On our ten hour Labor Day weekend drive to visit our son Joey in Boston, we encountered drivers who weren't always as courteous and gentle as I was. (I am joking of course, but in all honesty I am much better than I used to be.) I made a conscious effort on this trip to respond differently to those who were tailgating, driving distracted or might have cut me off. I decided to say a simple prayer of blessing for the "offending" drivers. This was different than the glare or shout I might have given them in the past. This change in focus helped me to understand an important truth about myself that is reinforced in this week's Gospel.
Peter approached Jesus and asked him, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.' Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, 'Pay back what you owe.' Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' But he refused. Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?' Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart." Matthew 18:21-35
Peter is looking for a prescriptive answer that limits how many times he had to forgive. Jesus gives Peter a whole lot more to think about. The story of debts, payback, compassion and the human heart illustrated the much deeper message of the kingdom of heaven. The lack of compassion shown by the forgiven servant results in not only a scalding verbal response from the master but torture until his original debt is paid. Jesus uses this story to point out to Peter and the others that the condition of the heart is what ultimately matters.
That brings me back to our drive to Boston. Even though I was working to change my behavior, I was still capable of getting angry at those I felt had offended me. When I read this Gospel I realized a deeper truth. I am not fully aware of the condition of my heart. If a tailgater can elicit a less than compassionate response, what might I be harboring in my heart towards those that have truly offended me? As this occurs to me I am compelled to pray again.
"Lord help me to forgive. Show me where my heart has not forgiven. I look to your cross for the strength to forgive others regardless of the offense. Have mercy on me Lord, a sinner."