The phrase that comes to my mind reflecting on the Gospel passage from Matthew (18:21-35) is the one immortalized in the book and film The Godfather: “An offer that cannot be refused.”
Yes, when it comes to forgiving or unwillingness to forgive, we face an offer made by God which we cannot refuse. We often hear that God’s love is unconditional. That sounds good and comforting but it is fluffy stuff, pure and simple.
God’s love and forgiveness are conditional: they depend on our willingness to forgive from the bottom of our heart, our brothers and sisters who wrong us, every time, every one of them, everywhere.
“So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35)
There. That’s the condition in plain English for all of us to understand. If we do not forgive everyone, every time, everywhere, we show our foolishness in refusing God’s non-refusable offer of salvation.
Lest we forget this crucial point, we should pause to contemplate our crucified Lord Jesus: his blood spells out clearly the exact amount of our debt to God. A debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. (Matthew 18:24)
Two-thousand years ago, our sins were forgiven in the blood of God’s only begotten Son. Our huge debt to the Father was written off a long time before we were born.
Since he had no way of paying it back… (Matthew 18:25)
We would be not only foolish but plainly stupid to think that we can pay up such a huge debt by our good deeds, millions of Rosaries, cruel, daily penance, and endless devotions. It would be more senseless than any of us attempting to pay up the USA national debt by himself/herself. Since without Jesus’ help, we cannot do anything good (cf. John 15:5) we cannot count on our prayers and good deeds to pay for the blood of Christ which is the price of our salvation. We are forced to accept God’s offer of eternal salvation conditioned by our willingness to forgive everyone, every time, everywhere from the bottom of our heart.
It cannot be any other way. Even if God wanted to overlook our unwillingness to forgive, he couldn’t do it because heaven (eternal salvation) is an endless experience of pure love. Each one of us is meant to be like God Who is love. (cf.1 John 3:2; 4:8; 4:16)
In heaven there can be only the pure perfection of love. Hence, no imperfections of any kind, let alone resentment, grudges, unwillingness to forgive, and vengefulness can be allowed into heaven. Why, then, is it so hard to forgive serious wrongs done to us?
It would be the result of a gross miscalculation: whatever others owe us (in reparation for a wrong) is magnified due to our bruised ego, while whatever we owe God in reparation for our sins is lessened, if not completely ignored. Do we forget that God is infinite and, therefore, any sin (debt), however small, becomes infinitely huge precisely because the One offended is God?
Acceptance of God’s offer of eternal salvation conditioned by our willingness to forgive the wrongs done to us by other limited, frail, weak human beings, starts from genuine humility and by graced wisdom.
The only reasonable and workable solution to accept God’s offer, and stick to it, is by working hard with his grace to become genuinely humble. Wise believers know that a good chunk of the world’s problems stem from people’s unwillingness to admit whenever they are wrong, and to own up to poor performances, and also from downplaying one’s own errors while stressing other people’s errors.
A lack of humility accounts also for restlessness, mental and physical ailments, unhappiness, and tension. (Sirach 27:30-28:7) A lack of humility in admitting our propensity to mess things up and to look better than we truly are, can be considered a gradual drifting away from reality, a form of mild madness that goes mostly undetected because it is so common.
Society doesn’t help us achieve humility with a fair assessment of our flaws and mistakes to balance our talents and virtues. For some inane reasons, society insists on rewarding people for insignificant achievements and is too generous in granting accolades for modest, undeserving feats.
Therefore, the only sure way for us to meet God’s condition through forgiveness that springs sincere from the bottom of our hearts is by imitation of Christ.
Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart, He tells us. And, as he is nailed to the cross, he says: Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.
That humility prompted him to attain forgiveness for us and to pay the huge amount we owe the Father. His intention remains always to make us his—for good.
But we will be his forever under one firm, unmovable condition: that we, prompted by sincere acceptance of each other, by genuine humility and by clear awareness of our human frailty, forgive each other from the bottom of our heart.