Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the LORD’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD? Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins? If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins? Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin! Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.
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.”
I’ve been thinking about prudence. The Catechism tells us that prudence is “The virtue which disposes a person to discern the good and choose the correct means to accomplish it.” It goes on: Prudence “dispose(s) the Christian to live according to the law of Christ,” and “provides…guidance for the judgment of conscience.” (CCC p895-6)
To repeat, the Catechism tells us that prudence disposes us “to live according to the law of Christ” and it provides us “guidance for the judgment of conscience.” For Catholics, the conscience is the ultimate guide. This is from the Vatican II document Gaudium et spes (16), the Pastoral Constitution of the Church:
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment…For man has in his heart a law ascribed by God…His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.
Without the proper guidance however, we can confuse conscience with other things: the voice of the world, the flesh and or the devil. There may have been some indoctrination that is counter to Church teachings. Events in life can warp our perspectives. Perhaps there was an issue of abuse in our early years. Or we might be victim to some mental illness. There are many things that can lead us to slip into thinking that our consciences are instructing us to do something contrary to the laws of God and the Church.
To give insight into this Pope Saint John Paul II wrote several things on the topic including the encyclical Veritatis Splendor or “The Splendor of Truth.” He teaches that the conscience is not subjective, but is the conveyor of objective truth. There cannot be a moral truth for one person and a different one for someone else. Abortion can’t be killing a child for one person and a good moral choice for another. St. John Paul tells us that the conscience actually represents the overcoming of subjectivity because it brings us into direct contact with the moral truth revealed by God.
Once we know and embrace the teachings of the Church on moral issues we realize that the conscience embraces the truth of moral norms and when that happens, you and I appreciate that these norms are not alien or imposed from the outside. Rather they orient us to our own good and personal fulfillment.
For example, when our consciences perceive the intrinsic value of marriage, then we subscribe to the norm forbidding adultery not because it is some burdensome external command, but because following this norm is in harmony with our own nature and the objective order of goodness willed by God. When we know the truth of the Church, then our consciences are at peace when we practice this truth.
According to St. John Paul, the “conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil.” Rather, the conscience must act in conformity with the objective moral norms given to us by God, and if this does not happen, then our conscience is in error. Conscience is always subordinate to moral truth. It is crucial, therefore, to dispel the myth that conscience is a lawgiver or represents the final subjective determination of what’s good or what’s evil.
Conscience, therefore, is far more than a rational judgment process. Through our consciences we are open to the demands of moral truth and the voice of God who speaks to us through that truth. Our consciences provide all of us with the capacity to transcend our own egos so that we can grasp those objective truths that perfect us and consequently we are lead to fullness of life. Saint John Paul emphasizes that our consciences need to be tutored; we need instruction from the teachings of the Church and we need to be instructed especially from the scriptures.
As an example, today we have scriptures before us that instruct our consciences. We must take them to heart if we are to be faithfully prudent. This is God’s instruction for our consciences.
We can start at the opening lines from our first lesson from Sirach: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail.”
A well-tutored, prudent conscience does not permit vengeance, even though there are times when we want to give into the very sinful notion of “I don’t get mad—I get even.”
In the Gospel lesson we hear something more. Here we have Saint Peter asking how many times he needs to forgive his brother. And in response, Jesus tells the parable of forgiveness of monetary debt, which in fact deals with the nature and state of our hearts.
It’s appropriate for each of us to ask, ‘What is the state of my heart, the place where my conscience lies?” Remember the teaching of Gaudium et Spes, we have in our hearts “a law ascribed by God.” This is heart-level faith. I regularly will ask someone in confession if they are suffering from hardness of heart, the state that blocks the holiness of our consciences. I’ve found over the years that when one suffers from hardness of heart there are generally two causes.
The first is the heart that is calloused over. This generally comes from a sense of competency and efficiency. A person may be quite good at accomplishing tasks and gets very impatient with those who are less competent, who get in the way, who mess things up. This kind of hardness of heart, this callousness blocks compassion and gives way to a seriously critical and oftentimes resentful nature.
A second reason for hardness of heart is scar tissue. This is from old wounds that have caused the heart to be scarred. And this scarring prevents one from being compassionate. These old wounds that have been scarred over and often prevent us from being kindhearted to someone who reminds us of the old times of wounding.
The penance I regularly assign to this hardness of heart is for the penitent to ask our Blessed Mother to come and gently massage the callous or the scar tissue and break it up, so that the heart can be soft and supple. When this happens the heart is open to the instructions of God for our consciences and enables us to be more sensitive and more receptive to prudence.
Back to the Gospel lesson.
Peter asks: “Lord if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” The Greek here is a little ambiguous and I think the translation is a bit misleading. It implies that Jesus is saying that there is a finite number of times we are to forgive someone. So if somebody sins against you 78 times, you no longer have to forgive him because he’s already used up the allotted 77 times.
I think there is a better translation of this passage, one that speaks to the intent of our Lord, It is to replace the number 77 with the number 7 to the 70th power. I asked my son the engineer to calculate this for me. He said it was 1.435 followed by 59 zeros. I’m not going to check his math, but remember that a million is 1 followed by 6 zeros. 59 zeros represent a really, really big number. That’s the point.
Once again Jesus is using hyperbole, extreme exaggeration, to teach us. We are to forgive always with no finite number attached. We are never to run out of forgiveness. Why? Because God never runs out of forgiveness for us—never.
And just as we are forgiven, we are to forgive. It’s a critical part of the prayer Jesus taught us “Forgive us our trespasses, as, AS,AS, we forgive those who trespass against us.” Being forgiven and forgiving others are so intertwined they cannot be separated, a basic Catholic teaching.
The New Testament speaks with one voice on the subject. Forgiveness is not like a Christmas present that a kindly old grandfather gives to a sulky kid, even if the grandchild hasn’t bought a single gift for anyone else.
Forgiveness is more like blood in your heart. There’s only room for blood to come in if your heart has pumped the blood out. Your heart pumps out blood and takes in more blood. You can’t separate one from the other. Whatever the spiritual, moral or emotional equivalent of a heart may be, it’s either open or closed. If it’s open, able and willing to forgive others, it will be open to receive God’s love and forgiveness, and instruction for our consciences.
But if it it’s locked up to the one, it will be locked up to the other. Jesus finishes the parable by making it clear; if you don’t “forgive from the heart,” you are not going to be forgiven.
You can feel it along with your heartbeat: forgiveness out—forgiveness in—forgiveness out—forgiveness in. In fact it’s actually love in—love out—love in—love out—love in—love out. It’s a major rhythm of the life of the Faithful.
Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer says it all: If you are still counting how many times you’ve forgiven someone, you’re not really forgiving them, you’re probably just postponing revenge.
What Jesus is talking about is simple. Don’t even think about the number of times you forgive, just do it from the heart. It’s the best way to assure your own forgiveness and to honor Christ who died for the forgiveness of your sins and mine. We have no higher calling. It’s the ultimate expression of prudence.
I close with more of God’s instruction from Sirach:
Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay and cease from sin! Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults. This is real prudence.