September 20, 2023 at 2:25 p.m.
Trusting God to be God
Jesus takes the punishment that we deserved so that we can have the reward that he deserved.
Perhaps no theme recurs more often in the teaching and preaching, works and signs of Jesus Christ than of the boundless mercy of God. That God wills all of us to be saved and offers us every conceivable opportunity to take advantage of that mercy is as piercingly clear as the last words of Jesus on the cross, pleading for his tormentors even as they mock him, casting lots for his clothing: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).
A moment before breathing his last, he forgives a repentant criminal, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:34). Then his last words: “Father into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). That final display of the very heart of his mission — to forgive sins, entrusting his all into the hands of the Father — are the very sum and substance of our deliverance from the despair of unrequited injustices to the confidence that God will make all things new. Every moment of the life of Jesus is a repudiation of death and a hint of the resurrection, empowered by entrustment into the merciful heart of God.
The moral of last Sunday’s parable about God’s mercy abused – that of the unforgiving servant – must undoubtedly be one of the most difficult of the forgiveness narratives to hear, especially for those who, like Jesus, have themselves suffered from violent abuse (Mt 18:21-35). Responding to Peter’s question as to how many times he must forgive the brother who sins against him — no doubt appalled by the constant tutorials of Jesus insisting his disciples follow his example of divine mercy incarnate — Jesus responds with the Semitic metaphor for “umteem” (= “seventy-seven”) times. That is, always. Isn’t this taking matters beyond human capacity? To expect his disciples to “forgive and forget” all injury inflicted upon them, even that gross injustice? The short answer is yes.
Before going further, we need to pause here and realize that forgiving does not mean forgetting. Even God cannot forget injustice, as is well evidenced in the accounts of the resurrected Jesus still bearing the signs of his crucifixion on his hands, feet and side (cf. Jn 20:19-29). The first reading accompanying last Sunday’s Gospel reminds us “the vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail” (Sir 28:1). In fact, strictly speaking, ONLY God can forgive sins, the very tenet of Jewish theology in accord with which Jesus is accused of blasphemy by those condemning him — for “pretending” to be God (cf. Mt 9:1-8, Mk 2:7, Lk 5:21 and many other references). And why is this so? Because beyond being crimes and offenses against human beings, sins are an offense against God. Only the offended can forgive the offense.
In another sense, however, exonerating the offender from the retribution to which the offended may be entitled is an action that can only be described in heroic terms, exemplifying divinity itself. One may view such actions as misguided in that they could be taken as tolerance of injustice. I recently had occasion to review and be moved again by the remarkable story of the late holocaust survivor, Eva Kor, who stunningly forgave the Nazis who brutally subjected her and her sister to the most painful experiments, simply because they were twins. The rest of her family died in Auschwitz. When she publicly embraced an agent of the doctor who tortured her, the reaction of many was that of disbelief and horror. Eva explained, “I no longer carry any anger or hatred towards anybody. That is not because they deserve it, but I deserve to live free of it.” For Eva, being free of the rancor is reason enough to take that bold and risky step. And she adds, “but once I don’t have animosity and anger towards them, you’re opening yourself up to a lot of other human emotions.” She may not have been talking only about her own emotions, but those of others as well. Fear and trepidation are common responses to the miraculous works of God, wherever life rises out of the ashes of death — the Resurrection being the prime example (cf. John 20:19-31).
Many survivors of all forms of abuse, realizing better than any others that the cost of their suffering cannot be monetized, seek other, more enduring ways of finding freedom and some measure of healing, perhaps so that they are not defined exclusively by their past, or the trauma they have endured. It may be consoling to know that the abuse that Jesus bore, though like so many survivors of injustice completely innocent, was done freely and with hope for the repentance and conversion of those who abused him. Of course, this is a level of divine mercy that, while all of us hope for and even come to expect it, is beyond human capacity without the presence of grace. It should also be noted that, as the parable in last Sunday’s Gospel unfolds, the servant who abused the mercy of his master by refusing conversion is described as being handed over to the torturers “until he should pay back the whole debt” and, Jesus adds, “So will my Heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart” (Mt 18:34-35). So much for facile platitudes like “grin and bear it,” “get over it” and “forgive and forget.” God is not a god of fury and vengeance, but neither does God tolerate injustice.
Another way to view the insistence of Jesus on patience and mercy toward the sinner is to accept this as an invitation to grow, day by day, closer to God by reflecting God’s light in our own souls. It may not be something that we can do on our own or even will, let alone feel in our heart of hearts. But we can pray for the grace of letting the mercy that flows from the heart of God to invade our own inmost being. God has the power to transform and raise us up, even from sin and its wages, death itself.
It is most ironic that in the first chapters of Genesis, Satan tricks Adam and Eve into believing that they will be “like God” if they basically become tyrants, subjecting God to their own desires and presuming to know better than God what is good for them. Of course, just the opposite happens. Adam and Eve lose their beatitude, becoming slaves to their own selfish desires and alienated from one another and creation itself. In order to re-establish the order that was disrupted by their self-deception, induced by the Master of Deceit, God promises a redeemer (Gen 3:15).
Those who believe this promise and see it fulfilled in Jesus Christ have the evidence the world has been waiting for that there is a God who saves us from ourselves and that we can trust God to be God. When we fail ourselves and one another, we need not yield to discouragement and despair, knowing that God offers us the gift of forgiveness. Mercy, however, comes at a price. By a similarly ironic twist of fate — or should we say faith — it is God who pays the price of our transgressions, not Adam and Eve.
To put it in language with a somewhat poetic cast, Jesus takes the punishment that we deserved so that we can have the reward that he deserved. To say it another way, rather than taking out his anger upon us, as might be the reaction of the fallen human race faced with injustice against it, God “takes out” his mercy on us, offering kindness and redemption instead of condemnation for those who will accept it. What is expected on our part, as the parable teaches, is that we do the same for one another and treat others as God treats them, rather than abuse them with the lies that Satan proffered on Adam and Eve.
Our guarantee that the risk of forgiving “pays off” or is “worth it,” as one might say in worldly terms, is that it has God’s own “seal of approval,” in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we need further proof, then we might take a page from the life of Eva Kor, and just choose freedom by living a life of forgiving. What does God, after all, do all day long? In perfectly human terms, and something we can all experience, God bestows on us his mercy. God blesses. Like the prodigal sower, the seeds of grace are strewn wildly over this earth terrain (Mt 13:1-23, Mk 4:1-20, Lk 8:4-15). Much of it is wasted on the thorns of bitterness and the rocks of indifference. But a heart tender enough to be wounded, like well-plowed soil, is also a heart ready to receive the caresses of a Divine Lover whose gentle breath will only give life — in fact, a life so good and pure that it is guaranteed to shine forever.