“He had him put in jail, until he paid back what he owed.”
I was once part of a faith community where there was a woman, I’ll call Elena, who, as I understand it, years before had been severely wronged. The offending party was also a member of the community and he and his family remained so for many years, leaving just before my arrival. All attempts at reconciling the parties had failed. Elena just was not able to forgive.
Elena became a very bitter person. In truth she had locked this offending man in a prison of unforgiveness. Placing him in a dark cell, she could never see the good qualities of the man. As time went on she had to enlarge the cell block, for anyone who she perceived siding with him also came to share his guilt. First his family joined him in this prison, then his friends, until soon half of the faith community was in Elena’s prison. Even some members of her own family were placed in this dark, damp, dungeon of debt to Elena.
Guarding this prison became a huge chore for Elena. She had to be careful never to let a smile slip to one of her prisoners. She had to fight back a spontaneous chuckle to any thing humorous a prisoner might say. When tragedy would strike any of her offenders she could not offer any more than a cold obligatory condolence. Life in the faith community became a strain for her. She had to watch where she sat in meetings to avoid being next to any of her prisoners. She had to be reserved and cautious with each new person who came into the community, mentally giving them a frisking to determine whose side they would be on, hers or the prisoners. Because of her nervous response to people, they tended to shy away from her and form relationships with the “wrong” side. Elena was becoming a lonely individual. Ironically, many of her prisoners didn’t even know they were in prison. They lived life free and happy, never knowing that an offense had occurred some twenty years before. They just thought Elena was a sad, old woman.
You see the problem with building a prison of unforgiveness is that you have to guard it. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, year after year, you have to guard your prisoners. You yourself are locked in, destined to spend your entire life walking the halls, checking each cell. Elena had become a prisoner in a prison of her own making. There she was inflicted by the the torturers of bitterness and loneliness who slowly drained from her the richness of life.
Unfortunately, Elena did not see what was happening to her. In all other respects she was a good person. She was a doer of many good things, often sacrificing for those in need, as long as they were outside her own prison. In terms of the original offense she was right. In her life she was good. Therefore she never realized her own need of forgiveness. Never having asked for forgiveness from God, not seeing the need, she could not offer it to others. She was right after all. Dead right.
Twenty-Fourth Sunday Sir 27: 30-28: 7, Rom 14: 7 -9, Mt 18: 21-35
Peace Connections: Making the connection between the Sunday Readings and issues of peace and justice. Copyright 1995, by Thomas L. Garlitz. “Not for profit” permission to reprint granted.