“Not seven, I tell you, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22).
These words come from the Lord in response to the question: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” On the third Tuesday of Lent, the Church will hear this passage from the Gospel of Matthew and its challenging message of unlimited forgiveness.
Undoubtedly, one of Christ’s most difficult teachings is the need to forgive those who have sinned against us. In her liturgy, the Church reminds the faithful about the importance of forgiveness by praying the Our Father during Mass, Morning Prayer (Lauds), and Evening Prayer (Vespers). Three times a day, the entire mystical Body of Christ prays: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The key part of this prayer is the simple “as.”
We are asking for mercy from the Lord only to the degree that we ourselves can be merciful towards others. As we continue our pilgrimage during this Lenten season, we should ask ourselves if we are able to forgive “seventy times seven.” In other words, do we offer unlimited forgiveness to those people in our lives who offended us? There is certainly no shortage of opportunities to forgive coworkers, friends, family members, spouses, children, and even our enemies. The challenge is to develop the will to do so.
Obviously, this is easier said than done. However, we have resources for forming our will to more readily forgive, beginning with focusing on the Father’s gift of mercy toward us. When we fixate on how other people have wronged us, we can become blinded to our own need for forgiveness or conversion. If we start with the Father’s gift of pardon for our own sins and shortcomings, we may find it easier to forgive other people.
In The Royal Road to Joy: The Beatitudes and the Eucharist, a Benedictine monk, David Bird offers this poignant example of forgiveness:
A Russian bishop was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Before he died, he wrote a prayer in which he thanked God for allowing him the privilege to suffer at the hands of his Nazi guards. This gave him the opportunity and the power to forgive them, so that when they all appeared at the judgment seat, he could say to God that he had forgiven them, and God would have nothing against them: they would be saved.
This story underscores the great virtue that Christians need to develop in order to forgive others under the most horrendous and terrible situations.
When we make the concrete decision to refuse to forgive another person or a group of people, it becomes very easy to be consumed by bitterness and resentment. Often, those who lack the willingness to forgive can become cynical and even hateful. The Lord’s message of forgiveness offers an authentic freedom for inner peace and joy that comes from pardoning another human person, regardless of what they have done.
Those who actively work and promote the pro-life message should strive to be disciples of God’s mercy by forgiving those who trespass against us. In Won by Love, Norma McCorvey (“Jane Roe” of the watershed Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade) gives an account of the effect that the Christian witness of love and mercy had on her life. McCorvey, now a convert to the Catholic faith, has worked tirelessly to overturn the unjust decision in which she played a central role.
Forgiveness can sometimes seem impossible. God’s grace reached the deepest recesses of my heart in the midst of my greatest pain and suffering. On the 20th of February in 2002, my family suffered a tremendous tragedy. My sister, Michelle, was murdered two days before her 18th birthday. The day we discovered her bloodstained car in a local park, I began to pray for the grace and strength to forgive the person who killed her.
In October of 2002, at the trial of Michelle’s murderer, I was given the opportunity to forgive him. This young man showed no sign of remorse nor did he offer any kind of apology to my family. The details of the crime reveal a man suffering from deep depravity, and no sense of respect for human dignity – of Michelle’s or anyone else’s.
The young man, who murdered Michelle, was truly my enemy because he cruelly ended the life of my sister. My family would never attend her college graduation, her wedding, or meet any of her children. Michelle’s life was robbed from her when it just beginning.
As I struggled in prayer, I kept coming back to the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In my heart, I forgave and continue to forgive him for his crime. I pray that he will one day be reconciled with the same merciful Father to whom I have entrusted my beloved sister. The greatest consolation that comes from this ongoing act of forgiveness is lasting interior peace.
If we are able to forgive one another, imagine how much greater the infinite love and mercy of the Father must be! The Year of Faith gives us many opportunities to both seek and offer forgiveness. Forgiveness is foundational for building a culture of life and love.
Let us seek the Lord’s divine mercy for our own sins and then let us turn to pardon others seventy times seven.