We have many expressions for assuring each other that the mistakes we have made will not be held against us. The most familiar include: “I forgive you,” “Don’t worry about it,” “That’s O.K.” and, more recently, “No problem.” These are simple expressions, but they have the power to ease anxiety or repair broken relationships. They encourage us to look hopefully to the future rather than remain bogged down in the past.
We do not have to live long to realize how desperately we need to be forgiven. Little children often plead: “Don’t be mad at me!” Mutual understanding and forbearance are at the heart of open and meaningful love relationships. Social harmony requires that we not take offense each time we feel misunderstood or overlooked. Finally, if there is ever to be peace in the world, nations have to get beyond the enmity and mistrust that they may have been harboring for years, resulting in their fierce refusal to forgive each other.
Forgiveness does not mean that we close our eyes to the wrongs committed. Children are indeed frequently mischievous; friends and lovers sometimes do betray our trust; neighbors or social companions can certainly treat us poorly; and nations often do violate the rights of other nations. Nor are these always innocent mistakes.
Forgiveness can work miracles. When we experience it from another, burdens are lifted from our shoulders, and life seems to hold new possibilities. We are assured that we are acceptable even though we are weak and we make mistakes. Forgiveness is a precious gift that must never be taken for granted. Then in turn, when we are in a position to forgive, forgiveness should not be withheld. Instead, it should be given generously, just as God grants it to us.
Today’s readings move us step by step from the acknowledgment of wrongdoing, through forgiveness received, to the promise of new possibilities. With the psalmist we cry out: “O Lord, have pity on me; heal me, though I have sinned against you.” We often find it very difficult to admit that we have done something wrong, or even that we have made a simple mistake. Such an admission seems an affront to our dignity, suggesting that we are less than we think we are, or that we would like others to think we are. But deep in our hearts we know that if we are to be honest, we must admit our guilt.
Today’s Gospel offers a striking portrayal of the eagerness of Jesus to forgive. We see the paralytic man being lowered into the room through the roof. He believed that Jesus could heal him of his physical ailment, and because of his faith he received even more than he had hoped. He walked out of the house a new man. Faith in the power of Jesus worked a miracle. Actually, it worked two miracles: the forgiveness of sin and the healing of infirmity.
In the first reading, Isaiah speaks of the newness, the second chance that is given to us by our gracious God: Leave the past in the past; I am doing something new. The image that the prophet uses sounds a chord of hope. God provides a way for us through the deserts of our lives; rivers of life-giving water appear in the wastelands of human experience. Though our sinfulness may have swept away our sense of peace and well-being, God promises: Your sins I remember no more.
It is most consoling to realize that we have been forgiven, first by God and then by others. But we experience something quite different when we are called on to forgive others. The challenge placed before us at such times is often measured by the hurt or anger that we have to bear. It is much easier to overlook the failings of little children than it is to forgive adults, who should know better. The more serious the offense suffered, the harder it is to be open to the offender.
Is it too much to hope for genuine forgiveness coupled with the willingness to change one’s life? Some would say yes, and might consider attempts at reconciliation signs of foolhardiness. Others are more hopeful, and they would regard these attempts as signs of great generosity of heart. There are husbands and wives who do forgive each other and recommit themselves to mutual respect and love. Not everyone operates according to the principle: One strike and you’re out! Perhaps one of the most remarkable examples is the movement toward reconciliation taking place today in South Africa.
Finally, Jesus did not heal the paralytic man on condition that he embark on a new way of living. God seems to forgive us first. It is the realization of having been forgiven that then prompts us to change our lives for the better. Hence, the words we use in forgiving may seem trite, but our acts of forgiveness are often marvelously transformative.