At Mass the other day, we read the words with which Our Lord answered Peter’s question as to how many times he should extend forgiveness to his brother. As many as seven times? Matthew tells us that the Lord told him to keep going, up to as many as seventy-seven times. In other words, stop counting and just do it. One wonders what Peter’s relationship with his brother Andrew must have been like.
Forgiveness is both a difficult and a beautiful thing. We have all stood in need of it, perhaps many times, and been profoundly grateful when the one we have wronged in some way has offered it; and offered it not through gritted teeth and bad grace, but freely and generously. And the one who forgives should, in that moment, know the truth of some other words of Jesus, where he affirms that it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Of course, it always costs to pardon an injury. Some injuries are incredibly deep, the pain as raw as perhaps when the wound was inflicted. Some of us just cannot ‘move on’, despite the cajoling and encouragement of dear, kind, well-intentioned friends, who find it so difficult to see us suffering. When we are hurting or seething because of an injury, then even Jesus’ words challenge us. I remember the mother of one of the children killed by the Moors Murderers saying that since the day of her daughter’s death, she had been unable to pray the Lord’s Prayer. It was just too much to ask, since she could not bring herself to forgive the people who perpetrated the appalling torture and murder of her child. Something within us all is with that mother. Yet there is no avoiding the awkward fact that Our Lord, to whom we look for Life, speaks without compromise about forgiveness. That clause relating to forgiveness in the Our Father is the only one with a condition attached. Moreover, it is the only clause in the prayer on which he comments later: “For if you do not forgive others their sins, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you yours.” Elsewhere, Jesus tells us “Forgive and you shall be forgiven.” We have been promised that what we mete out we shall be given back. Another famous passage in Matthew’s Gospel says the same thing, but perhaps, a little more positively:
Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate. Do not judge and you will not be judged; do not condemn and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven. Give, and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap; because the standard you use will be the standard used for you. (Luke 6:36ff).
In these words, Our Lord wants us to know and understand that God’s mercy is inexhaustible but that sometimes we can put up a barrier to receiving that mercy, and chief among the blocks with which we erect that great wall is a spirit of unforgivingness. God, who knows all hearts, can judge the secret emotions, can surely see when a soul in pain is unable at a particular moment to make that momentous act of forgiveness towards one who ‘has trespassed against’ them. But it may be, and often is the case, that they are just not yet ready to do so, not through ill will, but because the pain is just too great. Fundamentally, they would like to forgive, if they could. There can be no pretence here. We can only ever truly forgive when we do so from the heart and without reserve or conditions.
Only those who resolutely refuse to forgive, who block grace, find themselves unable to receive forgiveness for their own sins. The barriers they have erected prevent that forgiveness reaching them. It seems such a tragedy. Still, as St Padre Pio said, “Gods mercy is infinitely greater than our malice”. It is inexhaustible, and nowhere is this more beautifully illustrated by our Lord than in the parable which tells the story of the Lost or Prodigal Son, who, having squandered his father’s money, was welcomed home, embraced, clothed, restored and forgiven without a word of recrimination from his wronged father. Such mercy and forgiveness, Jesus assures us, is offered to each of us, the only condition (besides sincere penitence) being that we “forgive those who have trespassed against us.” This Lent, shall we ask for the grace to be able to do this.