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WHY WE MUST FORGIVE BUT NOT COUNT

Father Francis's picture
Third Week of Lent

Dan. 3:25, 34-43 & Mt. 18: 21-35.

With two companions Azariah was thrown into a fiery furnace, and unharmed by the flames he prayed on behalf of his people, “We are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation, brought low everywhere in the world because of our sins.”

Awareness of our own sinfulness is the first step towards reconciliation. But more than this is required. We can pray with Azariah again, “But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received …. So let our sacrifice be in Your presence today, as we follow You unreservedly.”

Simon Peter came to Jesus with a question about how often he ought to forgive. It seemed to him that there should be some limit to the forgiveness expected of him! “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?”

With that question Peter was actually setting a high standard. Some of us cannot even manage to forgive once. The rabbis taught that a person should forgive a recurring offence three times, and after that there was no further obligation. So Peter doubled that number and added one for good measure! He thought he was being magnanimous, and by human standards he was. But Jesus said, “No, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” He was saying that our obligation to forgive is not a matter of arithmetic. We are not to keep count. Our forgiveness must be unlimited.

That is the only way it can be, because that’s the way God forgives us. Jesus made that clear in the story He told of the man who owed his king a tremendous debt. It is impossible to say exactly how much because the figure is deliberately exaggerated, literally millions of pounds. It was the Lord's way of reminding us that our debt is far greater than we could ever pay. We stand before God spiritually bankrupt and He forgives us just as the king forgave his servant. In our relationship with God, every time forgiveness is sincerely sought it is freely given. The conditions are to admit our sins to be truly sorry for them and to be determined to try not to commit them again. Now if God's forgiveness of us is unlimited, what right have we to set limits on our forgiveness of each other? That would make no sense whatsoever.

There is one other reason why we are to forgive that way … for our own well-being. The alternative to forgiving is the harbouring of a grudge. If we fail to forgive, it means we carry in our heart resentment, or even hatred for a fellow human being. Few, if any emotions, are more destructive than that. It is a bad thing to be hated, but it is an even worse thing to hate. It poisons the mind and makes you ill with anxiety. So for our own physical and spiritual health, we must forgive without limit. “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times.”

Lord Jesus, we expect You to forgive us immediately every time we come to Confession. May we just as readily forgive all who offend us.

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