Forgive us AS we forgive others

13 March 2007: Tuesday of the 3rd Week of Lent
Dan 3, 25. 34-43, Matthew 18, 21-35 On Forgiveness
Weyms Sanchez SJ

Note: Another wonderful homily from a Jesuit scholastic on a Tuesday morning mass.

In today’s gospel, we hear Jesus invite us to forgive our enemies seventy times seven. Seventy times seven–that makes 490. That is a hell lot of forgiving! Even if we are to forgive daily, it would take us almost a year and a half to forgive—one year four months and 8 to ten days to be more specific! Surely, Christ did not mean that we take this literally for in biblical times, the number 7 is a perfect number that has an eternal and infinite quality. Considering this, Christ therefore invites us to forgive beyond the limits of time and space. That is, there should be no borders to our forgiving people, events or even places.

What then does it mean to forgive without limit? I would like to invite you to reflect on one particular line of the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer that is unwittingly a dangerous prayer. In the prayer, we say, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” The word “as” can mean two things—either similitude or contemporeneity.

First, let us dwell on the word “as” as a similitude. When we say the line, it seems that we are asking the Father to forgive us the way we forgive our neighbor. And how do we forgive the other? Don’t we wait for them to be sorry for what they did and in a way demand that they ask for forgiveness? Don’t we look for the remorse and humility in the other before we can forgive them? But is this the way God forgives? Doesn’t he forgive even before we even ask for forgiveness the way the father forgives his prodigal son? Like the father of the prodigal son, doesn’t God patiently wait for his wayward sons, having forgiven them even before they return to ask for forgiveness? Surely, similitude must not be the meaning behind the word “as” for God does not forgive the way we forgive.

This brings us to the second possible meaning of the word “as”—cotemporeneity. When we ask the Father to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us, do we ask the Father to forgive us at the same moment when we are forgiving those who have wronged us? And what if we refuse to forgive? Does it mean that we ourselves are not forgiven by the Father? This is Christ’s answer to the question: “So will my heavenly Father do with you unless each of you sincerely forgive your brother or sister.”

The answer is clear: we cannot expect to be forgiven unless we forgive those who have wronged us. However, I guess this is not because God first expects that we forgive before he forgives us. The logic behind this is not cotemporeneity nor conditionality for God is never conditional. Perhaps, what Christ is telling us is that before we can experience God’s tremendous love and mercy, we first must be able to have a material experience of love and forgiveness through our neighbor. We ought to experience the contrition and humility whenever we ask for forgiveness from the other. And to complete the experience, we too ought to experience the joy of forgiving a contrite and humble offender. It is only through such twin experience can we understand the economy of forgiveness—what it means to forgive and to be forgiven. Then and only then will our experience of God’s love and forgiveness take the character of a momentous and meaningful experience.

In the first reading, Azariah begs the Lord that his people be accepted by virtue of their “contrite heart and humble spirit” even if they have nothing to burn as offerings. A contrite heart and a humble spirit—may we ask the Lord for this twin grace throughout our observance of Lent. Lent is about coming back home to God and being received back home. Such experience will only be meaningful for us if we experience both the giving and receiving of forgiveness from our neighbor. Perhaps this is the reason why Christ asks us to forgive 490 times. Not to keep us busy all throughout the year but in the hope that our many experiences of forgiveness—both in giving and receiving it—we may truly know our God who loves and forgives us.

* Scholastic Weyms Sanchez SJ

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