They owed their boss millions of pounds: re-paying the debt was proving impossible, but their boss was growing impatient. Summoned before him and threatened with the courts, they fell to their knees and begged for mercy; they would re-pay all, but give them more time. The boss wasn’t a cruel man, so he agreed; but he wanted re-payments started within the next three months, and they needed to be regularly paid. This was their last chance. They left, relieved, but still bothered; even getting regular repayments together was proving difficult. Then they saw a friend who owed them a couple of hundred quid; grabbing her, they demanded the debt be repaid in full. Their friend, too, begged for mercy; she would re-pay, she would have the money together in six months, she promised, if her friend would wait. But they wouldn’t; they needed that money now, so they dragged their friend before the courts to demand full repayment.
That kind of response, while unfortunate, might be understandable; there was not time to wait six months, if the other debt needed to start repayments in only 3 months. But that was not what Jesus’ parable said. Read it in Matthew 18: 21 – 35. The servant’s debt was cancelled in full; he had no need to repay it; therefore, the much lesser debt of the fellow servant should also have been cancelled. We could speculate on what was going on in the first servant’s mind: had he not yet realised, fully, he had been released from his debt, and was still in the mindset of ‘I need that money to repay my own debt’, although in fact he didn’t need it? Was he feeling antagonistic towards his fellow servant? Or maybe he had been so stressed about the interview with his master that the outcome was irrelevant – he needed an outlet for that stress, and his fellow servant provided it? In a way, whatever the excuse was, it is irrelevant; the servant had just had a huge debt cancelled, that must have affected how he lived, that set him free, and kept him and his family from prison; therefore, his attitude to his fellow servant should have been the same: to release him from the debt. That the other servants saw this is shown in their reaction and distress at what had happened.
The wider passage shows that the story is about us, and how we forgive; or, more, about how we don’t forgive; about how we hold debts over our fellow human beings that are minor compared to how much God has forgiven us – or how much God is willing to forgive us, if we will but approach. It is a complicated subject: to start with, how much are we aware that we have been forgiven by God? Just as the servant in the parable may not have fully taken on board that his debt had been released when he met his fellow servant, have we fully realised how we have been set free by God’s forgiveness? That forgiveness is there for us, perpetually, every time we turn to God?
So maybe that is a place to start: by opening ourselves up to the mercy, compassion and forgiveness that God offers; it will, of course, involve forgiving ourselves for the mistakes we make, and for the sins we commit. But the parable makes it clear that this is just the first step: next, we are to forgive from our heart. This is far easier said than done, and will prove impossible if we are caught up in our lack of ability to forgive our neighbour, in condemning ourselves or getting stressed about the fact that we can’t forgive; that will merely focus us on ourselves, and away from God, away from God’s love, not only of ourselves but of our neighbour. God knows our hearts, God knows what we have suffered from our neighbour, and God knows the struggle to forgive. God understands.
I think the key phrase here is ‘from the heart’. We are not called to simply say ‘I forgive you’, while still seething internally; that is not forgiveness, and helps no-one. To forgive someone from the heart is a process, a journey, that may take only minutes, but can take years or decades. God understands that, and is not trying to force us into an act of forgiveness that we are not ready for. Forgiving takes time. If you are in the middle of the situation that needs forgiving, for instance, then to continually forgive may be impossible; it may not even be something you want to do. That may still be part of your journey. God understands that. Sometimes, we are in difficult situations that stir up strong feelings, and they just need to be managed as best they can. God understands that. The Holy Spirit is always working with us to draw us closer to God; forgiveness, both of ourselves and our neighbour, is part of that, and it will take the time it takes. God understands that.
Neither does forgiveness mean keeping ourselves open to the hurt, abuse or whatever it was that was done to us. Forgiveness does not mean that we become blind to our neighbour’s character and their ability to repeat the behaviour that needed forgiving. Nor does it mean that we can leave other people exposed to that behaviour, if we are in a position to change that (we may not be, of course). Leaving or changing a situation that is causing us pain may well be part of the journey towards forgiveness. We are not forgiven in a manner that implies we are now perfect and won’t sin again; God forgives us knowing full well who we are and our capacity for messing up. But we are not God; God knows that, knows that we may need time to work through pain and anger; knows that we need to protect ourselves against the depredations of others; knows that this can all be part of our journey. Forgiving someone can be a one-off, but it can also be something that happens over time, as we journey through it, as our forgiveness becomes deeper, as our awareness of the love of God becomes wider. It is often not something that can happen in our own strength, but in the strength of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit; it may well need the help of other people. Forgiveness is not an act that is solely between me and you: it takes a community; it takes place and affects all those we meet. It is something we, as individuals, are called to, however long that takes. It is also something that the Church is called to be: a place where forgiveness happens; that proclaims God’s mercy, and enables our forgiving; a place where we can bring our lack of ability to forgive, and not be condemned for it, but be loved and understood and helped.