The master had pity on that servant and released him and forgave him the loan. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and he took hold of him and choked him, saying: “Pay back whatever you owe.”
Matthew 47: 27-8
As Pope Francis constantly reminds us, at the very heart of Christian faith is our trust in the mercy of God. In today’s gospel, Peter asks Jesus how often we are to forgive the person who sins against us. Jesus replies that we are to forgive “as many as seventy times seven times,” that is without end. Jesus then tells a parable that illustrates his profound understanding of what it is in us that makes forgiving so difficult. In the story, a servant whose master has forgiven him a great debt immediately goes out and refuses to forgive a much lesser debt that is owed to him. When we are harmed by another, we readily forget, in our rage, our own sinfulness and our constant need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. The teaching here is that our violence and vindictiveness toward others springs from our lack of awareness of our own sinfulness.
Be it at the level of the personal or the social, we live in a time where the greatest value appears to be the aggrandizement of the ego. The one value we all seem to share in common is self-assertion. Social life, especially at its “high-powered” levels, seems to be something like the experience of riding bumper cars at the amusement park. We move among each other bumping into and pushing each other around, attempting to make reality and others heal to our own desires and willfulness.
In Deuteronomy we read: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children.” (Deut. 6:4-7) From their beginnings, children learned that the Lord God is the center of life and that their lives were to revolve around loving God first and always. In our time, many of us are raised from the beginning to see ourselves as the center of the universe. The result is that the measure of the worth of anyone or anything else is how they foster this basic and illusory premise. Because this perspective so permeates our culture, even those who are formed initially in a different perspective become unconsciously influenced by this self-centered stance.
Our lives are not our own; they are a gift. At the core of human personality, of the true self, is our “response-ability,” our capacity to respond to the life that is given us and the One who gives it. As we lose our contact with the truth of our own being and the responsibility we are, we lose a real sense of our own sinfulness. Sin in us is our failure to be responsible to God for our lives. It is our attempt to create an alternative identity whose sole purpose is self-centered and so responsible to no one or nothing but ourselves.
Even when we have been formed by and so attempt to orient our lives in accord with the wisdom of our faith tradition, we know how difficult it is to love “with all our heart, and soul, and strength.” To dare to love another human person as well as God means to face how weak we always are in love. Even as we devotedly attempt to love another, we shall always encounter our failure to do so, our self-centeredness and sinfulness. When the pulsations of our culture and our world, however, take our inherent self-centeredness and make it the ultimate value, then we risk unleashing an atmosphere of unbridled competition and violence.
To speak of recovering in ourselves a sane sense of sin is a difficult topic for us. There have clearly been times in the history of religions where a false sense of sin has been perpetuated as a means of control over the weak and powerless. Too often in the past (and in some cultures up to the present) the shaming of others for their transgressions, especially sexual ones, became a means of forcing submission to secular and ecclesiastical authorities. The sense of sin in its deepest sense, however, is not primarily the experience of guilt or shame about specific transgressions of the law. It is rather living in remembrance of the truth of the love and mercy of God in the face of our own inauthenticity. It is to remember in our life and relationships in the world that the “Master” never ceases to remain with us and love us, even as we so consistently make the wrong turn and fail to love in return.
We don’t forgive others out of the goodness of our hearts. We forgive others because we know that we do not deserve God’s faithful and merciful love, and, yet, it is bestowed on us always and abundantly. To know our sinfulness is to realize that there is no one, to our knowledge, who is, at least at times, more inauthentic and false than ourselves. Having known, at least at moments, the graciousness and love of God that is poured out on us and our world, we, often enough, reduce that world to our own petty self-interest. We seek to be loved rather than love, to be understood rather than to understand, to be consoled rather than to console. It is but recognition of the truth to realize that who we think we are and how we relate to the world is often so much less and other than the one whom God has loved and continues to love into being. Without God’s mercy and forgiveness we are left with only illusion (insanity) or despair. If our life is only what we succeed in accomplishing, then, to paraphrase St. Paul, we are of all people the most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:19).
To put this more positively, our very capacity for love, mercy, and compassion comes from our not forgetting, that is our living in, the truth of our own sinfulness. We are actually able to love far beyond our own abilities, because the mercy of God, bestowed on us, is so abundant that it can itself flow out to the other whom we are called to forgive. Again, it is not out of the plentitude of our own goodness that we are to forgive, but rather it is out of our recognition of our own failure and lack that we know our kinship, our own communion, with those who have harmed us.
In the parable Jesus tells today, we recognize in the first servant our own seemingly unlimited ability to forget, when confronted with the sinfulness of others, our own sinfulness. Our innate need for self-protection and survival makes us very quick to fight and even to want to destroy anyone that threatens us. Yet, the level of spirit in us can be awakened if we live in the mindfulness of our own sinfulness, of our own constant struggle to live authentically and honestly and of our persistent need to be forgiven as we fall short and fail. In that light, the one who harms us is really one like us. Although, at the level of ego, we are never able to forgive and forget, at the level of spirit where we are poor in spirit and mourn our lack, we are an instrument for sharing the mercy and forgiveness of God that is constantly poured out on us.
[The sense of sin] . . . is not merely a sense of guilt referred to the authority of God. It is a sense of evil in myself. Not because I have violated a law outside myself, but because I have violated the inmost laws of my own being, which are, at the same time, the laws of God Who dwells within me. The sense of sin is the sense of having been deeply and deliberately false to my own inmost reality, my likeness to God. Sin is a radical evil and sickness of the spirit. Indeed, serious sin is more than that—it is the death of the spirit. To have a sense of sin is to realize myself to be not only morally but spiritually dead. Moral death would savor rather of guilt—I have been “killed” by the violation of a law. But spiritual death is the sense of having separated myself from truth by complete inner falsity, from love by selfishness, from reality by trying to assert as real a will to nothingness. The sense of sin is, then, something ontological and immediate which does not spring from reflection on my actions and comparison with a moral code. It springs directly from the evil that is present in me: it tells me not merely that I have done wrong, but that I am wrong, through and through. That I am a false being. That I have destroyed myself. For sin is spiritual self-destruction. And the terrible thing is that though our body dies only once, our spirit, once dead, can still be killed over and over again. To be in sin and to continue sinning is to begin the life of a soul in hell, which is perpetual and perpetually repeated death.
Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, p. 119