If this passage from the prophet Daniel assures us of God’s abounding mercy and forgiveness, today’s gospel asserts that it is precisely because God forgives us that we should always forgive one another. The story begins with what is probably the most famous question that Jesus was ever asked. Peter wonders if it is permissible to stop forgiving? Can we put a limit on forgiveness? Can we refuse to be merciful? Jesus answers Peter with a parable. It’s the story of the unforgiving servant, the man who had been rescued by mercy but then brazenly refused to show his fellow servant the same mercy that had been shown to him by his master, the king. The parable ends with the unforgiving servant tortured and thrown into prison, and Jesus declaring that God will treat us “in exactly the same way” if we withhold forgiveness from anyone.
None of us finds it easy to forgive, but nothing is more self-destructive and hopeless than choosing to hold onto grudges, bitterness, anger, or resentment rather than to forgive. That is why Jesus doesn’t suggest that we forgive or hope that we forgive; Jesus commands it. Like Peter, we should never close the door on forgiveness not only because God didn’t do that with us, but also because to close the door on forgiveness is to close the door on life.
Paul J. Wadell is Professor Emeritus of Theology & Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and a member of the Passionist Family.