Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21-22.
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It could be said that the theme of forgiveness runs like a golden thread throughout Jesus’ ministry. From Peter’s confession upon meeting Jesus for the first time, ” Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8), which he clearly meant, but which Jesus ignored, thus forgiving him, through to the cross itself, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34), it is a constant theme. The parable Jesus tells today clearly shows that forgiveness is expected of everyone no matter what. To be Christian is to be one who forgives. To be a follower of Christ means revenge is an unknown. When Jesus says you must forgive seventy times (or “seventy times seven times”, a translation I think is preferable), Jesus means always, without exception. That means that even though we might be in utter turmoil over that which must be forgiven, or that there is crushing pain involved, even then, a Christian forgives. It ain’t easy – especially if you try applying all this to forgiving yourself! The fact that once in a while forgiveness springing from a heinous act is seen, it usually makes headlines. Look at what happened in May 1983, when Pope St. John Paul II visited Mehmet Ali Ağca in prison, the man who tried to kill him, and forgave him. Take a look at the entry for Sunday Mass Readings, 23 February 2020: the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, describing the horrific event at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, where the Amish people forgave the man who had shot dead their children. Or the forgiveness of Nobuo Fujita, the Japanese pilot responsible for the single World War II enemy attack on the USA mainland, bombing Brookings, Oregon. He asked for, and received the town’s forgiveness in 1962. Or, from the opposite angle, the infamous but mistaken US napalm attack on Vietnamese children, immortalized by the photograph of the little girl, Kim Phuc, running from the horror. She has forgiven those who planned the attack, and even founded a charity dedicated to caring for children affected by violence. Forgiveness sometimes seems completely impossible given immense cruelty and suffering, but as Christians that is what we are ordered by Jesus himself to do. The alternatives are horrible: hatred, malice, enmity, revenge. These are all negative, making any horrendous situation even worse, despite what comes out of Hollywood!
“Revenge is a dish best served cold” is a popular expression offered as a way of getting back at someone who has done you wrong. A thousand movies have been based on this thought, making for great entertainment, but not for good example. It even goes up to state level, with capital punishment, still legal in many states of the USA. Apart from the lack of forgiveness, it is illogical. How do you reconcile killing someone in cold blood, which is what capital punishment is, with the idea that murder is wrong? The church has rightly declared such a punishment utterly evil, to be abolished. Compare the “death chamber” with the prison cell of Mehmet Ali Ağca being forgiven by his victim, who then turned his life around. Capital punishment is in no possible way forgiveness! It is the exact reverse! And take a look at today’s parable; the man who did not display forgiveness, he who had received it himself, was handed over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt! So this is not to say that evil people committing evil acts should not be punished (look at last week’s SundayMassReadings.com), but they do unwittingly and no doubt ignorantly provide Christians with an unwanted opportunity to display proper Christian behavior. Scripture is quite clear on the matter, even in the Old Testament – look at today’s reading from the Book of Sirach, written 2,200 years ago. Now look at today’s secular take on the response to hatred and malice, this one from the Mayo Clinic, stating that “if you don’t practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays most dearly. By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Consider how forgiveness can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.” Finally, what if you cannot forgive? Well there are some lesser remedies. One is to be merciful, namely, to be compassionate to someone who does not deserve it. That is not forgiveness, but it is a step towards it. Another is to try empathy – putting yourself into the other’s shoes, with their background and almost certainly suffering. Although you would not do what they did, it might provide some understanding at least as to why. Then, in the end, there is always prayer.
Police Officer Steven McDonald, a beacon of forgiveness. (He came to my school once and made an enormous impression, even though he had to wait for each breath to be pumped into his lungs so he could speak).
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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