Forgiveness and self-knowledge


Today’s Mass reading involves a parable on forgiveness. In the parable, we see a man who owes a debt to his master but whose debt is forgiven, go on to refuse to forgive another for an even smaller debt. This parable is rich in its thinking about the problem of forgiveness.

At one level, its message is simple: forgive others because God has forgiven you for much more than any single transgression that another person has enacted against you. God forgives us for a whole lifetime of sins and mistakes.

Although it can be tempting to think about this in economic terms—forgive others so that you can also be forgiven—the point of the parable is for those who listen to it to be able to identify with themselves as both a person who is in need of forgiveness and a person who is in need of being a forgiver. And the way that we can cultivate an attitude of forgiveness is by being able to identify that we are, in some sense, exactly the same as the person whom we are forgiving.

That this is the case is not always obvious to us in the concrete details of life. If someone cuts me off in traffic and I am an obedient and careful driver, it is easy to be judgmental and to think, But I would never treat someone that way. But in fact, we do it all of the time if we think a little more broadly: do I ever cut off another person’s conversation and interrupt? derail another person’s ideas? or have I ever rushed trying to get somewhere and made a mistake in changing lanes? If we are good at self-examination, it is likely that we can think of examples where the differences between us and the other person are probably not as profound as what we might like to believe.

Another person’s psychodynamics can be hard to understand, especially when they are different than our own. Sometimes, though, we share the same weaknesses as another but manifest how we behave in a different manner, because of our own different histories, backgrounds, families of origin, and so on. Or even if it fails to be the case that a particular kind of sin or weakness is our own at all, we can at least reflect on the fact that, as human beings, we are weak. A person who thinks of himself or herself as a saint and others as sinners has very limited self-knowledge, or prehapsan overdeveloped sense of guilt or shame that stands as an obstacle to authentic self-knowledge, which can accept oneself as having both strengths and weaknesses.

The parable also addresses this question of shame, which can also stand as an obstacle to forgiveness and reconciliation for many people. If we carry a sense of shame or guilt, and refuse to release ourselves from the weight of our own mistakes, then it is potentially hard to release others from their sins. We can recognize in the parable an alternative ending: remember that you have been forgiven and released from your own sins, and loved despite your own weaknesses, and so go on and share that same compassionate and forgiving love.

The parable shares a model for offering forgiveness, almost like a brief “how to” guide: examine oneself and one’s own limits to understand a shared humanity with others in their weakness; communicate about forgiveness with the one who has hurt you (not only in one’s heart but in words); with respect to the one who has offended, “let him go”; and forgive from the heart. The person who does not forgive holds onto anger and bitterness, so we forgive not only for the sake of the other out of genuine love for him, but also for ourselves, so that we can be free of anger and bitterness.

It is no surprise that the Gospel shows Peter asking this question, because Peter, of course, will go on to betray Jesus. He will also then later live a life of great faithfulness to the Lord—but probably not perfectly and unfailingly so. Perhaps Jesus already knows this, and is already letting Peter know that the Lord is a forgiving master, who also asks us to forgive. Peter is limited, but also a potential participant in sharing in the friendship of divine love, and so are we all.