12 August 2010

Stop counting and forgive

19th Week OT (R)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Univ of Dallas


You may be surprised to learn that most pumpkins in the U.S. are naturalized citizens. That the soul is located in a gland found in the brain. And that monkeys are usually politically libertarian. Are you surprised? You should be. You should be surprised not because these fascinating facts are in fact false, but because they pretend to tell us something about the world that they cannot tell us. Pumpkins are not subject to the citizen naturalization process. The soul is not a physical entity that can be located in a body part. And monkeys are not the sorts of creatures that have political opinions. When we say things like, “I've visited every building on campus, but I've yet to see the university,” we are making what philosophers call a “category mistake.” The university is not a building that can visited. The mistake occurs when we believe that the non-physical entity (the university) can be visited as if it were a physical entity (a building). Peter makes this same sort of mistake when he asks Jesus, “How many times must I forgive my brother?” Jesus' answer is a bit more poetic than, “Peter, you are making a category mistake.” He says, “You must forgive from the heart.”

Peter's mistake is understandable and easily forgivable. The Law under which he carried out his religious duties was stacked with accountable obligations; discreet, countable practices. The proper kind and number of animals for sacrifice. The proper number of days for fasting. Ten Commandments. Twelve tribes. Seventy judges. His question is not a devious attempt to avoid Jesus' teaching on forgiveness. Rather he is trying to learn—within his religious tradition—what his obligation to forgive others means in practical terms. We Catholics are prone to making our own category mistakes. “Father, do I get more grace if I attend Mass twice a day?” Or “Aren't my sins better forgiven if I confess them twice?” Grace and forgiveness are not the sorts of things that can be numbered, measured, or intensified. There is no such thing as “more grace” or “better forgiveness.” There is grace and there is forgiveness. Both are superlative, always excellent in themselves, and achieved once for all through Christ.

Jesus makes this point when he teaches Peter to forgive from his heart rather than from his counted reserves of mercy. A philosopher might say that to forgive is dispositional; that is, when you forgive you forgive because of who you are. You are disposed to forgive. A theologian would say that you forgive because you are intensely aware that you yourself have been forgiven. Forgiving others is a matter of spreading the Good News of God's boundless mercy. Counting the number of times you forgive a sin committed against you violates the very nature of mercy. Mercy flows from Mercy Himself—limitless, continuous, and innumerable. We are not charged with acting as God's accountants of merciful acts, meticulously toting up debits and credits. Rather, we are vowed to being living, unobstructed conduits of His forgiveness for others. We are able to forgive only because He has forgiven us first.

Seven times eleven is not seventy-seven in the arithmetic of forgiveness. Seventy-seven is the number given for our forgiving natures, the number that exceeds counting, exceeds all limits. We are bound in obedience to Christ to forgive the 78th, 79th, and 80th time we are sinned against. In mercy, we are forbidden to count; by divine love, we should want to.

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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:05 AM

    But! But!! Most monkeys are more intelligent than politicians.