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Mercy in the chambers of the heart

Yesterday on the radio, Mark Shea and I spent nearly an hour talking about mercy — what it means, what it’s for, how we receive it, and how we pass it on. (Some faulty equipment forced me to use my phone to join the conversation, so this hour also includes stunning audio of my ridiculous dog barking, my baby crying, my older kids slamming doors, and of course someone clattering by on stilts. On stilts. Savages.) 

I had a small epiphany as we talked. Mark mentioned the parable of the unforgiving debtor. You know the story: This fellow owes his master a huge sum of money, and throws himself on his mercy, begging for more time. The master has pity and forgives the debt. Rather than rejoicing, the servant immediately turns around and finds a fellow servant who owes him a small amount of money. He refuses to have mercy on him, but grabs the poor man by the throat and has him arrested. The king finds out about it and has the first servant sent to prison and tortured.

The message gets repeated several times:

[I]f you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. 

It certainly sounds like a simple tit-for-tat arrangement: if you refuse to forgive, then God will get back at you by refusing to forgive you. Or, if you are forgiven by God, then you better pay Him back by forgiving other people. It seems fair, but it’s always bothered me a bit. I understand that the unforgiving servant is behaving abominably, but after all, the master has endless wealth. He can easily afford to forgive the debt anyway, even if the guy he forgives is a jerk. Can’t he just eat it, because . . . well, he’s the master?

Setting aside the parable for a moment, I thought about how giving and receiving mercy, how offering and accepting forgiveness, seemed to proceed in my own life, in my actual experience. The truth is, I sympathize a little too much with the unforgiving debtor. It’s horribly easy to go to confession, collect my $200 — uh, I mean absolution — and then turn around and get mad at my husband for some minor thing, like not offering to strap the baby into her car seat. And I just got out of confession, where I probably wouldn’t even bother to confess something so minor as a trifling act of omission of courtesy. How can I act like that? And what can I do to be a better servant, more grateful, more forgiving in response to the forgiveness I’ve just received?

I find that I fail miserably to forgive when I behave as if the forgiveness offered to me is a transaction, a simple tit-for-tat arrangement — as if forgiveness is a heavy responsibility that I have to lug around until I can palm it off on someone else.I find it harder to forgive others if I behave as if I am receiving forgiveness in return for going to confession. Of course, absolution still “works” — I really am forgiven — even if my contrition is imperfect and my disposition is lousy. But I’m far more likely to be able to change my behavior afterwards if I remember to receive forgiveness in the context of a relationship with God.

This means calling to mind that forgiveness is offered out of sheer love, and allowing myself to just kind of revel in it, rather than make sense of it. There is no reason for it, no sense to it. He didn’t have to do it. He did it just because He wanted to, because He loves me. It’s not about me at all; it’s all about Him.

Perhaps that was the real mistake that the unforgiving debtor made: maybe he never really acknowledged the love that was at the heart of the master’s forgiveness. Probably he convinced himself he had it coming, somehow — that it was unfair for the master to expect him to pay off his debt. Maybe he resented him, and persuaded himself that it was the least he could do.  Isn’t this how we sometimes act when people are very good to us? We twist it around in our heads until their generosity not only seems fair, but the very least we can expect, rather than unfathomably more than we have any right to even hope for.

Little wonder that, even after receiving mercy, this servant was unable to find it in his heart to forgive his fellow servant even a small debt. He couldn’t find mercy in his heart because he hadn’t ever really let it in to his heart.

Okay, now let’s return to scripture. Notice that it says, “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.” (Emphasis is mine.) I think that was the problem all along. The servant couldn’t pass on forgiveness because he hadn’t received forgiveness into his heart.

Oh, the heart. 

Mercy and forgiveness flow both ways because that’s how living things operate. We breathe in and out. Our heart has veins and arteries, and the blood flows through the chambers both ways. One way isn’t enough. It would be absurd to imagine that we could be healthy if we inhaled as much as we liked, but never exhaled. We wouldn’t be pleased if our heart did a great job of pumping blood in, but couldn’t let any blood out. It’s not that we’re trying to be fair; it’s just how we’re designed. It’s how living things operate. We’re not dead ends; we’re a series of systems that ebb and flow, cycle, and exchange. This is what it means to be alive.

And this is what it means to forgive: first, to accept forgiveness for what it truly is. It seems like bestowing mercy would be the hard part, but maybe receiving mercy is where we need to start. Next time, I’d like to talk more about what that actually looks like, and why it’s so hard.

***
Photo: The Sacred Heart of Jesus by Tony Alter via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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