Throughout the centuries, Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness has been difficult for Christians to live out. To forgive as God forgives might appear intuitively correct, but the sheer difficulty of doing this causes many to stumble. This is well illustrated in the classic film “The Nun’s Story,” in which a religious sister leaves her community in part because she cannot bring herself to forgive the man who killed her father during the war.
‘Peace be with you.’ (Lk 24:36)
When you struggle to forgive, what holds you back?
How can Christ’s promise of eternal life free you to forgive?
In what ways can you help others find the same freedom?
This difficulty receives a more recent treatment in the Netflix series “The Crown,” when Queen Elizabeth seeks advice from the Rev. Billy Graham in the matter of her uncle’s unrepentant collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. Graham at first does not back down from his insistence that she forgive, but after measuring the strength of her resistance, he invites her instead to beg forgiveness for her own lack of mercy and to pray for the man whom she cannot forgive. Although both narratives are fictional, they highlight both the beauty of the divine ideal and the difficulty of living it out in the face of worldly realities.
Hints throughout the New Testament suggest that the first Christians also found this teaching difficult. In this week’s second reading, John, who believes that Christians must love others as Jesus loved them, has no trouble dismissing those who do not forgive as utter frauds (see also 1 Jn 4:20). Luke writes his Gospel to confirm that the teachings his audience had received were in fact the true teachings of Jesus. “I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence…so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received” (1:3-4). He structured his Gospel around several themes that spoke to the issues troubling his community. One major theme among these issues is forgiveness. Only Luke gives us parables like that ofthe two debtors (7:41-43) or the prodigal son (15:11-32). Only in Luke’s Gospel does Jesus forgive those who crucified him. In Luke’s mind, Jesus’ command to forgive included no conditions or exceptions.
Forgiveness is a major theme in Luke’s account of Jesus’ passion. As Luke reflects on Jesus’ death, he discerns a call for human acceptance of divine mercy. In this Sunday’s first reading, for example, Peter teaches that the suffering and death of Jesus, as foretold in the prophets, opened up a path for the salvation of all. “Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away” (Acts 3:19). Luke’s resurrection account, which appears in today’s Gospel reading, takes up the theme from a different perspective. Jesus sends the apostles out so that “repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
In Luke’s mind, asking for forgiveness is essential to the Christian life; calling others to do the same is crucial to evangelization. The light of the resurrection frees us from death’s shadow, that fetid miasma from which hate, control, isolation, fear and pride creep forth. Our message is credible only when our words and example reveal that we are truly free to give to others the gift that God first gave us.