One of the main features of today’s media technology is the issue of data. The amount of data available to us determines how much and how long we can work or play on the internet. Currently, many of the service providers do offer unlimited data plans but, as experience shows, those “unlimited” plans are not always unlimited. In many cases, your download speed gets throttled down when you cross a certain point. Today, however, Jesus gives us the unlimited plan par excellence. Unlike our telecommunications companies, Jesus’ unlimited offer is real and without a shadow of doubt, and that is the lesson of today’s Gospel – that we must learn to forgive without limits no matter the offences committed against us.
This teaching on unlimited forgiveness comes just after Jesus had given a lesson to his companions on being good shepherds. Therefore, it is plausible that the disciples, reflecting on that, wondered among themselves how many times a good shepherd should go after the same sheep, if it keeps wandering away. In those days, the rabbis taught that forgiveness was limited to three times only – a fourth transgression was not to be forgiven. But by asking the Lord how many times he could forgive his brother, it is possible that Peter was aiming to increase the limit to seven times, while some of the other disciples were insisting on the Rabbinic tradition. To gain some clarity, Peter approaches the Lord Jesus – God’s final Word spoken to man – who makes it clear that we are to forgive others, “not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:22).
In Jesus Christ, we have the forgiveness of a debt we could never pay – the debt of sin. Sin is a terrible offence against God. It is a direct and violent rebellion against his humanity and for creation. The debt of 10,000 talents mentioned in today’s parable is an image of the enormity of the offence that sin causes in God’s eyes. But God is always willing to forgive, and there is no limit to his mercy. But we can cut ourselves off from that ever-flowing mercy, and that’s the point that Jesus is making today. When we refuse to forgive others, we restrain God’s mercy and put ourselves under strict justice. This is the way God has found to unfold his mercy without compromising his justice; he leaves each person free to choose between the two. If we insist on strict justice when we are offended, we invoke God’s strict justice upon ourselves – we cut ourselves off from the fountain of divine mercy. But if we offer an unlimited bundle of mercy to others, we draw God’s unlimited data of forgiveness upon ourselves.
The secret to forming a heart of unlimited mercy lies in recognizing the immense evil of our own sin, and thereby perceiving the vastness of God’s goodness in forgiving it. Until we see the ugliness of our own ingratitude and selfishness, we will never grasp how generous is God’s forgiveness. But when we do, our shrunken hearts expand, and our joyful patience knows no bounds. Perhaps we’re not giving our spouse a chance to prove he or she has changed because we won’t accept an apology. Maybe we’ve judged our priest a bit too harshly because of one comment that did not go particularly well. How many opportunities have we missed to make a new friend because we didn’t like the way someone dressed? How many times have we failed to help somebody because we are still dwelling on an injury we suffered many years ago. How many times have we snubbed or avoided someone based on some pre-conceived notions or stereotypes? These are some of the factors that shackle us like chains and that disrupt the unlimited data of divine grace in our lives. When we close ourselves off to people or dismiss them based on our preconceptions, mistaken judgments, and prejudices, not only do we make them suffer, we suffer as well.
In aftermath of the French Revolution, there was an old wounded soldier with a limp who went begging for alms from village to village, which he hated to do. Getting to a certain village one evening, he made his way to the steps of the Church. He would gladly accept donations from the people, but he still despised them for believing in a God who could have permitted the terrible crimes he had witnessed. The next morning the priest found the beggar huddled on the steps in a worn blanket and, after Mass, invited him to come to his house for breakfast. The old soldier felt repulsed, as he always did when taking charity, but hunger and the kindness on the priest’s face made him accept. He stayed at the parish house for several days, and the priest’s kindness never diminished.
The old soldier had never been loved so much, so selflessly. And he had never felt so miserable. Finally, he asked for confession, and one of his sins stood out from all the rest. This beggar had been the most trusted servant of an aristocratic family. The head of that family had unsuccessfully rebelled against the revolution. His wife and six children entrusted their lives and fortunes to the servant. But for a pouch of gold coins he betrayed his master’s wife and children and watched them go one-by-one to the guillotine. Only the youngest child somehow escaped, and no one had seen him since. With tears of shame, the stranger finished his confession. The priest gave him absolution, pulled him up and embraced him.
As the old soldier’s eyes lifted, he saw a portrait on the wall behind – the portrait of the family he had betrayed to their deaths. Shocked, he pulled back from the priest. “Who are you”, he asked. “Where did you get that painting?” The priest smiled. “I am the youngest son of that family, my friend. And I forgive you.” Brother and sisters, our greatest treasure as Catholics is the revelation of Christ, the perfect expression of God’s boundless mercy, the only force strong enough to penetrate and pull apart the walls of pain, anger, fear, and resentment that we have built around our hearts. In any case, God’s mercy is infinitely greater than that of the young priest, because it is a covenant sealed in the blood of his only Son, and there can be no greater love and mercy than that. May the Father of mercies help us today to realize that the best gifts in life come not from the pocket, not from cheque, not from the credit card, but from the heart!