After Pope John Paul II was shot in 1981, the cover of Time magazine had a picture of the Roman pontiff forgiving the assassin with the headline, “Why Forgive?” If we remove the cynical tone, it is a good question to ask. While many of us might not have encountered someone who has tried to kill us, we all have been in situations where extreme forgiveness was required. In today’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus calls His disciples to forgive “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:22). This is extreme forgiveness. This week and next, I’d like to address all of this under the heading of “Why forgive?”
First, why should God forgive? Let’s go back to the beginning of the story between God and man. He creates man (male and female) and gives him everything that he could ever want or need. All that comes from God is good. The first roaming place on earth – the garden of Eden – is described as “paradise”. So, for man, it’s all good! God has hooked him up big time. But, then, man chooses to waste all of that through Original Sin.
To make things worse, as the Catechism says, “after that first sin, the world is virtually inundated by sin. There is Cain’s murder of his brother Abel and the universal corruption which follows in the wake of sin. Likewise, sin frequently manifests itself in the history of Israel, especially as infidelity to the God of the Covenant and as transgression of the Law of Moses” (CCC, #401).
In addition, the prophets that God sent received extreme persecution. So, basically, man spits on all the good that God gave him. God’s response? He sends His only Son into the world in order to forgive the serious and long-standing sins of His people. Throughout salvation history, God counters sin with mercy. Why? How?
It is God’s nature to forgive. That’s who He is. His essence is mercy. His essence is love. Plainly put, God cannot NOT forgive. God cannot NOT love. He is Father Almighty with “infinite mercy, for he displays his power at its height by freely forgiving sins” (CCC, # 270). We see the image of the Father of Mercy through the father of the prodigal son (Lk 15). The son represents the children of God who have wasted their inheritance – the beautiful gifts of their Creator and Father. After his disastrous sin, he comes to his father to ask for mercy. When the father saw his son returning to him, “he was filled with compassion”. God is always filled with compassion. God is always filled with love. “The first effect of the gift of love is the forgiveness of sins” (CCC, #734).
It is also God’s plan to forgive. In His infinite wisdom and providence, He knew that we would sin and reject Him when He created us. His Plan from all eternity, then, was to forgive us. It’s not like He was caught off guard by our sin and our need for forgiveness. We never catch God off guard by our sin. He has seen it all coming. It’s always a dramatic point whenever I counsel someone that Christ saw all their sins from the Cross and gave His life for their sins to be forgiven. That’s really the place to go when we ask why does God forgive. The Cross is the greatest sign of God’s mercy and love in the world. And, on top of the dramatic act of offering His body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins, He even says on the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”.
Second, why should we forgive? My favorite answer to this and similar questions is, because Jesus says so! He says so in today’s Gospel: “forgive seventy-seven times”. This essentially means to forgive always. It means to have radical and limitless mercy…to always being willing to forgive. Sound like anyone that I just described above? We should forgive so that we can be like God who always forgives. We should forgive in order to live God’s mercy.
We should also forgive to receive God’s mercy. In today’s first reading (Sir 27), the Lord says, “forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven”. We pray each time in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. In other words, we will be forgiven based on how we have forgiven others.
Next week, I will present other examples of forgiving seventy-seven times. What are examples in your own life or that you have seen around you? I will also explore the process and benefits of forgiveness, and what to do when you’re having trouble forgiving someone.
May you know the peace of Christ,