Forgiving wrongs willingly — Really?

Pope Francis just announced that he is proclaiming a special Holy Year of Mercy that will begin on December 8, the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. Holy Years, the last of which was the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, are marked by prayer, pilgrimage to holy places, and plenary indulgences — the remission of all temporal punishment due to our sins — in commemoration of Jesus’ work of redemption. In dedicating this coming Church year to God’s mercy, Pope Francis is highlighting a central theme of his papacy, and a crucial part of the Church’s message, particularly in recent times.

Jesus said, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). St. Thomas Aquinas defined mercy in his Summa Theologiae as “the compassion in our hearts for another person’s misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him.” St. Luke gives us the parable of the Prodigal Son, or as Pope Francis prefers to call it, the parable of the Merciful Father. I suppose it could also be called the parable of the Priggish Older Brother, but I digress. The merciful father gladly receives, embraces and pardons the son who knew he was no longer worthy of being called a son. God is merciful like that, and we should imitate God in that.

In the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5:7). And in His riveting account of the Last Judgment in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25, Jesus said that in performing corporal works of mercy for others, like welcoming the stranger, we are doing it for Him. We receive mercy because we give mercy.

Particularly challenging among the Spiritual works of mercy is the injunction to forgive wrongs willingly.  Jesus taught us to pray in the Our Father: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He explained: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Mt 6:14).  But if we are unforgiving, we won’t be forgiven. If we are sticklers for protocol, difficult to satisfy, if we foster resentments and hold grudges and are unwilling to forgive, not only do we forfeit our present happiness, but our future happiness as well. So let go of it.

Really? No one said it would be easy. The popular saying is “Don’t get mad; get even.” But that is not really a Christian response to injustice. Of course, justice is important too. Justice involves recognizing injustice when it occurs, doing what we can to rectify it, by legal means. We might think that justice in forgiving someone requires that offenders first manifest sorrow for the wrong they’ve done and apologize for it. This is where Christ’s example is decisive, for our Lord did not always require people to express sorrow for their sins before forgiving them. When the paralytic is lowered by his friends through the roof, Jesus, without being asked, says, “Friend, your sins are forgiven” (Lk 5:20).  Then He cures him of his paralysis, as a sign that He has the power to forgive sins. He also prays for those who unjustly crucify Him, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).  

The point is that the new Commandment of Jesus requires that we love one another as Jesus loves us.  He loves us first, and is waiting to forgive us even before we ask Him. Obviously, He has given us the Sacrament of Reconciliation so that ordinarily we should acknowledge our sins, repent of them, and receive absolution from the priest in His name, resolving not to sin again. But with respect to sins that we commit yet don’t realize that we have committed, perhaps even after a diligent examination of conscience, we must rely on God’s mercy. 

Jesus tells us over and over again that we must show mercy ourselves to be able to rely on God’s mercy. So forgive already!

Anchor columnist Dwight Duncan is a professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in civil and canon law.

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