Often enough, it helps to read a bit
more than what is contained in the day's Gospel. It often helps to read a
number of verses before and after the selection read in church. That way,
we can put what our Lord has to say in greater perspective—put it “in
context,” as they say. We lose something, for example in today's Gospel, if
we are tempted to think that our Lord is speaking merely about monetary
He is, in fact, speaking about
forgiveness in general; for immediately before this passage, He answers a
question put by Peter, saying that Peter should forgive someone who sins
against him, not just “up to seven times,” but rather, “up to seventy times
And that, by the way is not our Lord's way of saying 490. It is His way of
saying that we should always be forgiving, no matter how many times we are
offended. Such forgiveness of those who hurt us is a precondition for
receiving God's forgiveness for the wrongs we have done against Him and His
law. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against
But our Lord is not saying that we
are to overlook evil; there is a difference between forgiving, and condoning
bad behavior. In today's parable, the master forgave his servant because
the servant not only asked forgiveness, but also offered to pay the debt in
full. It is the same when we sin; God doesn't forgive us until we are ready
to come before Him, express our sorrow for our bad behavior, and offer to
correct the problem; hopefully in such a way that it will not happen again.
For every act of forgiveness there needs to be a corresponding act of
repentance on the part of the one who has done wrong.
Earlier in this chapter, our Lord
speaks of a man who lost one of his hundred sheep, and of his rejoicing
when, after leaving the ninety-nine he went and found the lost one.
He is speaking of His Father in Heaven, who rejoices over our repentance,
precisely so that He can forgive us.
He also speaks of fraternal
correction. The evildoer must be admonished, so that he knows that he is
doing wrong; he must be told how he can amend his ways and do good instead
If he refuses to listen, then several other people ought to admonish him, or
even the local church. This is not an act of “judging,” or being
“judgmental,” but rather it is how God expects us to cope with evil that is
done to us by our brothers, and how He expects us to deal with evil that is
being done against Him. Fraternal correction is always done with an eye
towards this combination of repentance and forgiveness.
There is an interesting concept
here; one that our society seems to have largely forgotten: Christians
don't bring law suits and argue their differences before pagans (or secular
We are expected to negotiate with each other, or to obtain the help of
mediators, or perhaps to ask for resolution by the judgment of the clergy.
A civil law suit ought to be a last resort, and even then, undertaken for
the most serious of reasons.
How many times must we forgive? We
must always forgive those who harm us and repent. But what of those who
will not repent? Our Lord says that those who will not listen to fraternal
correction are to be treated like the “heathen or like the tax collectors.”
Presumably, He says this on the theory that those who persist in bad deeds
will come around if they are made to feel as outcasts. Certainly, we ought
not to give them the opportunity to sin against us again if we are able to
arrange otherwise. No matter how forgiving we might be, we should not be
the cause of someone else's evil; whether it be against us or against God.
Sometimes we have to be stern with people who keep doing the same bad thing
over and over; even with those whom we love.
A verse or two later He speaks about
the power of those who pray together.
In this context it seems that we should not give up praying for the
conversion of those who do evil. It ought to be the practice of every
Catholic to pray for his enemies as well as for his friends. And, it ought
to be our practice to pray together—with fellow parishioners, with friends
Forgiveness and fraternal correction
can be very difficult. It is not always easy to bring the wrong doer to
repentance. It is not always easy to be forgiving. But it is a condition
of receiving God's forgiveness for the evil that we do ourselves.
We might close be recalling what
Saint Paul had to say, and be recognizing how well it applies to forgiveness
and repentance. We are not struggling so much, he tells us, with human
frailties, as we are with “the deceits of the devil.” If we are to forgive,
we must also repent. We must concern ourselves not so much with earthly
arguments and schemes for negotiating with those who do evil, but rather, we
must “take up the armor of God,” being girt with “truth” and “justice” and
“peace.” But, above all, our dealings with each other must be formed by
“faith” in the “Word of God.” For only by the exercise of divine grace can
we do the things that will matter in eternity.