This is probably the hardest work of mercy on the list. In every other work, we are called to share what we have, but when it comes to forgiveness, we might find that our hearts are shut tight. And yet forgiveness is God’s primary concern, and he wants it to become ours too. We are celebrating a Jubilee year, which in the Old Testament was a time when all debts were written off. It is not easy for us to tear up the IOU for past offenses we wave in the face of our debtors.
But we must tear up that IOU. Our Lord states categorically: “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive yours” (Mt 6:15). Jesus is very precise in what he demands. How often should we forgive? Peter thought he was generous in suggesting seven times, but Jesus responded, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22). Can we “forgive but not forget”? Jesus says the Father will punish those who do not forgive from the heart (Mt 18:35). The stumbling block for many of us in this work of mercy comes in the adverb: forgive offenses willingly.
In the prayer that Jesus taught us, we ask God to forgive us our trespasses “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That is probably a prayer we would not want answered literally: so often we bestow forgiveness begrudgingly, with gritted teeth.
Our starting point should not be the forgiveness we are willing to extend, but the forgiveness we have received. St. Paul exhorted the Ephesians to be kind to one another, “forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:32). Every time we look at a Crucifix we see how God has forgiven us in Christ – with a love that bears all things, endures all things, without coming to an end. God forgives generously, down to the last breath of his Son’s body. The Fathers of the Church were fond of saying that God’s forgiveness of our sins was an even greater miracle than creation, because it came at such a high price.
So we can start on the path of forgiving others by opening our hearts to God’s mercy ourselves. When, by regular celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation, I have experienced the healing and liberating grace of divine mercy, then I will be freed up to let go of past hurts and be as willing to forgive as I am to receive forgiveness. And my gesture of forgiveness plays its part in the Church’s mission of reconciliation: to be sure, if someone who has offended me repents and goes to confession, their sin is forgiven. Christ and his Church act through the priest to absolve the sin, but my forgiveness should be at work there, too, even if neither the priest nor the penitent is conscious of it. We know that we are called to be stewards of creation; how marvelous that we are also called to be stewards of God’s greater gift of mercy.
What if the person who offended us does not ask for forgiveness? Here we can learn from the behavior of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. On the one hand, he allowed the son to “come to himself” in his own time; on the other, the fact that he ran out to meet his wayward son as soon as he spied him on the horizon shows that he had long since forgiven him. The young man never even got to finish his carefully rehearsed apology. The older brother refused to forgive his wayward sibling, and Jesus ends the story with a question mark: does the older brother heed his father’s appeal to rejoice because his brother was dead and is now alive?
The question mark stands over us, too. Are we willing to rejoice in God’s limitless mercy toward others? St. Thomas called forgiveness “the perfection of charity.” This work of mercy calls us to imitate our heavenly Father, because practice makes perfect.