Last week in the Gospel Jesus said “if your brother sins against you go and tell him his fault.” We we must “judge” whether a brother or sister is doing right or wrong—and we must communicate that judgement to them in loving correction. Pope Francis calls fraternal correction “mark of love, a mutual service that we must render to one another.” His famous quip “who am I to judge” cannot mean that we should not judge others’ actions, but that we are not to judge wrongly, with a condemnatory attitude. Jesus did not condemn the woman caught in adultery, but he did correct her: “Go and sin no more.”
In today’s Gospel passage, which directly follows from last week’s reading, Jesus repeats that we not condemn anyone. No one is beyond God’s mercy, and no one should be beyond our mercy, even if they sin repeatedly against us. Society today is generally quite confused about when and how to judge others. On the one hand, we cannot judge another’s behavior, and on the other hand, we are the most litigious society in history. We have more lawyers per capita than at any time in history, and those lawyers make a living judging and condemning others. The reality TV show “Judge Judy” makes lots of money exhibiting judgmentalism for millions of viewers in a small claims court.
Jesus’ way, however, is quite different from the false “non-judgmentalism” of our secular society. Our Divine Lord tells us that judging right from wrong is a simple duty, but even as we judge a sinner our forgiveness for that sinner must be limitless. “How many times do I have to forgive ‘my brother’”? Peter asks. First noticed that he calls the offender “my brother.” The conviction that the wrongdoer is a brother or sister makes real forgiveness possible. So: how many times must I patiently forgive him before slapping him down? Jesus says not seven times, but 77 times: biblically, that means “forever.” Always. You forgive him as many times as he hurts you. To illustrate this, Jesus tells a parable. A man owes the king (God) a “huge amount”—in the Greek, 10,000 talents. A talent was 6000 denarii, and a denarius was a day’s wage. So, he owes the king 60 million days wages. If he spent his entire lifetime working for this king, he would only be able to pay .003% of his debt. He would have to work 375,000 years to pay the debt. In other words, Jesus is saying it is impossible for him to pay back the debt. So what does the king do? He forgives the debt. Jesus did that on the Cross for you and for me. Great news! But the parable continues: the forgiven servant meets a fellow servant, a “brother,” who owes him 100 denarii (60,000 times less than he had owed the king). He refuses to forgive, and so the King throws him into jail “until he pays the last penny.” That is, he will be in jail for 375,000 years, which is the Biblical way of saying “forever.” In other words, hell. Heaven if you forgive, hell if you don’t forgive. Seems pretty clear.
Clear, but not easy. As I said last week about fraternal correction, it is not easy either to correct or to forgive a brother. The First Reading puts it succinctly: “wrath and anger are hateful things, but the sinner hugs them tight.” How hard it is to forget even the smallest grievance! I still remember K. J. from the 7th grade, who borrowed a dime from me at school lunch, and still hasn’t paid it back. He still owes me ten cents! “Could anyone nourish anger,” Ben Sirach asks, “and expect healing from the Lord?” Why would God forgive your infinite debt if you don’t even forgive a ten cent debt? Every time we pray the Our Father, we say we hope for forgiveness in the measure we forgive others. If you want forgiveness, give forgiveness. If you want peace, give peace.
On Tuesday I leave for Fatima with 50 pilgrims. Our Lady showed the three children a vision of hell in July 1917. “You have seen hell, where poor sinners go;” she explained. “Make of everything a sacrifice for those souls.” The greatest sacrifice, probably, is to forgive someone who really hates you: a business partner who robbed or sued you. An ex-spouse who took your children away. A current spouse who has been unfaithful. If we can manage to throw a prayer up to heaven every so often for them, then we can hope for forgiveness from God. Then we will know what forgiveness feels like! Our Lady of Fatima, help us to forgive as your Son forgave us from the Cross!