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The Forgiveness Deception
A Reflection on Matthew 18:21-35
Note: This reflection has been adapted from chapter 6 of my upcoming book, Don’t Plant Your Seeds Among Thorns: A Catholic Guide to Domestic Abuse.
In Matthew 18:21-22 we read: “Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.’”
Oh, yikes. That sounds scary. Seriously, how much are we supposed to endure? What does “turning the other cheek” really mean? Is Jesus telling us that we should be doormats for abusive and manipulative people?
And what does it truly mean to forgive?
Forgiveness can be a tricky topic, especially when people are chronically mistreating us without any signs of remorse, repentance or change. However—and as always—Jesus shows us the way.
A good example what forgiveness is—and what it isn’t—can be found in the example of a someone who uses emotional manipulation as a means of control, yet who also professes to be a Christian. Such a person may claim: “Jesus said you have to forgive me, no matter how many times I mess up. I can do what I want, as long as I tell you I’m sorry afterward. And you have to forgive.”
This type of person uses a deliberate misinterpretation of Sacred Scripture as an excuse to continue their toxic behaviors.
They will also expect you to forget what they’ve done, to erase it from your memory as if you’d never been harmed—not caring or even considering the damage that does to your emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being.
Yet this isn’t what Jesus is talking about. At all.
It’s interesting to notice that immediately after Jesus spoke about forgiving “not seven times, but seventy times seven,” He then launched into what we now call “the parable of the unmerciful servant” (Matt. 18:23-35). This unmerciful servant was the guy whose financial debt was forgiven by his king—but then he turned around and demanded repayment for a lesser debt that was owed him by another. When the king found out what his servant had done, he was justifiably enraged.
Here are the key points we need to notice. First, the king forgives the high debt of his servant—which corresponds to Jesus’ teaching about forgiving others “seventy times seven.” However, the servant himself refuses to forgive the lesser debt of another, which proves this servant to be ungrateful, unrepentant and unchanging in his selfish attitudes and behaviors.
The mercy that he was blessed with didn’t cause him to grow in empathy or to become merciful to another. He failed to learn from his mistakes or gain virtue and insight from the forgiveness given to him. Instead, he took that forgiveness and abused it by steadfastly refusing mercy to another.
What happens next? Does the king “forgive and forget” this latest transgression of his servant?
Instead, the king throws the servant into jail until the time when he’s able or willing to pay the entirety of his debt.
What does this tell us about the nature of forgiveness, particularly when Jesus’ words about forgiving “seventy times seven” are used as an excuse by some people for continuing abusive or manipulative behavior?
Forgiveness is a journey, not a destination.
Forgiveness is a journey, not a destination. It takes time, self-care, and guidance from the Holy Spirit. Forgiveness doesn’t mean reconciliation, regaining trust in someone who has proven untrustworthy, or amnesia. Rather, forgiveness is about the love of the Spirit within the core of our spirit, and the refusal to allow resentment to take root within our souls.
“Forgiveness” in the form of ignoring toxic behavior—without holding the guilty party responsible for their words, attitudes and actions—is actually enabling them to sin, which is the opposite of Christ’s teachings. Going back further in the same chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells us, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother … If he refuses to listen … let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:15,17).
Jesus is clearly saying that forgiveness doesn’t equal reconciliation, nor does it mean ignoring the transgression and pretending it didn’t happen. True forgiveness is about letting go of resentment and surrendering your emotions to God.
Forgiveness isn’t about forgetting—it’s about healing.
Let Christ, our Divine Physician, heal us of all our wounds, both great and small!
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