“Pay it forward” has become a common term in American parlance ever since the Hollywood film by the same name was released in 2000. It’s the story of a young boy, who attempts to make the world a better place after his teacher gives him that chance.
The movie chronicles twelve-year old Trevor McKinney’s launch of a goodwill movement known as “pay it forward.” Trevor’s social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet, gives the class an assignment to devise and put into action a plan that will change the world for the better. Trevor’s plan is a charitable program based on the networking of good deeds. He calls his plan “pay it forward,” which means the recipient of a favor does a favor for three others rather than paying the favor back.
Trevor’s vision is that the uplifting actions continue along a branching tree of good deeds, spreading across the whole world. Indeed, the movie sparked a number of pay-it-forward movements. In Atlanta, for example, a Christian radio station, “104.7 The Fish,” created the “Drive Thru Difference.” Customers in a drive-through line at a fast food restaurant are encouraged to pay for the food of the person waiting in line behind them. “You never know what type of difference you could make in the lives of those around you,” the station’s website urges. “The person working at the restaurant sees you making a difference, and the person behind you may even decide to do the same thing for the person behind them.”
In the gospel reading today, Jesus basically sets forth a pay-it-forward program of forgiveness. In the parable told by Jesus, the audience rightfully is scandalized by the actions of the unforgiving servant, who was forgiven an enormous debt by the king but then refused to pay forward the mercy he received and forgive someone who owed him a much smaller debt.
We all know that we should forgive each other. Yet, one of the most common confessions I hear is lack of forgiveness. Perhaps the incongruence is best explained by an assumption that forgiveness is something we choose to extend magnanimously, when it suits us. Forgiveness, we tend to think, is a free act of generosity towards the one who has offended us. We can decide whether to forgive or to condemn, to show mercy or to remain unmerciful, to move on or cling to resentment.
There is some truth, of course, to this perception. However, the last words of the parable should remind us that the mercy and forgiveness we seek from God is conditioned on our readiness to extend mercy and offer forgiveness. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “[f]orgiveness is the fundamental condition of the reconciliation of the children of God with their Father and of men with one another” (CCC n. 2844).
Forgiveness is an act of the will. “It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession” (CCC n. 2843). Today, pay forward God’s incredible mercy and forgiveness given to you through the atonement of Christ on the Cross.