“To err is human, but to forgive is divine.”
There are moments in our lives when we get very angry and upset with people who keep hurting us again and again. We can tolerate and forgive once or twice, but isn’t there a limit to forgiveness? Won’t people think we are weak, and step all over us? Don’t we have the right to hit back? The world says: ‘Hit back!’ But God says: “Forgive!” Only forgiveness breaks the cycle of hate. Forgiveness reveals the greatness of love! It is John Paul II who said that “we cannot have peace without justice, but we cannot have justice without forgiveness.”
In the year 1981 there were assassination attempt on two great people, but their reactions were worth considering. Ronald Regan cracked a joke as he was taken to the operation theatre. It only shows how human he was in spite of his critical condition. Pope John Paul II too was critically wounded, but his reaction was completely different. He said I forgive the man and visited him in prison personally at a later time. It revealed the greatness and magnanimity of the Papacy and his convictions.
Graham Staines, an Australian missionary, along with his family, was working among the socially outcast lepers in the state of Orissa, India. On January 23, 1999, he along with his two little sons – Philip and Timothy, were brutally burnt alive in their jeep by a group of Hindu fundamentalists led by one Dara Singh. The aftermath of this gory incident was nationally televised. What moved us to tears when we watched TV was the sight of Mrs. Staines asking Jesus to forgive her husband’s murders. She prayed that Jesus might touch the heart of these men (murders) so that they may not do to others what they had done to her husband and children. In the brutal murder of Mr. Staines and his children by Dara Singh and his gang, we see the triumph of barbarism, and in the forgiveness of Mrs. Staines, we see the triumph of faith and goodness; we see in her forgiveness the triumph of the human spirit touched by Christ.
Today’s first reading from the book of Sirach reminds us that if we seek to avenge the wrong done to us we will not be forgiven the wrongs we ourselves commit against the Lord. If we ourselves are not forgiving how can we obtain pardon from our God? The Book of Sirach suggests that we should be constantly aware of the end of our life, of death itself and not let the sun set on our anger. Life is too short to hold on to grudges. The time may come suddenly when we regret, after the person concerned is no more, that we did not do in life all we could have done to improve our relationship.
Today’s Gospel is a continuation of last week’s, where Jesus outlines a process for initiating reconciliation when there are ruptures within the Christian community. He speaks about moving from one-on-one confrontation to mediation to involvement of the whole community. It is in response to this that Peter asks how often one must forgive. He rightly recognizes the difficulties and complications that accompany such processes. Jesus’ response is that there is no limit to the number of times one must try to forgive. There are endless hurts that require endless offers of forgiveness and endless acts of repentance. One must always be ready to do the difficult work of repairing and reconciling.
The Jewish Law allowed people to retaliate in some circumstances so Peter thought he was being very generous when he suggested that forgiving a person who had repeatedly done wrong, seven times would be the upper limit. Peter expected Jesus to praise him for his generosity in forgiveness. Jesus instead raises the upper limit: “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times!” There can be, there has to be no limit to forgiveness, -that is the way God forgives and we are called to be God-like in our forgiveness of others. To illustrate the point Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving steward and the point to be underlined is the huge debt he was forgiven and how little he himself was ready to forgive. According to oriental tradition, the king had every right to order his official to be sold, along with his wife and children and all his property, in payment of the debt. The guilty official threw himself at the mercy of the king who had pity on him and forgave him everything. What the servant owed the official was a much smaller amount than the official owed the king. Yet despite the servant’s plea the official puts him in prison until his relatives and friends would get him the money. That official stood condemned because he was not mindful of how much he himself had been forgiven by the king. We cannot take the forgiveness of God for granted and abuse his generosity. We might be quick in our condemnation of the official but we must remember that sometimes we ourselves can be hard, cold and unforgiving, especially when the offence has been repeated once too often. We must be convinced that forgiveness is a way of living, a way of choosing to respond with love no matter what the response, it goes on no matter what the price.
One of the most important aspects of this great virtue is that we need to learn to accept and forgive ourselves. We cannot love others unless we love ourselves, so too we cannot forgive others without forgiving our own self. Often we do not acknowledge this, but it is a necessity first and foremost to experience the liberation within ourselves.
When we are hurt or being wronged or even betrayed by a trusted friend, there could be a mixture of resentment, disappointment, anger, despair, mixed in with a craving for justice and a seedling of forgiveness struggling for survival someplace in our emotionally turbulent hearts. It is vital for our wellbeing that this seedling not only survives but triumphs. Justice is essential, reasonable, arguable and human. Forgiveness is mysterious, exciting, energizing, life-giving, painful and divine. It is a response of love. There are aspects to forgiveness that are inextricably linked, the willingness to forgive others and the openness to accept forgiveness oneself. Both aspects grow or decline together within each heart. As long as we refuse to even try to forgive another, we become incapable of forgiving ourselves or of allowing another to forgive us. On the other hand, every time we forgive we open ourselves to be filled with peace. Forgiveness like love is a mystery. It goes beyond justice, apology and retribution. It is appreciated through being experienced. It cannot be measured or counted. Hence, the command of Jesus in this weekend’s gospel is to forgive unconditionally again and again so that our hearts may be enriched beyond all understanding.