Sir. 27:30-28:7; Ps. 103; Rom. 14:7-9; Mt. 18:21-35
“For as the heavens are high above the earth, so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our transgressions from us.” These words taken from today’s psalm are a reminder of the infinite mercy of God. Mercy begins with God, but does not belong to God alone. Since God has been merciful to us, we too, have a share in his infinite mercy, and are therefore capable of extending mercy to one another. What does it mean to be merciful? Mercy is compassionate treatment, especially of those under one’s power. It is a disposition to be kind and forgiving.
Our first experience of mercy is typically from our parents, who show mercy when we do wrong. We later experience mercy from our teachers, then our co-workers, superiors, and friends. Just about everyone here knows what it is like to have been forgiven; but, many of us also know what it is like to be denied mercy. Perhaps this is why Jesus gives us the parable of the Unforgiving Servant. He wants us to realize that unlike man, God does not hold grudges, rather, God is merciful and forgiving.
What are some of the obstacles to mercy? The author of the Book of Sirach provides a good insight. Sirach is part of what we call Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament. The author of Sirach says, “Wrath and anger are hateful things yet the sinner hugs them tight.” There is a lot of wisdom in this saying. As I mentioned last week, it is funny how we tend to cling to sin. Of course, we like to say sin clings to us, but if we are honest with ourselves, there are those sins that we also cling to. And one of the most common is anger.
Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount not to be angry with our brothers. He says, “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment….” (Mt. 5:21-22a). Now, there is a difference between being angry and being hurt. I spoke with someone recently who was attacked by a huge dog. This person was physically, emotionally, and psychologically hurt, but told me they were not angry. They could very easily have turned their hurt into anger towards the owner of the dog, but chose rather to be merciful. After all, they were the one with the power to be merciful, since they had every right to sue the owner. Instead, they chose to forgive.
When we consider the distinction between anger and being hurt, a connection arises between the two. On one hand, a physical or emotional pain develops into anger; on the other hand, being hurt can also develop into forgiveness. Forgiveness, therefore, is a choice. It is an exercise of the will, which is to say, as Jesus says, an exercise of the heart. We are to forgive one another from the heart. This is only possible if we are willing. If we are free to choose to forgive, then we are also free to choose to be angry. Anger, therefore, is also a choice. It is a choice to hold on to the pain, to wallow in it, rather than to let it go. Why do we do this? Why do we choose to be angry?
In the Gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the Unforgiving Servant. When the servant has to make an account of his debt to the master, the master forgives his debt. In this case, the master is God. But, when the wicked servant’s servant asks for the same mercy, the wicked servant throws his servant in prison. Did the wicked servant choose anger or mercy? He clearly chooses anger because he chokes his servant and locks him up. You see, anger restricts rather than frees, but who is it really restricting? Most people have no idea when we are angry with them. So, it is certainly not restricting them. It must be us, then, who are restricted by our own anger. We throw ourselves in prison just to be angry. It hardly seems worth it.
But, in the parable, we see that the accounting of God is very different from the accounting of man. God does not allow our transgressions to phase him, rather, from his great mercy, he forgives us. All we have to do is ask, which is why we have the sacrament of confession. As for our unwillingness to forgive one another, however, we are encouraged to treat one another as God does, to be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful. That is why we are to forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven times. In other words, there should be no limit to the forgiveness we extend to one another.
And so, today, as we continue to reflect on the importance of letting go of our anger and embracing one another in mercy and forgiveness, let us consider our own anger towards one another. Are we willing to forgive one another in our heart? Let us do so before we approach the altar. And may the communion we share be a sign of the unity we all share as brothers and sisters of Christ, sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.