Forgive like Jesus

To err is human and to forgive is divine. It’s probably the hardest thing to do. But it’s Lent. And practice makes perfect.

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If we hold grudges and refuse to forgive, how can we call ourselves followers of Jesus? How can we pray the Lord’s prayer?

At the outset of this Lenten series, I remarked on the truly cosmic dimension of what our Faith teaches about the nature of the universe in which we live. My goal was to shock the reader into reconsidering just how radical the Christian claim is and what the goal of the Christian life is.

Nothing less than our own bodily resurrection from the dead in transformed and divinised human bodies just like the body of Jesus, dwelling forever in ecstasy in a transformed creation—a New Heaven and a New Earth.  Lent is about preparing for that, not about giving up coffee and chocolate till we get a nice ham and some treats for Easter Sunday.  The Faith wants us to think big about who we are, what amazing graces are given us to live transformed lives, and what our breathtaking destiny in Christ is to be.

But at the same time, the Faith is practical as potatoes when it comes to facing what weak, sinful flesh we human beings—including the baptised, confirmed, eucharised, catechised, and fully believing Catholic ones—really are.

A rather funny meme I saw recently on the internet illustrates the paradox that has always been true of the Church.  It sums up the letters of St. Paul as being in two basic veins:

  1. We are heirs through unfathomable grace to unimaginable glory through Christ our Lord.
  2. I am, as a personal favor, begging you sick little freaks to act normal for five minutes.

There is a reason Paul speaks of the gospel as a treasure in jars of clay.  Paul is a man who goes to his grave insisting that his mortal eyes have beheld, his mortal ears have heard, and he has personally spoken with the immortal, divinised, sinless, crucified, risen, and utterly glorious Son of the Living God.

But he also sees the gritty, often stupefyingly dumb, pernicious, selfish, perverse, silly, wicked, greedy, sociopathic, racist, small-minded side of the Church.  And this prompts from him pleas, cries of anguish, outbursts of anger, attempts to persuade, and solemn rebukes.

And all this—solidly evident all through Paul’s letters—makes clear that there is not and never has been a shred of evidence for the absurd Myth of the Golden Era of the Church when a spotless band of living saints lived in pure Christian harmony and love and all this only later degenerated into our current morass of quarrelsome, sinful, Catholics.

Here’s the deal: When Jesus comments on the Our Father, the one and only thing he takes pains to stress to first century disciples is this:

“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)

And the simple point here is that there would be no command to forgive—no command to bear with one another (cf. Ephesians 4:2)–if Christians were not sinning against each other right from the start.

Jesus indeed stresses our need to forgive so much that he teaches forgiveness again and again.  He tells the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-35).  He tells Peter to forgive, not seven times, but seven times seventy times (in other words, without limit) (cf. Matthew 18:21-22).  He tells us that if we have anything against anyone, we must forgive them (with no excuses offered to the effect that if they don’t repent we can cling to hating them) (cf. Mark 11:25). And he practices what he preaches by forgiving his very murderers.

Why does Jesus stress only forgiveness and nothing else?  For the same reason a doctor focuses on the gunshot victim’s gaping wound and not on their hangnail, their need to lose weight, or their runny nose. It’s the biggest problem we face and it can block the grace we need to deal with other issues in our lives.

In short, the emphasis Jesus places on our need to forgive is not a threat that God refuses to forgive us if we don’t forgive.  Jesus is himself the mercy of God.

As Paul says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus is what God looks like extending his mercy to us.

But if our hand is closed in a fist of unforgiveness, we cannot receive his mercy when God holds out the hand of Jesus to us in love.

So the discipline of prayer is particularly bound up with the petition, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

And that leads us to fasting.