Today’s gospel reading poses the following question: Should there be a limit to forgiveness?
This is a difficult passage, because it demands a lot from us. And so, it will be good to consider the context that gave rise to it.
The chapter begins with the disciples trying to find out who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. To answer that question Jesus puts a child among them, and says, "unless you become as little children, you will in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven".
Jesus continues by saying that it would be better for us to drown in the depths of the sea than to put a stumbling block in the path of one of these little ones. By saying this he shows his concern for vulnerable people, and calls us to share his concern.
Jesus continues with the Parable of the Lost Sheep. The Good Shepherd is not content to have ninety-nine safe sheep, but risks everything to save one lost sheep. In the eyes of the Good Shepherd, every sheep is important. Jesus calls us to embody this same sense of urgency for the sheep that is outside the fold.
Jesus then offers detailed guidance regarding the handling of conflict in the community. The objective is reconciliation, and our obligation is to pursue reconciliation even at great cost of time and energy.
The penalty is severe for those who refuse to respond to the reconciliation process, but the process is designed, not to punish, but to open the eyes of the offender to the seriousness of the offence--and to bring him/her back into the fold.
We can see that the common element in these portions of this chapter is that they call us to throw away the calculator when dealing with relationships.
It tells us that no care is too great when dealing with vulnerable ones. Not only must we avoid causing them to stumble, but we must also emulate their humility.
It tells us that no risk is too great when seeking one sheep that is lost. We must expend every effort to find the lost one and to restore it to the flock.
It tells us that no effort is too great when trying to restore peace in the church.
We cannot "write off" a fellow Christian. Even the last step of excommunication is intended as a wake-up call rather than an irrevocable banishment.
Today’s passage simply extends the concerns of the earlier parts of the chapter by calling us to throw away the calculator when it comes to forgiveness. And the central issue here is not just justice as the world understands it, but justice tempered with mercy and compassion and with the aim of achieving reconciliation.
Nowadays, forgiveness is one virtue we find difficult--both to receive and to give. However, it is also an urgent word, because receiving and giving forgiveness is central to our faith.
First, all of us have received God's forgiveness. We can pass on only that which we have received. Having experienced forgiveness at the hands of God, we are then being called to make it possible for others to experience it.
What is Jesus suggesting today? Jesus is not suggesting that we regard offences as unimportant. Nor is he suggesting that we wink at sin. He is calling us to take sin seriously. He is equally calling us to take forgiveness seriously.
In Luke's version of this story, Jesus says, "Be careful. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in the day, and seven times returns, saying, 'I repent,' you shall forgive him".
In that version, forgiveness is conditional on repentance. In Matthew's version, Jesus does not mention repentance per se. However, verses 15-20 clearly require repentance and changed behaviour, and the parable that Jesus uses to illustrate forgiveness is a story of two debtors whose plea for mercy constitutes a sort of repentance.
All said and done, we can see that the Church’s teaching on firm purpose of amendment is biblical. And it is a condition for genuine sorrow and forgiveness.
Let us, therefore, ask God in this Mass to give us a repentant and forgiving heart.