Jesus, when asked by Peter, how many times should one forgive a brother who sins against him, gave this answer: "I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times". What our Lord meant, of course, is that as Christians we must forgive one another without counting the times; there is to be no limit on the times forgiveness comes into play in the life of a Christian. Forgiveness is, indeed, a cement that binds Christians together while allowing us to grow in mutual love.
From the time of Adam and Eve, humankind has never found forgiveness to be an easy venture. It's no different today; letting go of hurts and injuries is certainly one of the hardest things our Christian faith demands of us. It demands it of us in imitation of Jesus who forgave the men who had nailed him to a cross, even as he hung dying on that cross. Forgiveness speaks eloquently of the quality of our love and its similarity to Christ's love.
Jesus was graced by God with a prophetic mission; a mission to proclaim the kingdom of God, which, in reality, is a kingdom of love. The best expression of Jesus' prophetic mission is found in the Sermon on the Mount; it is there that Jesus reveals most vividly the effect of divine grace made incarnate in human relations . The Sermon on the Mount places before us a radical ethic of love; it condemns, at the same time, every kind of hatred, revenge, exploitation, lust and infidelity. The Sermon on the Mount, then, is really the sign, the prophetic vision, of God at work in the world. It is Jesus' way of telling us that we belong to God's city of light, to the kingdom of God; there is new life growing out of this experience.
Jesus spoke of this new and radical ethic of love when he spoke of a new law: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." It is of the utmost important to note that lying at the very core of Jesus' command to love is the virtue of forgiveness. Jesus was truly the imitator of a forgiving and merciful Father. "Whenever you stand to pray, forgiven anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions." Jesus meant this love to be inclusive; he meant it to be freeing, never condemning, always allowing opportunities for repentance.
This pray was found written on a piece of paper at the Ravenbruck concentration camp when it was liberated after world war II; it was found near the body of a dead child: "O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us – remember instead the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown out of all this. And when those who have inflicted suffering on us come to judgment, let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness."
Reality tells us that God pours out his love on the good and the bad, on the righteous and the wicked. God searches out the hardest of hearts, he writes off the deepest of debts, he searches out the most errant soul. And doesn't he tell us to do the same? Doesn't he warn us: "If you do not forgive others, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you."
Perhaps the greatest challenge Christ throws at us is to remember that he forgave and asks us to do the same. Forgiveness does not eliminate the morass of pain and suffering, but it does give healing a real chance. When we forgive we are not saying condone the slight, the insult, the crime, whatever it might be. Nor are we saying that we will simply forget what happened to forgive another does not mean that I will never again be sad and grieve about the past for I know that sometimes I will be. Forgiveness means learning to let go of the one who offended me; to untie the bonds that binds the offensive one to me. It means letting him go into the love of God which can deal with healing in far better ways than we can. Forgiveness, then, may not always be an end of grief but it will surely be the loosening of a grip.
If we really aspire to love as Christ loves, we really have to include forgiveness in that love. No follower of Jesus should be without it.