When speaking about this issue, I often hear people telling me, “but he/she does not deserve my forgiveness”. Granted, but I believe that is where many people go wrong. Because, in reality, it is you who deserve to forgive the other person. Because unless you forgive, you cannot find peace; you are still under the power of the other person’s evil action. You are not free!
Humanly speaking, forgiveness does not come easy. Indeed, it is not something for the faint-hearted! Our instincts tell us to seek revenge (which we sometimes disguise as justice), to get back at the one who hurt us. “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth”, was the dictum in olden times. Jesus had a different policy. He, whose interest was in the whole human person and not just the spiritual aspect, knew that resentment never helped anyone. He lived forgiveness, and then he preached it. If we look at the gospel, we see that Jesus was always ready to forgive anyone who was willing to accept it. (The Pharisees never thought of themselves as needing forgiveness. That’s why Jesus could never reach them). Were the people whom Jesus forgave sorry for what they did? Not always. Zacchaeus climbed the tree out of curiosity; the woman caught in adultery found herself in front of Jesus simply because she was caught red-handed; the paralytic whose sins were declared forgiven was brought to Jesus only for physical heeling. In Jesus’ most famous parable, the prodigal son came back to the father only for selfish reasons: because he sought food and shelter. And yet, Jesus forgave, often without asking questions or explanations. He must have emphasized forgiveness so much when speaking to his disciples, that at one stage Peter, probably exasperated, asked him “how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”, intending to mean indefinitely (Rabbis asked their followers to forgive up to three times). It was a bit of an exaggeration from Peter, but Jesus went even further, telling him not just seven, but seventy-seven times!
Why this insistence from Jesus? I believe there are two reasons. The first we’ve already hinted at above. Forgiveness brings peace and freedom first and foremost to the one who forgives. It is said that Nelson Mandela once said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” There’s a lot of truth in that statement. He also said, as he walked out of prison after 27 years, “as I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Jesus’ message is always one that leads to freedom and life fully lived.
The second reason is that we all need forgiveness. I know that I have wronged and hurt other people in my life, knowingly or unknowingly. I need to be forgiven and, as we ask God every time we pray the Our Father, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. The first reading of today is very blunt: “Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like oneself, can one then seek pardon for one’s own sins?”