My mother, as many of you know, is facing a difficult cancer diagnosis. The prognosis now looms larger over our entire family. It is even more complicated by the fact that, despite years of symptoms now obvious in hindsight, the cancer was missed until it had advanced too far for a cure. My mother did everything right: she went to the doctor with her symptoms, she took the tests that were ordered, she looked for other causes when the doctors played down her concerns. She accepted it when the surgeon, not just once, but twice told her all was clear after repeat colonoscopies. In the end, she was only diagnosed, finally, when a doctor filling in for her GP ordered one more cat scan, and the tumour was found. I have never met the surgeon. I don’t even know her first name. But some days I feel a terrible anger toward this person, this stranger, for failing my mother, for missing what should have been found. It is easy to dwell in that feeling, to let it roll over me. Sometimes, it feels like a shield from the real feelings of sadness and worry. I want to bask in this anger. It feels safe.
So the reading of the gospel this morning is timely for me, and the story playing in my mind is a harsh one. We hear the metaphor of the servant who is forgiven his large debt by a kind king and sent on his way. With that lucky break still fresh in his mind, the servant passes by another person, who owes him money. He calls in the debt, and when this man cannot pay, he has him thrown in prison. The king, upon hearing this, condemns the first servant for failing to extend the generosity shown to him, calls in his debt, and tosses him in jail as well. The punishment for failing to forgive is stern. Jesus spells it out for us: it’s not just seven times that we must forgive a transgression, but seventy times seven. In other words, we must forgive and not keep count of the times we do so.
Of all the directives that Jesus gives us, this must be among the hardest. When Jesus tells us to “love one another,” we know, intuitively, what that looks like and we naturally aspire to be someone who acts this way. When we have an argument with another person – as Jesus relayed last week – it’s in our best interest to mediate it. And let’s be honest: it’s not that hard to forgive those small transgressions, or to let acquaintances go on slights that in the end don’t matter that much. But when we are wronged – deeply and cruelly and tragically – we often don’t want to forgive. Forgiveness feels as if it has no value. Our anger is justified. It’s comfortable. It’s easy to live with.
I know many of you – and many of your families – have travelled though this place. This deep, deep anger at having been betrayed in a divorce, or by parents and siblings, or by a grievous mistake make by someone you trusted. When we read in the news about a family who has forgiven a murderer, we are awed by them, and, admit it, a little skeptical: can they really have forgiven?
But I suspect what often prevents us from making progress in forgiving is our definition of the word. Forgive and forget, we are told, like a slate wiped clean. But those families faced with criminal tragedy do not forget – they are still present speaking up for the memory of their loved one, or making a case of legal changes, many years later. If you must see your ex at family gatherings or school concerts, you cannot just wipe them out of your memory. You may still need that doctor who messed up.
Forgiveness is ultimately about displacement. In order to achieve it, we must displace our anger. Nobody thinks clearly when they are angry. Choosing not to be angry may be the only autonomous move on our part, especially if we cannot fix the mistake that’s been made. Without anger, we can see everything more clearly: the context for the wrong, the events that led to it, the lessons to take from it, even our own part in it. I think this is why the king is so harsh with the servant who refused to forgive the debt forgiven him moments earlier: a failure to forgive not only breaks the bonds between the individuals involved; it also seeps into those around them. It is corrosive for anyone near to it. And it leads to actions such as revenge and retribution, which have never, throughout history, achieved anything good.
My mom has taught me quite a bit about forgiveness, and how to do it. For starters, like the king in the parable – she first set the example, forgiving me a great many mistakes, big and small. (Including the time, as a boy, when I tried to wax our family’s brand new car and ended up using a solvent that stripped all the paint. This story was retold the other day. As I said, forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting.) I watched her forgive others, as the years passed – including the fishing captain whose carelessness cost her a son. And now I am seeing it again, with her doctors. “I will not waste my energy on anger,” she says, “though it would be so easy to go there.” But again, she did not forget. And last week, she went to her family doctor, and gently but firmly, made sure that her doctor would never forget her, either. That was one good thing she wanted to come out of her situation: that one less person might in the future be spared.
God, of course, sets that lesson first for us, though we have trouble remembering it. God forgives us all our wrongdoing – we ask this of God every Sunday when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. But ultimately, what this really means is that we learn to forgive ourselves. We accept that we will do things – many things – that require forgiveness. Those actions – and how to correct them – are seen much more quickly when anger and self-pity are not tying us down.
I forgive you, God says. And I won’t keep count. We are called to do the same.