Is there any more difficult teaching of Jesus than the one he gives us in today’s gospel? Peter asks Jesus how often we must forgive those who sin against us. Peter suggests seven times, no doubt believing he was being more than magnanimous. And then Jesus stuns Peter with his response, “not seven times but seventy times seven” -- in other words, always! And in case Peter hasn’t gotten the point Jesus illustrates it with the parable of the king and the unforgiving servant.
And is there any teaching in the Gospel more contrary to our cultural training than this? Our cultural conditioning encourages us to treat others with fairness and justice. But should anyone offend us, our culture supports responding in kind. Deep in our psyches we feel that we are obliged simply to treat others in the same manner they treat us. And so we feel justified not forgiving those who sin grievously against us. How often have we heard someone say, “I can never forgive him/her”?
But nothing is more central to Jesus’ message than forgiveness of enemies. Knowing that for many it might be the hardest part of his teaching, Jesus even found it appropriate to include in the prayer he taught his disciples. Now they would be reminded daily: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”; as God forgives you daily for your sins and offenses, so must you forgive daily those who sin against and offend you.
The forty days of Lent offer a privileged occasion to open our hearts to the grace of conversion: “Turn away from your sins and be faithful to the Gospel.”
Perhaps the most important question we can ask ourselves in Lent is: “Whom have we not forgiven from our hearts?” Often they are the ones closest to us, such as, our parents -- living or dead -- our children, our friends.
And sometimes our lack of forgiveness is buried so deep we need help from professionals to uncover and own it. Twice I sought help. My restlessness and anxiety indicated I was not fully in tune with God’s presence and so I sought help. Only when I finally was able to own my resentment and lack of forgiveness did I begin to recover my peace. Grace moved me first to pray for the desire to forgive and finally to total forgiveness. I then understood the words of the psalmist, “A clean heart create for me, O God; Restore in me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51).
And Jesus is always there on the cross silently drawing us to deeper communion with him through our own struggles to forgive: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”
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