The Beauty of Forgiveness
In today’s Gospel (Matt 18:21-35) we continue the moral teaching of how to follow the ideals of Jesus Christ if we wish to be true followers. One of the greatest signs of genuine Christianity is the ability to forgive. Today’s First Reading tells us “resentment and anger, these are foul things.” By contrast, the responding psalm reminds us “The Lord is compassion and love, slow to anger and rich in mercy.”
Today’s parable is about a man who enjoyed the cancellation of a huge debt from his master, but he failed to pass on forgiveness to somebody who owed him a little sum. When somebody has suffered a big injustice or hurt, forgiveness is very difficult. In fact, human nature on its own cannot find full forgiveness. But with the help of the Holy Spirit, a new way of looking at the injustice emerges.
Captive to the past
Back in 1999, the Jewish Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, visited Kosovo, at a time when the civil war had reached an uneasy truce. Standing amid the wreckage and rubble of war, he came to the conclusion that there is only one word that can change the course of the world. That word is forgiveness. Whether it is international conflict, family divisions or interpersonal hatred, it takes the power of forgiveness to move on from the past. According to Rabbi Sacks, the most compelling testimony to human freedom is the ability to live with the past without being captive to it. We cannot turn off memory like a tap. Memory will remember the past. Our option is about how we remember. We have the choice of allowing the hatred to fester or to remember with the decision to move forward with an attitude that is bigger than the wrong. This is where human freedom is important. Somebody has to make the choice to take the first step to move beyond conflict. “Treat others as you would wish them to treat you. Love your enemies and do good. Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” The ability to forgive is compelling proof of the nobility of human freedom.
True forgiveness begins in understanding God’s idea of justice and mercy. Human justice seeks a penalty to fit the crime. It is about appropriate punishment or compensation or personal revenge. Fortunately for us, God’s idea of justice is not directed towards revenge or punishment. God’s justice seeks the healing of the person who did wrong. Any punishment involved is there as a corrective measure to bring about the healing of the person. Saint Paul summed it up beautifully. “Since God loves you, you should be clothed in sincere compassion and understanding, in kindness and humility. Bear with one another, forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins. The Lord has forgiven you; now you must do the same” (Col. 3:12-13).
The Holy Spirit
Human nature on its own cannot reach the full height of forgiveness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recommends handing over the problem of forgiveness to the Holy Spirit. “It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offence, but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.” (Catechism 2843). It’s as if the Holy Spirit comes like a helicopter to take us up to where we can see with a much wider vision. On the natural road of life, when we look back we cannot see beyond the last corner and when we look forward we cannot see beyond the next corner. The Holy Spirit lifts us up to where we can see the bigger picture embracing past and future. We begin to understand where the person who wronged us has come from. We see the moral sickness of the wrongdoer and the unhappy future he/she faces. We then grow in compassion for this sick mind and pray for the healing of that person’s moral sickness. Repeating the Catechism: “The Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.” Christian love seeks the healing of the enemy rather than revenge.
As we reflect on God’s loving forgiveness, we pray.
May we grow in our appreciation of the depths of God’s mercy towards us.
We pray that people who have been deeply hurt be enabled by the uplifting of the Holy Spirit to view the past with greater compassion.
We pray for those who have hurt us or wronged us: may they be converted and turn away from wrongdoing.
We pray for prisoners who are doing time for their crimes: may they receive the grace to change their ways and grow in goodness.
The Lord is kind and full of compassion,
Slow to anger and rich in mercy
Br Silvester O’Flynn OFM Cap.