The Two Things We Need to Know about Forgiveness – Johnny Go, SJ

Matthew 18:21-35, 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Today’s Sunday Gospel is about forgiveness: Peter, on the one hand, monitoring his quota on forgiveness, and our Lord, on the other, tossing all that accounting out the window by reminding us that by the way, we all of us are recipients of the Father’s boundless mercy, remember?

Forgiveness is a funny thing. When we’re the offended party, we know it’s not an easy thing, especially when we have been hurt deeply by the very people that we’ve cared deeply for. Forgiveness sometimes requires not just a lot of strength and love, but also a lot of pain. That is why when we are the ones asking for forgiveness, we must never take it for granted.

There is a song in the Broadway hit musical “Hamilton” called “Quiet Uptown,” which describes the unimaginable pain that the lead characters, Alexander, and his wife Eliza are undergoing as a result of the death of their son. As in often the case, the crisis has also pulled them apart especially because his wife is right in blaming Alexander for the tragedy. But then suddenly, mid-song, Alexander receives his wife Eliza’s forgiveness. And here the song wisely loses itself in wonder over the unexpected grace:

“Forgiveness–can you imagine?
Forgiveness–can you imagine?!”

In my own life, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with forgiveness. I love it because I’ve needed it so often–from God and from people I’ve hurt, accidentally and even–I am ashamed to admit–deliberately. I should have known better. But every second chance is a gift totally undeserved.

But I also hate it because–let’s keep it real–when the hurt is deep and when the betrayal unexpected, forgiveness can be a very, very difficult thing. We need to pray for it because only God’s grace can truly enable us to forgive. And we need to want to pray for it in the first place, but sometimes it takes a very long time to even reach the point of just wanting to forgive someone.

But in this love-hate relationship that I’ve been carrying out with forgiveness, I’ve learned two things that I believe every single person who’s been wounded by others need to know. The first is a favorite, often-quoted, line attributed to Princess Leia, the late Carrie Fisher, who has had her own share of hurts in her colorful life.

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Indeed, indispensable lesson no. 1 reminds us that we need to forgive others–for our own sake! Withholding our forgiveness, continuing to resent others, will kill us.

The second thing we all need to know about forgiveness is that it needs to be unconditional–i.e., we cannot set conditions. We cannot insist that we will decide to forgive if and only if the offending party repents and realizes the error of their ways. The reason is that if we hold our breath for that person’s repentance, we might just end up waiting until we’re blue in the face and run out of air–and die!

In other words, we need to forgive even the people who couldn’t care less about their crimes–for our own sake. Again, not forgiving will kill us and us alone.

This is not to say that we must continue to allow others to hurt us. Our obligation to forgive others is matched by our obligation to resist the evil that people do to us or to otehrs. But the fact is, we need to forgive even those who continue to do evil for our very own well-being.

When you think about it, that’s what our Lord himself did. He forgave and continues to forgive until he has lost count. And Jesus did not wait for his last breath to forgive the unrepentant people who nailed him to the cross. He shows us that indeed it takes a very strong heart to forgive, but it takes an even stronger heart to forgive those who refuse to show repentance.

If we are still nursing some hurt in our hearts and harboring some grudge towards people who have hurt us, can we at least decide today to pray for the desire to forgive that person? Do it. Take that first step, and be surprised by grace.

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