How Often Must I Forgive?

Last week’s readings spoke of reconciliation. This week we consider the same theme, but from the perspective of forgiveness. We all know how hard it is to say that we are sorry when we have offended another. But it may be even harder to forgive when we have been offended. And yet, we pledge to do this every time we say the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our tresspasses, as we forgive those who tresspass against us.”

Some say that a unique feature of the Christian religion is its insistence on forgiveness. Today’s reading from Sirach shows that this is not true. Jesus’ admonition came right out of his own Jewish tradition: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.” Sirach knew that wrath and vengeance can erode the spirit of the one harboring them. But forgiveness and mercy can heal not only the offender but the one offended as well.

“How often must I forgive?...77 times.” In other words, there is no limit to the number of times we must be willing to forgive. Now this is the scandal of Christian forgiveness. This does not mean that we must “forgive and forget.” No, we must not forget, but that is not in order to exact vengeance but so that the offense is not repeated.

Both readings tell us why we should forgive. Sirach says it is because we too are “but flesh,” weak human beings who also seek God’s forgiveness. Jesus tells a story to emphasize his teaching on forgiveness. It insists that what God has forgiven us far outstrips what we are asked to forgive.

This teaching on forgiveness flies in the face of much of today’s thinking. Many people live resenting someone from their childhood; rather than resolve petty differences, we “take them to court”; and traffic misunderstandings often result in road rage. We do not easily forgive the human weaknesses of others. Yet that is precisely what we are called to do.

But how does one forgive a pedophile whose behavior robs children of their innocence and undermines their chances for healthy intimacy? How does one forgive a murderer who has snuffed out the life of a loved one? And will the world ever be able to forgive terrorists who blow up innocent people? On occasion we do hear of heroic individuals who, by the grace of God, have been able to move beyond hatred and vengeance to embrace genuine forgiveness. But most of us cannot claim to be among their number.

Is the exhortation to forgive pointless, then, because it is impossible to achieve? Perhaps for most of us it is an ideal toward which we strive. If we cannot yet forgive, at least we must rid our hearts of vengeance, or it will do more harm to us than to those we hate.

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