Forgiveness is well known as being the central teaching of Christianity. It seems both eminently desirable and well-nigh impossible. Jesus’ teaching in the ‘Our Father’, his parable of the unmerciful servant and his encounter with Zacchaeus bring out how serious he is about this teaching. James McPolin SJ explains.
Maria worked in a bakery which we had built in our parish centre in Latin America for women seeking employment. I noticed that she looked sad at times. Then one day, as we chatted together, she explained to me why she felt sad.
A few years previously, the military came to the street where she lived and took young people out of their homes. They brutally killed Maria’s two daughters. She had felt sad ever since, she said. ‘I tried for years to forgive those who killed my daughters but I was unable to do so.’
Praying the Our Father
‘I found it so difficult to pray the Our Father: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” For a time I gave up saying the prayer. It is only recently that I have begun to pray it again. I think I am beginning to forgive now’, said Maria with tears in her eyes.
In scenes of great brutality, Maria’s spirit of forgiveness touched me deeply. Every year, at Christmas, I remember her because it is a feast of peace, forgivness and reconciliation. Peace is an important message of Christmas.
The struggle for forgiveness
Closer to home, in the North, we hear many stories about people’s struggles with forgiveness. On the killing of her brother, a woman says, ‘As for the people who killed him… I can’t forgive. I could never forgive them. Maybe if they were truly sorry and showed it… but even then I just don’t know’.
A man says about the killing of his father, ‘I felt a bitterness and a hatred towards those who killed my father… we all have blood on our hands. When it comes to thoughts of revenge, I feel I have put it all behind me’.
On the way to church
Recently I read a book called Adventures in Reconciliation. It carries a story of a woman, Bernadette Power, called ‘Murder on the way to Church’. Her husband was shot dead beside her, her daughter was shot in the eye, and her son shot in the thigh.
‘For years I struggled… Many a time I lost my head. But I knew in my heart that Jesus had not walked away… I’ve never seen the face of the man that murdered Mickey… But I would still pray and say, “Lord, whoever he is, show him the mercy that you’ve shown me”… All I know is that, in faith, my prayer is, “Lord, if he goes before you, have mercy on him”.’
Living the words of Jesus
Bernadette Power represents all those who struggle to live out the words of Jesus, ‘Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy… If you forgive others their trespasses your heavenly Father will also forgive you’. We find that the words of Scripture are most convincing when we meet people who put them into practice.
Jesus teaches that the call to forgive others is based squarely on God’s gracious forgiveness. In the parable of the unmerciful servant he describes an employee who receives forgiveness from his foreman but who does not grant it himself to others. This is a criticism of those who draw on God’s mercy and offer none of their own (Mt.l8).
A forgiving spirit
When a Christian prays, ‘forgive us our debts’, he should also be able to say, ‘as we also have forgiven our debtors’ (Mt.6). A forgiving spirit is the attitude with which to approach God for mercy: ‘Forgive and you will be forgiven’.
There cannot be any limit to forgiveness for those who have experienced the limitless grace and compassion of God. None of Jesus’ followers should keep score of others’ offences unless, of course, they have no objection to God keeping score of theirs.
Also, such forgiveness is to be from the heart, not merely for show (Mt 18). The parable of the servant also emphasises the quality of compassion often emphasized by Jesus in word and action: ‘Should you not have mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’
Difficulties in forgiving
Forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult of the demands Our Lord makes in the gospels. Recently I was present at an international seminar on reconciliation. There were Africans present who took part in discussions in Rwanda after the genocide. The question was raised if it were too much to expect people to forgive in such situations. Some said that to forgive is a gift of God and that one needs to be healed by God in order to forgive. Others said that forgiveness is not merely complicated; it is also possible and impossible at the same time.
The teaching of Jesus in the gospels shows that his followers are asked to take it on. We may call forgiveness a moment of grace, yet the human effort that it requires can be immense. The power to forgive remains one of the most awesome powers of a human being as well as of the divine Being.
Forgiveness seems both possible and impossible.
Forgiveness takes time
I am sure that many people have special memories of important moments of forgiveness, for example, that of Gordon Wilson, whose daughter was murdered in the Enniskillen bomb on Remembrance Sunday in 1987 and who was able to forgive her killers immediately afterwards.
Not many are able to do this. Nor does Jesus’ invitation to forgive ask us to forgive immediately. Maria said that it took her a long time to forgive.
For us, forgiveness at times can be a slow and dark process that may sometimes seem impossible. The normal process of grieving takes time and it involves varying stages of denial, anger, bargaining and gradual acceptance.
Somebody has written, that many will not be able to pray the Our Father without changing the words to something like ‘Forgive us our trespasses, not as we forgive others, but as we would like to be able to forgive others, that is, in the way you forgive them’. Sometimes forgiveness comes slowly, but in the end we are asked by God to forgive and we need to ask God for his gift to forgive.
We cannot get away from the fact that God invites us to forgive as he forgives. It may take us a long time. We may find ourselves imprisoned in bitterness and resentment, even destroyed as human beings, till we shed our enmity and become reconciled with God and with those who may have injured us.
The example of Jesus
We are encouraged not only by the call of Jesus to forgive but also by his example. In his ministry he gives forgiveness even when those who offend do not repent. It is clear that he forgave his enemies when they clearly had not repented, as when he says from the cross, ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do’.
Jesus invites Zacchaeus, the rich tax-collector, to table with him before he repents. There are other examples of people who were forgiven, though they had not yet given any sign of repentance. This does not mean that Jesus’ forgiveness restores the relationship with the sinner without any response. What it shows is that Jesus does not give up on anyone.
We see in Jesus a picture of a God who is anxious to take the initiative and mend broken relationships. At the same time we should not assume that forgiveness was easy for Jesus. At times we see him angry in the gospels. But his anger is often an expression of his compassion. Finally, his spirit of compassion and forgiveness comes across in his parables about mercy and compassion.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (December 2002), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.