“Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.” – Sirach 27:30
“Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt. ” – Matthew 18:34
Forgiveness is the opposite of wrath and anger… or at least of “hugging them tight.” If we live in a time filled with anger, where people feel justified in visiting wrath upon each other, we should ask ourselves more deeply what the root problem is. The problem is often a sense of an utterly righteous cause. These other people owe a debt to me, and I am going to make them pay every penny. This may be true. But Jesus, in the Gospel for this coming Sunday, notes what is left out: these others may owe a debt to you, but to whom do you owe debts? The problem is the totality of the righteousness. It is that total righteousness we hug tight.
And so we need to give it up, over and over and over again. We need to be one who interrupts the cycle of violence, rather than feeding it. We need to be the one who says, “Maybe I am part of the problem. Maybe we are part of the problem.” Maybe we need to stop using verbal baseball bats to bludgeon our opponents (who are so “obviously” wrong). We need to forgive and move forward. Not without acknowledging debts (on all sides). But without the illusion that somehow, these debts can be paid to the last penny, extracted especially by our wrath.
Why have we forgotten all this? The readings offer two clues. One, Jesus depicts the master as “moved with compassion.” The word compassion, which also describes the father in the Prodigal Son and the Samaritan when seeing the man beaten by the roadside, sees the others’ pain. It sees their predicament. It recognizes the other’s need. And it does so in a pretty specific way: it’s when a person has become helpless. That’s true in all three examples I’ve described. Compassion is how to look at people who, in whatever way, have gotten to a place where they can’t help themselves. We will not forgive unless we know how to be “moved with compassion.”
And we will not forgive if we do not, as the first reading from Sirach tells us, “Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin!” Do not leave out the end of the Gospel story. The wrath of the master is still there. But it is directed in a different way. It is directed against those who do not know how to give up their wrath, how to give up on collecting the last penny. They are focused on the here and now… and ultimately on themselves. They do not look to the last day. Forgiveness, in the Christian story, looks to the last day. Not as the elder son in the other story does. But as the Father does. It looks toward the reunion. And it recognizes that those who demand everything for themselves, to the last penny, will be the ones who won’t come in.