The prison population in the United States is increasing at an exponential rate. According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, the number of people incarcerated in prisons and local jails increased from half a million in 1980 to more than 2.5 million in 2010. If you included the number of people on parole or probation, that number is almost 8 million. This means that last year, one in every 29 adults was under some sort of correctional supervision last year. Expenditures on corrections have increased from $10 billion in 1982 to more than $65 billion in 2010. Not coincidentally, the government’s expenditures on public education have been on a steady decline. Apparently we are quite happy to spend tax monies on prisons for adults, but not willing to provide education to young
people to keep them out of prison in the first place.
We don’t want to deal with people who break the law and we don’t want to see them or
even think about them. As I write this, there are more than 3500 inmates living on death row in this country—and have been at least that many every year since 1996. And while the number of actual executions has decreased steadily over the past few years, the U.S. has been one of the top five nations in the world still using the death penalty. Clearly, we are not a very forgiving nation! If someone does something illegal, we expect them to be punished for it. We want them locked up where they can’t do any harm to the general population; and we want them kept there for a long time. We want the really serious offenders put to death so they can never repeat their crimes. We pitch anti-abortion placards on our lawn, insisting that we respect all life, even as we clamor for more executions and more incarcerations.
“Lord, if another member of the community sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Actually, Peter is being quite generous here. The rabbis had already determined that
forgiveness should be extended to a person for three transgressions. But the fourth time someone committed the same sin against you, you were free to take revenge on them. Peter is offering to more do than double what the law would require him to do.
But Jesus still finds Peter’s answer inadequate. He tells his disciples to forgive not
just seven times, but either 77 or 70 times seven times, depending on the translation. The exact number, of course, is irrelevant. For Jesus isn’t concerned here with establishing a new, rigid standard. He isn’t worried about actually counting the number of times a person sins against him at all. His whole point is that forgiveness is not about keeping track of somebody’s wrongs. It’s about going beyond the law, way beyond the law, and responding in love and mercy rather than according to a set of rules.
To illustrate his point, Jesus tells the story of the unforgiving servant. Here, a
servant has somehow fallen into a debt of an unimaginable 10,000 talents. A
talent was the largest unit of money at the time and the average worker would
have had to work more than 15 years in order to earn the equivalent of a single
talent. So, we’re talking the equivalent of billions of dollars by our current
standards. The servant, in other words, could have worked every waking minute of every day of his life and still would not have been able to repay his debt.
The servant pursues his only option, which is to beg the master for patience and mercy, promising to do his best to repay, even as both men know that repayment is
impossible. Seeing the anguish and sincerity of this servant, the master is moved to compassion. He goes beyond even what the servant requests. Instead of simply giving the man more time to pay, he cancels the entire outstanding debt. It is a remarkable and unprecedented display of generosity and grace.
But no sooner does the man leave when he encounters someone who owes him money,
several thousand dollars. And he refuses generosity and grace to this man, despite the fact that he himself has just experienced them. And when the master hears about it, he is
enraged. The unforgiving servant is arrested and sent to life in prison. The moral is that since God has already canceled whatever debts we had incurred, we are expected to extend the same grace and forgiveness to others. Period.
So why are we still struggling with forgiveness?? Why is it that so many of our relationships are marred by grudges and pettiness? Why are we so willing to carry excess baggage and bitterness and unforgiveness?
First, forgiveness isn’t just someone saying, “Hey, sorry about that” and the other
person saying, “OK, that’s cool” and then it’s all over. Forgiveness is about mending the
relationship, about making the relationship whole again. Forgiveness is rarely a single act. It is more often a process. Jesus doesn’t say that we don’t hold someone accountable for his or her actions, but that there is something else beyond accountability. And that something is grace.
When we forgive one another, that forgiveness is supposed to be the basis for building
a new or renewed relationship. Forgiveness is not saying the offense never happened. It did. Forgiveness is not saying that everything is okay. Everything is not okay. Forgiveness is not saying we no longer feel the pain of the offense. We do. Forgiveness is saying “I still feel the pain, but I am willing to let go of your involvement in my pain.”
The second reason for our failure to forgive others is the fact that we are often unable
to accept grace for ourselves. To be forgiven requires at least two important steps–repenting of what we have done, and accepting the reality that we can be forgiven and restored to right relationship. Neither of those is easy to accomplish.
Some of us are uncomfortable with accepting responsibility: we tend to downplay or deny
the impact of our actions. Maybe we think someone is making too big a deal out of something, shifting blame for the broken relationship onto them. We need to be willing to see things through his or her eyes, focusing most of all on the effect that our actions have had on the relationship. But, some of us can buy into the idea of having someone else forgiven and restored, but struggle with the concept that we ourselves are forgiveable, loveable, worthy of grace and wholeness. When we do that, we set ourselves higher than
God, because God has made it clear, through the scriptures and through the
ministry of the Church, that forgiveness is ours. When we deny that, we are really saying we know and understand something better than God.
This is exactly the problem that the unforgiving servant had. He had not really come to
terms with the fact that the master had forgiven his enormous debt. He had not really accepted that such an immense debt could even be forgiven, and that’s why he lacked the grace to extend forgiveness to anyone else. Still plagued by guilt, he couldn’t extend grace to his fellow servant. He couldn’t forgive, because he couldn’t accept that he had been forgiven.
When we look back through our own history, we see instances of our having hurt other people, some of them over and over. The older we get, the more clearly we see the
impact of our earlier decisions, like ripples on a stream, and we may be tempted to stay in that place of self-recrimination and darkness. But Jesus assures us that we can release all
of that and simply accept the grace God extends to us at every moment. We have already seen what happens when a country chooses neither to accept nor extend grace to others. It is time for us to “man up” as Christians and choose the way of Jesus over our own way.
And that way begins with self-forgiveness so we can receive the grace that awaits us.