Opening the Word: In need of mercy

“To err is human,” wrote Alexander Pope, “to forgive, divine.” Alas, modern readers sometimes assume that “err” refers to an innocent mistake or laughable foible. But to err (from the Latin, errare) means to depart from moral truth, to spurn right action. Pope was making reference to this statement by St. Augustine: “To err is human, but to persist in error out of pride is diabolical.” 

This same truth is presented in today’s reading from Sirach: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” The text contrasts vengeance with forgiveness. It makes clear all men are sinners; the questions that follow are vital for everyone: Will I forgive those who have committed injustices against me? Will I seek pardon for my sins, knowing life is short and God is a just judge? 

It is always challenging to hear this passage, but it is especially difficult to contemplate, I think, on the 10th anniversary of the violent attacks we now simply call 9/11. What took place that day was diabolical, even while the brave and selfless response of so many to the pain and death around them was dramatic and inspiring. The questions raised by such violence are painful and trying. How, in the face of such evil and destruction, can we forgive those who trespass against us, and who wish to destroy us?  

We can see why Pope would write that forgiveness is divine, for man’s natural inclination is toward revenge and hatred. We might feel the same desire for retaliation when we are victims of a lie, treated unjustly, mocked for stating the truth or “crucified” for our beliefs. Of course, Jesus Christ was the victim of lies, was treated unjustly, was mocked for being the Truth and was crucified — literally. And yet the Savior cried out, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). 

In doing so, Jesus provided a radical example of his demanding teaching, as heard in today’s Gospel. In telling the parable of the unmerciful servant, he purposefully exaggerated the immense difference between the two debts. The “huge amount” owed by the king’s servant was 10,000 talents, or about 20 years of earnings. The man could not repay what he owed; he was completely at the mercy of the king. Having begged for his master’s patience, the man was not only shown mercy, but granted complete freedom from all debt. At one moment his life was essentially over; the next, he was transformed and free. 

Yet he failed to be truly grateful toward the king or gracious toward others. Seeing a fellow servant who owed him a much smaller amount — about a single-day’s wage — he demanded repayment, and then had the begging servant cast into prison for not producing the money. We immediately recognize both the rich mercy of the king and the grave injustice rendered by the first servant. 

Why is forgiveness so hard? There are many reasons, but a fundamental issue is our failure to love as God loves us and to give up what is rightly ours so that righteousness can flow forth to others. “Almost no other parable,” wrote Father Hans Urs von Balthasar, “confronts us so dramatically with the extent of our sinful lovelessness: We demand incessantly from our fellow men what we think they owe us, without giving a moment’s thought to the immensity of the debt God has forgiven us.” We all sin; we all need forgiveness. And the forgiveness we receive and give is a divine gift. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of