This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 18:21–35:
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.”
We have a dirty little secret. Men and women easily recognize anger and grudges as negative emotions, but we also tend to love them in ourselves — a lot more than we love them in others. This tendency is so built into our nature that scripture addresses it over and over again, and yet we still cling to both and rationalize it away, hoping at some point to truly believe our own rationalizations. And heaven help us if we actually succeed.
Today’s Mass readings remind me oddly of a scene Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which might seem a little strange to some readers. It’s widely considered the least of the Star Trek movies, a mess at least in part because it seems at times to be taking aim at faith without ever understanding it. It centers on a Vulcan cult leader named Sybok who just happens to be a brother of Spock (of whom audiences have never heard until this film), and who gains a galactic following by promising to take people’s pain away. One encounter with Sybok and everyone in the film except for Kirk suddenly becomes sappily serene while also abandoning everything else they knew in the past.
At one point, even Dr. McCoy and Spock fall under Sybok’s spell and tries to convince Kirk to allow Sybok to work his magic on him. Kirk rebukes McCoy by saying his pain defines him. “You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand,” Kirk declares. “They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!”
Clearly the film wants viewers to take Kirk’s point of view on this topic. It wants people to see their definition in their pain, guilt, and grievances. And to some extent, that has some value. Character is expressed in how we handle pain, grievances, and regret and guilt. It measures what we learn from them, and how we maintain our own dignity through them.
However, our nature is such that we don’t keep those in mind simply to learn from the experiences. We hold onto them because they do define us in other ways. They define what we see are our rights, our privileges, what we are owed. We demand justice for ourselves for slights, to restore our own power and authority in relation to others. Disputes cease being about the actual substance of the disagreement and broaden into jeremiads in which both sides fight for supremacy rather than justice, and especially rather than mercy.
We fall in love with anger and pain, because in our hearts it elevates us over those around us. We become the center of the universe.
This trend has come to dominate politics, and on social media that focuses on it. There is almost no policy dispute that doesn’t get blown up into personal vendettas and hyperbolic accusations of treason and evil. There is no misstep that can’t end until someone has lost his job over it. We opt for shunning over debate, and crow with victory when one’s side prevails in shutting down the other, even though nothing in the end gets settled at all. We focus entirely on our pain and anger rather than resolve that which might have contributed to it, which only serves to perpetuate it. But politics and social media only reflect what is true in our broader culture, which has become obsessed with grievance to the detriment of real and positive engagement.
We fall in love with anger and pain, and embrace it tightly, because it is ours and focuses inward. When we do, it pushes out charity and love of neighbor, which require us to focus outward and to recognize that others have anger and pain and guilt as well.
From the beginning, the Lord warned against this impulse. “Wrath and anger are hateful things,” the prophet Joshua ben Sirach writes in our first reading, “yet the sinner holds them tight.” The embrace of wrath will return to the sinner, warns ben Sirach. “The vengeful will suffer the LORD’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail,” he writes. “If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?”
This is widely viewed as God’s punishment on the wrathful, but this passage hints at a different explanation. The Lord laid out the path of salvation for a “stiff-necked people” to choose of their own free will — but what is salvation? It is the return of men and women to a full relationship with the Lord, having dispensed with sin and giving themselves over entirely to the self-giving love of the Trinity. It would be impossible for people who cherish wrath and vengeance to engage in such love of others.
In other words, this is not some kind of checklist item. It is a question of formation, of preparation. If we are to live eternally in the new Jerusalem in God’s presence, we must adopt His love and will as our own. Wrath and anger make this impossible; attempting to define ourselves through it by holding onto our pains and insults as justifications for retribution will preclude us from entering into God’s kingdom in the end.
Jesus makes this plain in his parable to Peter. Forgiveness isn’t a matter of repetition — it’s a matter of formation toward forgiveness and mercy. Why is the debtor condemned? It’s not that he didn’t ask forgiveness — he did, and the master granted it to him. Bear in mind that the master forgave him the loan, which means that the debtor had much less need to collect on the loan he gave to the lesser servant. He was money ahead — and yet demanded repayment anyway.
The debtor hugged his wrath and anger tightly. His own authority meant more to him than the servant’s suffering, even after being granted forgiveness for himself. It’s not merely that the debtor didn’t extend the same courtesy to his own debtor. The issue was that the debtor did not form himself to self-sacrificing love in order to spare the lesser servant as he himself had been spared. It’s not that he was denied entry into the kingdom — it’s that the debtor made it impossible for himself to enter.
When we give up our wrath and anger, our self-justifying sense of pain and injury, we no longer need to ask how many times someone should be forgiven for these offenses. To the extent that we recall our pain and anger at all, it should be to remind ourselves of our own sinful natures so that we can maintain compassion for the sins of others, even when they stick to our own flesh. Allowing those to define us reduces us to mere exchanges of pain and insult; moving past those allows us to define ourselves in the image of God.
Of course, none of this explains why God would need a starship, but … I’m still working on that.
Update: Edited slightly from original to be more charitable to the film. This isn’t supposed to be a review. My apologies.
The front-page image is “Christ’s Charge to Peter” by Raphael, 1515-16. Currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.