“Be perfect… in mercy.”
Today’s Gospel is a hard one. There are so many sayings of Jesus to which we have become desensitized. There are parables and commands that have lost their radicality, simply because we have heard them so often. I think today’s Gospel is one such message.
“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 5:21-22).
Our Lord is not referring here to righteous anger. Anger is not always sinful; in fact, injustice and evil should rouse us to anger. But aren’t we quick to rationalize our anger? When someone hurts us, we cling to our anger and convince ourselves that we have a right to it.
But how many of us are without blame?
First of all, perhaps if we are angry with our “brother,” he also has a reason or two to be angry with us! Jesus follows up this command not to be angry with a second instruction regarding not bringing your gift to the altar if your brother has something against you. It seems he’s talking to both sides of the argument: Don’t be angry with your brother. And if you’ve done something against him, go settle up. After all, we’re going to be on both sides throughout our lives – needing to ask for forgiveness and needing to grant forgiveness.
Secondly, we are quick to hold on to grudges and not forgive when others sin against us… while begging the next moment for the Lord to have mercy on us! It reminds me of another parable found later in Matthew’s Gospel. After Peter asks Jesus how often he is to forgive his brother, Jesus tells the story of the servant who owed his king ten thousand talents. The servant begged for patience to pay the debt. After the king had mercy on him, he promptly went to a fellow servant and demanded payment of a debt. When that servant couldn’t pay him, he refused to have mercy.
Jesus makes it clear that the first servant’s debt to the king was enormous. In the Greek, it indicates that he may have owed 10,000 talents. A talent was 6,000 days wages! The second man owes the first servant a hundred denarii, or about a 100 days wages. The difference is so radical and extreme, it’s impossible to miss the Lord’s point. The second servant could have paid the debt, if the first servant had just had patience. Could the first servant ever pay the king back? Probably not. When someone sins against us, it is nothing compared to how often and how greatly we have offended God. We can never repay our debt. He knows that. So he has paid it.
He wants to show us mercy – but it requires that we show others mercy, too. The Catechism cautions, “Now – and this is daunting – this outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Love, like the Body of Christ, is indivisible; we cannot love the God we cannot see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see. In refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters, our hearts are closed and their hardness makes them impervious to the Father’s merciful love; but in confessing our sins, our hearts are opened to his grace” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2840).
It’s not easy. As C.S. Lewis quipped, “Forgiveness is a beautiful idea – until you have something to forgive.” But it’s also important to remember that forgiveness is not a feeling. It’s a choice. Even if you don’t feel forgiving, make the act of the will to forgive. It doesn’t mean what the person did to you was okay, or that there isn’t a need for boundaries going forward. Just as Christ’s mercy is not a carte blanche for us to sin, forgiving others isn’t giving them permission to hurt us again. But we have to make the act of the will to forgive them, even if they don’t deserve it.
A few weeks ago, we heard the challenging Gospel message to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s important to note where that command occurs: in the middle of Jesus’ discourse on mercy. It’s just after he has commanded us to turn the other cheek, to give not just our tunic but our cloak too, and to love our enemies. Be perfect… in mercy.
Every time I cling to a grudge, refuse to forgive an offense, or remain angry with my brother, I am less like my heavenly Father. Every time I forgive even those people who don’t merit my forgiveness, I mirror Jesus, who submitted to scourging, who surrendered his seamless garment, who forgave those who nailed him to the Cross. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
Next time I try to rationalize my grudges and cling to my anger, perhaps I need to meditate on that Suffering Servant of Isaiah. I don’t deserve that man’s mercy. And yet He gives it to me, again and again.
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