This Sunday’s readings challenge two pieces of popular wisdom. The first is that a person who has had a particular negative experience will automatically be sympathetic and understanding towards another person having a comparable experience. Much pastoral care and counselling support operates on this basis and it seems reasonable. We expect that those who have experienced a particular loss or anxiety will be better placed to help others undergoing that loss or feeling that anxiety.
But the servant in the gospel parable has no sympathy for the man who owes him money even though his own creditor had just released him from a much greater debt. His action is astonishing to those looking on and it remains astonishing to us, to the point where we may well be unmoved by the torture to which he is subjected at the end. We might even find ourselves rejoicing in that torture and saying ‘well good enough for him’.
And here is the wonderful trap set by this parable, because we then find ourselves behaving as he did. Who is he except a character in a story with a fictional debt, and who are we except real sinners who have been released by God from a real debt, the consequence of our sins. We might imagine the wicked servant turning his head on the rack, looking towards us with bloodshot eyes, and saying ‘so you think you are different from me? Which of you, even though you have been released by God from the debt of your sins, has not sometimes refused to forgive others, has not borne grudges and nursed hurts, has not manoeuvred to get away with things yourself while calling others strictly to account?’
The other piece of popular wisdom challenged by the readings is that human beings make progress by forgiving and forgetting. Once again it seems reasonable, the advice often offered to people who cannot leave behind some sad experience or painful betrayal: ‘try to forgive and forget, you’ve got to move on and not allow this thing to continue to poison your life’. But the readings today tell us that forgiveness is possible not by forgetting the past but by remembering it, by remembering more about the past, and by remembering our present situation, and by remembering our future destiny. If popular wisdom says ‘forgive and forget’, biblical wisdom, coming to a climax in Christ, says ‘remember and so learn forgiveness’.
The wicked servant’s colleagues are astonished that he could so quickly forget the mercy he had been shown. If you or I find it difficult to forgive somebody, then we can begin here, by remembering the times we have been forgiven. The first reading, from the Book of Sirach, begins its teaching about forgiveness from this point. It is not reasonable to expect forgiveness and mercy if you are not prepared to show them. It is absurd to continue to ask mercy of God if you are not prepared to show mercy to others. We need to remember at least that much.
But there are other things we ought to remember as we try to forgive. Remember the end of your life, Sirach says, remember destruction and death. How will it seem looking back, we can imagine him saying, if you have not been able to find a way to forgive. Perhaps he is also reminding us of the judgement, that each of us must give an account of himself to God and where will we be then, anxious to be forgiven but not understanding what forgiveness means because we have not practised it ourselves.
Remember the commandments, Sirach continues, and remember the covenant of the Most High. ‘Do this in memory of me’, Jesus says at the last supper. Remember the covenant of the Most High, the new and everlasting covenant, sealed not by a (fictional) heartless servant stretched on the rack, but by the (real) Son of God nailed to the cross. If you want to learn forgiveness remember how the human heart of the Eternal Word was pierced. Remember how that blood dissolved the walls of hostility between people and established peace. It is not a case of forgiving and forgetting. It is a case of remembering, remembering many things, and so learning what forgiveness means.
Those who believe in Jesus are to be ambassadors of forgiveness in the world, and messengers of reconciliation. But forgiveness is not easy to do and the capacity to forgive is not one that is wilfully achieved. No matter how powerful we consider our willpower to be we cannot force ourselves into forgiveness. In the end it is a gift from God as Alexander Pope intimated in his famous comment that ‘to err is human, to forgive divine’. Perhaps it is not strictly speaking something we ‘do’ but something we find ourselves capable of experiencing, a fruit of the Holy Spirit in us, a sign of the life of Christ in us, a participation in the divine nature, a way of relating to others in which we find ourselves (by God’s grace) becoming compassionate as the Heavenly Father is compassionate.