Forgiveness (Le Pardon),
Sculpture by Pieter Braecke (1858-1938),
Sculpted in 1893
© The Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels
How often must I forgive?
Peter went up to Jesus and said, ‘Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.
‘And so the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who decided to settle his accounts with his servants. When the reckoning began, they brought him a man who owed ten thousand talents; but he had no means of paying, so his master gave orders that he should be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, to meet the debt. At this, the servant threw himself down at his master’s feet. “Give me time” he said “and I will pay the whole sum.” And the servant’s master felt so sorry for him that he let him go and cancelled the debt. Now as this servant went out, he happened to meet a fellow servant who owed him one hundred denarii; and he seized him by the throat and began to throttle him. “Pay what you owe me” he said. His fellow servant fell at his feet and implored him, saying, “Give me time and I will pay you.” But the other would not agree; on the contrary, he had him thrown into prison till he should pay the debt. His fellow servants were deeply distressed when they saw what had happened, and they went to their master and reported the whole affair to him. Then the master sent for him. “You wicked servant,” he said “I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?” And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt. And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.’
Jesus had now finished what he wanted to say, and he left Galilee and came into the part of Judaea which is on the far side of the Jordan.
Reflection on the sculpture
In our Gospel reading today Jesus tells a parable about a servant who received the gift of forgiveness from his master but then refused to pass on that same gift to a fellow servant. It is a parable which celebrates God’s readiness to forgive us whenever we ask for forgiveness. But it is also a parable that challenges us to do exactly the same: forgive when we are asked to forgive.
Jesus thus tells us that in fact it is an obligation to pass on the gift of forgiveness of his father to others when it is asked for. But to forgive someone who has really hurt us is very hard to do. Peter’s question at the beginning of the reading reflects this, as he asks Jesus ‘How often must I forgive my brother?’ The implication of his question is that there has to be a limit to forgiveness. Peter errs on the generous side, suggesting seven times would be often enough. But Jesus calls for seventy seven times. He implies that there should be no limit to our willingness to forgive.
Our sculpture by Pieter Braecke from 1893 is titled Forgiveness. We don’t know exactly what the story is between these two figures. What we can see is a man bending backward in an awkward position, half-naked with his hands clenched either in prayer or in pleading. The woman’s (maybe his mother) face is close to the man, as she plants a kiss on his cheek. She is warmly embracing him. What we are witnessing is the moment a relationship is transformed. Whatever tension was there, has been dissolved by a mercy and forgiveness.
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