Forgiven and Forgiving

Antonio P. Pueyo
September 11
Sunday 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Reproduced with Permission

I was in a conference on peace. The participants were talking about reparation and justice. They were peace workers who came from all parts of the world, especially from areas that have experienced war, ethnic conflict, and death. Many of them had first hand experience of suffering. The participants were talking about the relationships between peace, justice, reparation, and forgiveness. These were not mere concepts for them. These were realities they have met in the field or personally experienced.

Some of the discussants were saying peace is the fruit of justice. There could be no real peace unless justice were observed . This brought the discussion to the issue of reparation and forgiveness. If justice is to be observed then there must be reparation for damages done - for lives lost and human rights violated. There must also be admission of guilt so that the offended parties can forgive. How can forgiveness be given when no offense is admitted? One participant who came from an area that has gone through a bitter war of independence remarked, "How can I forgive those who killed my father and raped my sister?" Perpetrators remained hidden in the anonymity of war.

Forgiveness is not easily given. In this Sunday's gospel reading, Peter asked our Lord, "When my brother wrongs me, how often must I forgive him? Seven times?" The answer of Jesus was so unexpected, "No, not seven times but seventy times seven times" (Mt. 18:22). And to think that Peter was being generous. The conventional wisdom at that time followed the three strikes rule. Forgive three times. After that, have nothing to do with the offender. Peter thought that seven times was an improvement over the usual practice.

Forgiveness is not easy, whether one is asking for it or one is giving it. To admit wrongdoing is not easy. We would rather gloss over our sins. Or we deny them and blame somebody else. This dates back to the time of Adam and Eve when upon discovery of his sin, Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the snake (Gen. 3:11-13) . Poor snake, he had nobody else to blame. We tend to suppress the truth about our wrongdoing. Or we hedge on our admission of guilt, like the man who confessed stealing a rope. He failed to mention that at the end of the rope was his neighbor's goat.

Pope John Paul II led the way in asking for forgiveness for the instances where the church has caused painful historical memories, "To the extent that we are responsible for these, I join my predecessor Paul VI in asking forgiveness (Ut Unum Sint, no. 88). The Catholic practice in the sacrament of reconciliation is for one to admit and voice out one's particular sins. It is not enough to make a generic confession such as " I have sinned in thoughts, words, and deeds." One has also to be sorry, make the intention to amend his life, and as far as one is able, do reparations for the damaging effects of his wrongdoing. The story is told of a woman who liked to spread gossip about her neighbors. She thought she was getting a light penance when the priest told her to carry a pillow to the second floor of her house and pour its contents out of the window. Then the priest told her to pick up all the cotton that the wind has spread and stuff them back into the pillow.

Action starter: Do you need to ask forgiveness or to forgive? Do not delay.

If to ask for forgiveness is difficult,to forgive one who has wronged us is seven times more difficult. One of Jesus' last words as he was dying on the cross was, "Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing" (Lk. 23:34). Stephen the first martyr, with his last breath forgave his persecutors, "Lord, do not hold this against them" (Acts 7:60). Pope John Paul II went to visit his assassin in prison and forgave him. St. Maria Gorreti died forgiving her assailant. These are heroic examples of forgiving because forgiveness was given even before the offender asked to be forgiven.

In the regular course of events, forgiveness is given because the offender asked for it, or at least admitted and expressed sorrow for participation in wrongdoing.

Who then benefits from forgiveness? Both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The heavy burden of guilt is lightened for one who asks for forgiveness and receives it. He can start life new, despite his past sin. The one who forgives is also benefited. He or she is freed of the hatred, the resentment, and heaviness of heart. She too can put a closure to the event and start anew.

That must be the reason why Jesus puts no limits to forgiveness. Despite a person's sin, there is always the possibility of a new beginning.