Following a poll, the Gallup Organization revealed good news and bad news. The good news is that 94% of the population believes that it is very important to forgive. The bad news is that 85% admit that, in their own power, they are not ready to forgive.
Where does this dichotomy between the value system we adhere to and the degree we assimilate it on a personal level come from? Easy! It is enough to review the most recent conflict we had with a colleague, or with our wife/husband: “He offended me”, “She despises me”, “He cut the line”, etc. Although it is a noble value, forgiveness still contradicts another value, much closer to our hearts: justice. If we were to identify the category of “justice” that we defend, we would discover that it is not “justice” in itself, but only “justice applied to a single case, that case being me”. This explains why, in the case of others, we feel that we understand the situation perfectly well and plead for the need for forgiveness. When it comes to ourselves, however, this is almost impossible. The emotional tension is not cooled unless we are offered compensation, aka “revenge”.
Talking to the Galilean
This is the tense context in which we receive a message from the Galilean: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’” (Matthew 18:21)
Peter was smart! As an opinion leader among the young people who accompanied Jesus, Peter decided to revise the ruling of the Pharisees in a Christ-centered way. So, he broke their limitation of “three times” and replaced it with the wonderful number “seven”. I can almost see him, expectantly waiting for a resounding “Well done!”
“Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’” (Matthew 18:22).
Brother Peter is stunned. In the absence of a calculator, he cannot even estimate how many times a day he has to grant forgiveness… In search of biblical support, his memory reactivates a terrible verse, Genesis 4:24, which deals the final blow. The verse speaks of the diabolical measure of total revenge, invented by one of the descendants of Cain, the assassin: “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times!” This time, the measure is turned 180 degrees.
An absurd case
To help them get out of their confusion, Jesus gives the disciples a parable (verses 23-35): “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him.”
We are overwhelmed by the data. The “slave” status, being deprived of any possession, is irreconcilable with “financial debts”. What kind of master lends to slaves? It is absurd! Unless this is an owner who behaves atypically. As for the amount, we are once more puzzled. The price of gold varies throughout history. But we are not even talking about “francs” or “doubloons”. The original text indicates “talents.” The term does not express a monetary value, but a standard of weight: over 35 kilograms! So, how much is 10,000 talents? I’m shocked!
“Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.”
This beats it all! The slave does not even appeal for clemency, because he does not believe in such a thing. Sly, he only asks for time, to deceive the naive master. But the master is not naive. He attributed his intention to manipulate to the man’s desperation. And, against all reason or custom, the master cancels his debt. However, the streak of absurdity has not yet reached its peak.
A cynical reversal
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.”
Why are you surprised? There is no injustice. The debtor deserves to go to jail. The wonder, however, comes from the maximum contrast: the amount owed was only 100 dinars, the equivalent of the payment of an unqualified worker for 100 days’ work. Actually, that’s what humans are like. My own debts are always insignificant, while other people’s debts to me are overwhelming. But those on the sidelines see you; they perceive the inequity.
“When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.”
The denouement is seismic from several points of view. If, for the debt, the master’s initial sentence was selling the man and his family, instead, for his attitude, the final sentence is to hand “him over to the jailers to be tortured”. For how long? For an indefinite period. For a slave has no income and they couldn’t pay back even a dime while they’re bound in a yoke, or broken on the torture wheel.
Perhaps no parable touches the abysmal depths of human nature like this parable. And the genius of the divine Master is revealed in the fact that He builds this parable on two antagonistic principles that shape our daily attitudes: justice and mercy.
Antagonistic? Aren’t both principles of divine origin? Yes, but they operate in different environments: justice operates in heaven, between immaculate beings; mercy, on earth, for the irredeemable sinner. What else could rehabilitate them?
We probably don’t understand the immensity of “sin”. We are like the professional fishermen who smell like rotten fish and don’t even realise their stench. In God’s eyes, the magnitude of sin is comparable to the greatest numerical expression of Jesus’s time: 10,000. At that time there was no higher amount… And these were talents! Golden ones!
This is what is amazing: when God forgives, He does not do so in response to someone’s request, any more than the master unilaterally forgives the scoundrel. When He forgives, God acts in mercy. Mercy is a priori. It exists; it is not the effect of an external determinism. It flows from love for the lost, regardless of the sinner’s attitude. Mercy is offered unconditionally—here is the hidden lesson of the parable and the first, most important reason to offer forgiveness.
And, like the icing on the cake, exercising mercy-generated forgiveness brings about radical change. Not so much in the scoundrel, but especially in the one who forgives. This gives us the second reason to forgive.
Captain Ernest Gordon was a young Scottish atheist with a degree in history and philosophy. In 1942 he enlisted and was sent to the front in Singapore. After the disastrous defeat of the British by the Japanese in 1942, Gordon was taken prisoner and interred, along with 60,000 Allied soldiers and 180,000 Asian prisoners, in the labour camp in Burma.
The objective was to build a railway through the tropical jungle of Indochina, that would profit the subsequent invasion of India. The route followed the course of the River Kwai through the deadly jungle. The project, 412 kilometres long, which was planned to last six years, was completed in only 16 months, at the cost of over 80,000 lives. The working conditions and treatment of the Japanese were beyond imagination. Those who were tired or sick were pierced with bayonets or beheaded on the spot. Ernest Gordon recounts how the conditions of extermination turned everyone into beasts, driven only by the instinct of survival and by hatred towards the torturers. Theft of food and effects between allies was common. Everyone was everyone’s enemy.
The most important event of the three years of captivity was the miraculous transformation of mood, triggered by some earth-shattering incidents. One day, when the English brigade was returning from the construction site, at one of the checkpoints it was found that a hoe was missing. “Who stole it? I’m going to kill you all!” A thin boy took two steps forward: “Me.” The Japanese hit him to death. At the following count it was found that, in fact, no hoe was missing. The news that the boy sacrificed himself to save the others shook everyone. Meanwhile, they also learned that a Scotsman gave his sick colleague food and blankets until the colleague recovered and the Scotsman himself starved to death.
The effect of these gestures was revolutionary. Without any agenda, the prisoners began to help each other. The thefts stopped. The healthy began to take care of the sick comrades. One gave his watch to the Japanese in exchange for medicine for his comrade. The camp, until not long before a living hell, metamorphosed into a warm community.
When Ernest Gordon himself, exhausted and hopelessly ill, was taken to the house of death, among the corpses, two Christian Scots tended him day and night. They washed his rotten wounds, rubbed his necrotic leg, and gave him their own portions of food. Their unnatural altruism crushed the former atheist, wordlessly leading him to Jesus Christ. Finally, to everyone’s joy, Captain Gordon returned to the living. For the whole camp, this was the signal of victory.
Soon a group of Australians challenged the atheist Gordon to speak to them about Christianity. That’s how the camp church came into being, whose chaplain was Gordon himself. “Forgive one another” and “love your enemies” had become the new philosophy of the camp. A “jungle university” was also spontaneously established. Those with a specialisation were called to share it with others. Courses were taught in history, philosophy, economics, mathematics, natural sciences, and at least nine foreign languages, including Latin, Greek, Russian, and Sanskrit. Painting and sculpting workshops were established. Two botanists created a herb garden. A ‘brass’ band playing on bamboo instruments was also formed.
The atmosphere of fraternity influenced the attitude of the Japanese, who became more humane. In 1945, shortly before liberation, when the camp was moved, the prisoner convoy came across a group of wounded and abandoned Japanese soldiers. Mercy and compassion caused the prisoners to break ranks. Despite the threats, they took care of the unfortunates, giving them water, food and empathy.
When the liberators arrived and saw the unimaginable conditions, they wanted to exterminate all the Japanese. But the prisoners formed a human chain around them, shouting: “No revenge! No revenge!”
But history continues. Among the torturers was a young officer named Nagase Takashi. An expert in English, he was the camp’s translator. In the days after his release he was haunted by the contrast between his cruelty and the kindness of the prisoners. Back in the country, he had no peace until he publicly denounced himself for the inhumane treatment. He generated a campaign to denounce the policy of extermination carried out by Japan during the war. As an English teacher, he won over generations of children, who sent thousands of letters of forgiveness to ex-prisoners or their families. He had no peace until he initiated reconciliation campaigns between Japanese veterans and former prisoners.
In 2005, exactly 50 years after the end of the war, the Japanese government surrendered. A government commission, made up of Japanese veterans, invited all camp survivors and their descendants to meet on the historic bridge built over the River Kwai. Starting from the two ends, the two groups joined in the middle, in tears, hugs, and requests for forgiveness.
However, the testimony of the victims constitutes the strongest lesson: “Hate made me sick. The thought of revenge brought me to the edge of the grave. Now that I have forgiven, I am healed. I’m coming back to life.”
And Jesus ends his parable saying: “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”
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