The Grace to Forgive
Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year. Fr John Patrick Kenrick meditates on forgiveness.
In our moral lives a readiness to forgive is probably the most difficult goal of all. Many people struggle with the idea of forgiving those who have done us serious, especially irreparable, harm. The secular world often endorses the idea that some offences are ‘beyond forgiveness’, which we ought to know is untrue from our faith in an all-merciful Father. In the list of moral priorities there is probably nothing higher than the duty to forgive. Our own ultimate fate may depend on it. As an act of omission it may not appear to be a serious sin. When someone has harmed us it may seem that this very fact exonerates us of all responsibility towards that person. St Paul takes a very different view – we are in fact responsible for each other since, in his words, ‘we live for the Lord’ not for ourselves.
If we don’t forgive others how can we ourselves be forgiven, asks the ever pragmatic author of Ecclesiasticus. For him ‘fear of the Lord’ is the highest wisdom and the reality of divine judgment trumps any wounded feelings we may nurse. This book was written long before Jesus was born, around the beginning of the 2nd century BC, just before King Antiochus Epiphanes began to persecute the Jews. So Christ’s teaching on the need to forgive was informed by Jewish tradition which had been evolving over centuries into an ever more just and humane code. To this day Orthodox Jews not only ask forgiveness of God on the Day of Atonement; they also practice asking forgiveness three times of those whom they may have offended. As with the acquisition of any virtue practice is necessary if we are to become people ready to forgive offences. If we too practised asking others for forgiveness more often we might find it easier, in turn, to forgive.
One of the difficulties we all have with forgiveness is not so much our inability to forgive at all but the often half-hearted or prejudiced way we do it. It can be easier to forgive those whom we favour and we may quickly find excuses for their ill behaviour. It can also be more difficult to forgive offences from those closest to us if we feel deeply wounded. At the same time we may resent much smaller things in people we just don’t like or with whom we don’t get along. So it’s easy to be unfair in the way we forgive and, as the gospel tells us today, forgiveness is ultimately a question of justice – we owe it to others to forgive them – it is what God expects of us. When we find it difficult to forgive we should ask ourselves if it’s just our wounded pride. Perhaps that failure to forgive is even helpful spiritually – if it reveals the superficial nature of our own love of neighbour.
Of course we cannot be expected to love in the perfect ‘disinterested’ way that God loves all of his creatures. It’s also natural for us to prefer those closest to us. That is why the Gospel gives us a very pragmatic reason for forgiving other people. Christ knows that we find forgiveness difficult – so he advises us to forgive if only in order to be forgiven ourselves. We would be foolish not to take that advice to heart.
Being unforgiving is, in the end, a bit like meanness, not sharing what we ourselves enjoy. Of course, it helps when we begin to reflect on our own sins, and how generous and forgiving God has been to us.
It is not, then, the sins that we ourselves have committed that pose an obstacle to our salvation but rather something less obvious, much easier to overlook – a refusal to embrace the universal nature of divine mercy and its implications for the way we relate to each other. Jesus tells St Peter ‘you must forgive seventy-seven times’, in other words ‘without end’.
We have nothing to fear from the judgment of God as long as we don’t end our lives with a heart hardened against another person or still bearing grudges. It may not be easy completely to forgive another person; but practice makes perfect and the grace to do that is there for the asking.
Image: detail from a photograph of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, in which Dominican priests hear confessions around the clock. Photograph by Pierre Selim Huard via Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY 3.0)