Note: Fr. Ed’s homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time is now available online! Click here to listen.
“The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.”
Peter asks the Lord Jesus a now-famous question: “If my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive?” Various translations list His response as “seventy-seven times” or “seven times seventy times,” etc. Peter is looking for some specific guidance on this question. It’s not clear that he was looking for the max number so that when it was exceeded, he could drop the hammer. One of my seminarian friends used to wear this moderately amusing button that said, “The 491st Time: Kapow!”
The Lord Jesus deliberately uses a number that essentially conveys the idea that there is no limit to the forgiveness we are called to give. Every time forgiveness is sought, forgiveness must be granted. The hard part is that if forgiveness is refused, then forgiveness to us will be refused as well. The parable that the Lord Jesus tells in this Gospel makes this clear, as does the line in the Lord’s Prayer that our trespasses against others are forgiven even as we forgive those of others.
Forgiving others and ourselves
We all desire forgiveness and we all know how difficult it can be to forgive others, and we all know how essential it is to forgive others. But sometimes the hardest person to forgive is, in fact, ourselves. How often do we forgive others for faults and failings that we have no patience to forgive ourselves for? Yet, doesn’t this requirement of forgiveness apply in a particular way to forgiving ourselves as well? That this is the case is certainly implied in the Lord Jesus’ command to us that we love our neighbors as ourselves. If we truly love ourselves, we must choose to forgive ourselves as well. In fact, there is a strong parallel between loving our neighbor as ourselves and forgiving our neighbor as ourselves. That parallel consists in the fact that if it is hard for us to love ourselves, it is also often hard for us to love others; if it is hard for us to forgive ourselves, it is also hard for us to forgive others.
If we have no mercy for ourselves, can we have some for others? The answer is, of course, yes. This is in part because the giving of mercy is a graced act in which our natural capacity is always enhanced by the grace of the King of Kings so that we can act as He does. But there is a real limiting factor that is present in our ability to forgive and show mercy to others if we refuse to show ourselves mercy and forgiveness.
Those who deal a lot with people in difficult situations have often noted that the person who is most merciless and unforgiving with others is simply mirroring the way that they treat themselves. Often the difficulty stems from family of origin settings in which mercy and forgiveness were seldom exercised realities—having not experienced it growing up makes it more difficult to acquire as adults. Since we tend to replicate our families of origin in our own families, it is particularly crucial that if we experienced a lot of situations in our families of origin that tended to be merciless or unforgiving, we get some help with that. Otherwise, we run the risk of simply doing to our kids what might have been done to us.
The good news is that the Lord Jesus is not only our Savior, but also our healer and that there are a lot of ways in which we can experience healing and freedom regardless of how dysfunctional our backgrounds might have been. The Lord Jesus is always greater than our past or our personal history and makes available many ways that we can achieve the healthy ability to love ourselves and be the forgiving and merciful people He calls us to be. Part of our battle is to determine whether we have trouble loving and forgiving ourselves. If so, let’s pursue help for that, e.g. counseling, Unbound, etc., so that we can experience the freedom and healing that the King of Kings has for each of us. — Fr. Ed