FORGIVENESS IS A LIFE LONG OBLIGATION
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ Jos 3:7-11. 13-17; Ps 114:1-6; Mt 18:21-19:1 ]
Forgiveness is one of the most difficult things to do, especially to those who have hurt us deeply. This is because it affects us deeply, our pride, our ego and our well-being, and sometimes seeing the people whom we love deeply being hurt as well. When the wounds inflicted are on the person, forgiveness is even much more difficult, unlike someone who cheats us of our money and our things. That is why for people who have experienced betrayal, infidelity, rejection, abandonment or sexual abuse, especially from their loved ones, it is not easy to forgive because the heart cannot let go, even if the mind desires to.
Even then, some of us might be willing to forgive those who have hurt us once or twice, or even three times. Beyond that, we would not be willing to forgive. Our reasoning is that they have been given enough chances and they should not be given further chances. This was the case of Peter when he asked the Lord, “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?” Peter thought he was being very magnanimous to suggest that forgiveness should be rendered to those who sin against us, even it were for the seventh time.
However, the teaching of Jesus is clear about forgiveness. He said, “Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.” In other words, forgiveness is something we must render always, regardless of the number of times a person has offended us and how badly we have been hurt by him or her. In fact, the theme of forgiveness is the heart of the Christian message. The proclamation of God’s love and mercy is primarily seen in His forgiveness of the sins of humanity. Christ has come to reconcile man with God. The whole mission of Jesus is to convey the forgiveness of God and His mercy for humanity.
The gospel illustrates the magnanimity of God’s forgiveness and mercy for all of us. We are told that one of his servants owed the king ten thousand talents. Of course, this is an exaggeration. Ten thousand talents would be too huge an amount of money for anyone to ever think of repaying in one or two lifetimes, especially if one was just a labourer. Yet, God is like the king. Instead of punishing him, since he had no means to return what he owed, “the servant’s master felt so sorry for him that he let him go and cancelled the debt.” This is the mercy and forgiveness of God for humanity. God always forgives us whenever we repent. He does not stop forgiving us, regardless of the number of times we fail and turn back to Him for forgiveness.
The whole life of Jesus was to pay the debt of our sin by manifesting to us the love and mercy of God through His ministry of preaching and healing. The proclamation of the kingdom is a proclamation of God’s mercy and love. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18) Particularly, in His passion, death and resurrection, Jesus showed us the depth of God’s love and mercy for us all. “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 Jn 2:1f)
Why is forgiveness a never ending reality? Simply because we are sinners! St John wrote, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 Jn 1:8-10) So the truth is that we are fallen creatures because we share in the sin of Adam. And even when we are baptized, concupiscence remains with us. Concupiscence is the tendency to miss the mark and steer off course because of weakness and temptation. The only difference is that with His grace given to us, we can better fight against the temptation of the Evil One. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “certain temporal consequences of sin remain in the baptized, such as suffering, illness, death … as well as an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence” (No. 1264)
If that is the case, it means therefore that we will always need forgiveness. We will fall into sin much as we try to resist. To be human is to sin, to fall short of what we are called to be. We are sinners! The psalmist says, “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart, there is no fear of God before his eyes. For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.” (Ps 36:1f) In another psalm, it says, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight, so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Ps 51:3-5) So if sin speaks deep in our heart, it is difficult to fight against sin because it comes from within us. In other words, we are conceived with sin.
So if that were the case for us, shouldn’t that be so for our fellowmen who need our forgiveness too? We must always forgive them regardless of the number of times they sin. Otherwise, what audacity do we have to ask God for forgiveness of our sins when our sins against God deserve condemnation compared to the sins our have fellowmen committed against us! That is what the master said; “I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?” Jesus concluded, “And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.” If we cannot forgive, it is because we forget that we are sinners and forever in need of forgiveness. We are acting like the servant who owed an enormous debt and was forgiven completely. And like him, having been forgiven for such grievous sins against God, we still hold off forgiving our fellowmen.
Of course, there is a danger of receiving forgiveness without change. This is an abuse of the grace of God. It means that we are not conscious of the price of forgiveness that Jesus paid to free us from our sins. Many of us take forgiveness lightly. That explains why we keep on repeating the same sins almost immediately after confession. It means we could be confessing out of fear or guilt but not out of contrition or a recognition that what we do is wrong and sinful. Without a clear consciousness that what we do is hurting others or God Himself, we commit and repeat the sins without offering any resistance in the face of temptation. So too when we take advantage of people who forgive us – our spouse for our infidelity, our parents for our sloth and misbehavior, our superiors for failing in our responsibilities – it shows that there is no real intention to change because our conscience is not stricken. This was the case of the first servant. He did not take into account the amount of debt he owed to his master. Although forgiven, he did not feel remorse or contrite or repentant. Immediately, he went out and was merciless in treating others who sinned against him. For such people, they would have to suffer the consequences of their sins before they can wake up from their slumber. This is the warning of our Lord, “And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debts.”
So if we want to make full use of the grace of forgiveness, we need to spend time examining our conscience before confession. A routine and unprepared confession will only relieve us of guilt for a while but will not bring about any real change in our lives. We need to reflect on our sins and how it hurts others and God and ourselves. Only then can we become contrite and sorry for what we have done. Contrition is the prerequisite for a true confession. Such a sorrow for our sins will give us the grace to resist another temptation. The gravity of the sin is determined not only by what we do but how we respond. The failure to offer resistance and giving in to sin easily is the very definition of sin itself. But if we seek to resist and we fail, then such acts flowing from our weakened nature (concupiscence) are mitigated, for God knows how weak we are. When we turn to the Lord for forgiveness, He is ever ready to forgive us and help us to start anew again.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
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