“We need Christians who make God’s mercy and tenderness for every creature visible to the men of our day” – Pope Francis [Address to participants in the plenary of the Pontifical Council for promoting the New Evangelisation; October 14, 2013].
Dearly beloved brothers and sisters, with the glory and joy of Easter I welcome you to the month of April when we will celebrate among others, the Divine Mercy, lavished upon us in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is very true that personal connectedness with Jesus Christ means participation in his entire life and ministry as recorded in the sacred Scriptures [cf. Mk 3:13] and as continually revealed to us by the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ call to discipleship touches upon this kind of deep association that is rather active, than passive in just bearing the name ‘Christian’ without good works or attitude to show for it.
During his public ministry, Jesus is admired as the great teacher he is, setting himself to teach the people of his time many things in the synagogue, by the sea, on the mount. His teachings were very distinct from that of the scribes and Pharisees especially as the Scriptures attest to this fact and truth that “he taught them as one who had authority” [cf. Mk 1:22].
The teachings of Jesus especially those that bother on right relationship with our neighbours are not only very central, but are also radical, so radical that it can really be perplexing. Carefully reading and reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus not only goes beyond the Jewish tradition but beyond every human measure. In the prayer the Lord himself taught us, he asks us to pray that God would forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors. [Matt 6:12]. The theme of forgiveness is being expanded by Jesus as an offshoot from his teaching about Love for enemies and persecutors. It reaches its apogee in Matthew 18:21-22, where the Lord gives a striking response to the question of Peter about forgiveness – “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Reading that verse in which he questioned, do we notice something disquieting about Peter’s inclusion? “… as many as seven times?” he asked. In craving to appear especially forgiving and maybe benevolent, Peter asked Jesus if that frequency of pardon given to the offender was laudable. From the history of the Jewish people, we can understand the concern of this fisherman, since the Jewish Rabbis at that time taught that forgiving someone more than three times was rather unnecessary, expressly citing the prophecy of Amos 1:1-13. Hence, by offering forgiveness more than double that of the prescription of the Old covenant, Peter expected extra commendation from the Lord but Jesus definitely will not be swindled by this theatrical righteousness.
Throughout the life time of Jesus, as we see clearly from the Scriptures, different classes of people, at a number of times, put questions of all manner and sort to Jesus to elicit a response from him. Many times these questions have ulterior motives [to trap him], other times, they are for the sake of clarity as regards the law. Yet, whatever the motive of these questions were, Jesus always had answers that were crystal clear and deeply insightful. This is why in matters of ‘uncertainty or confusion’ between the Old law and the New, the words of Jesus are more superior and orthodox. A classic example will be the six antitheses of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 5: 21-48 where Jesus says “you have heard how it was said … but I say to you.”
On the issue of Peter’s question therefore, Jesus says that we should offer forgiveness not only once, not even seven times but seventy times seven; which means repeatedly without limit. This response must have stunned the disciples who were listening to him hence Jesus illustrates this demand in the parable of the unforgiving servant [verse 23-35], so that the disciples may not keep thinking within the limited terms of the law but in the unlimited terms of Grace which comes from the Heavenly Father. Jesus establishes this demand on the basis of God’s behaviour of unlimited forgiveness towards repentant sinners, therefore he desires that we do likewise “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” [Matt 5:45].
In actuality, only God can forgive; “who can forgive sins but God alone?” [Luke 5:21]. This means that forgiveness is only conceivable in the context of God’s redeeming action in Christ since he reconciled us to himself while we were still sinners. [Rom 5:10]. Yet, drawing from the fact of being made in His image and likeness, imago Dei, God gives us this singular privilege to forgive those who offend us: “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” [Matt 6:12]. The veteran preacher and defender of the faith, Saint Paul, resounds this command of Jesus admonishing us to “forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” [Eph 4:32].
It is clear that this ultimatum of Jesus is one of the most central Christian commandments, nonetheless we cannot close our eyes to the difficulties in concretely realizing this mandate in the face of the complexities and evil in the world. Questions arise concerning the possibility of forgiveness in issues of war, in reference to the persistently unfriendly and resentful neighbour, the tirelessly treacherous and lying fellow, the vigorous professional rival, a traitor, a murderer, but to mention a few. The bigger question here is not just about how we forgive the one who has offended us so deeply but why we have to forgive over and over again the repeated offence[s] of the individual?
According to St. Ambrose, one of the great Doctors of Church in the West, “it is an obligation not to repay evil for evil, but to repay evil with good, is perfection.” Following the wisdom of this great icon, we can ask ourselves these questions: what do we achieve and where are we headed if there is no pardon and forgiveness, when we repay every wrong done to us with a new wrong, going back again to the ius talionis, taking an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth? Evidently the catastrophic consequences cannot but be of a regrettable magnitude. Only when we request forgiveness as well as grant forgiveness can gory and upsetting skirmishes be controlled and the commencement of the course of healing be achieved. Even though it is true, because of our purely human nature that one cannot simply forget the wrong that has been done, still, one must act with pure and sincere charity towards the offender. According to St. Augustine, the highest form of almsgiving is to pardon those who have wronged us. Therefore, every Christian should strive after such virtue and pray for it that they may pardon sincerely the wrong done to them. In this case, as we forgive others their failings, so will our loving and heavenly Father forgive our own inadequacies. In the very words of St. Augustine, “whoever does not wake up to this reality, he or she is not merely sleeping, but is already dead”.
Jesus teaches us to be merciful like the Father [Luke 6:36] and in the Sermon on the Mount, he declares the merciful as Blessed [Matt 5:7]. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we read: “therefore be imitators of God, as beloved Children, and live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” [Eph 5: 1-2]. The whole essence and foundation of the Bible is the imitation of God and His actions in Jesus Christ which invariably means practical consequences for the life of every Christian. Jesus offered forgiveness all the time for sinners even while dying on the cross: “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing” [Luke 23:34]. In this same words, the deacon and first martyr, Stephen expressed pardon as he was being stoned to death [Acts 7:60]. It is a blessing to forgive because we imitate God the Father who alone can forgive; forgiving others’ wrong is the Jesus way because he pleads insistently all the time for sinners.
Dearly beloved in Christ, it is very true that the message of forgiveness has consequences for the pastoral praxis of the Church. With the same words of the Holy Father, Pope Francis which begins this message to you, I encourage us all to raise our spirit to the call of every Christian, especially within the context of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, to be God’s conduits dispensing in our various capacities the mercy and pardon of God to those who have offended us. Like Jesus says to Peter “not seven times but seventy times seven”, we should therefore affirm: I am willing to make God’s mercy and tenderness for every creature visible to the men and women of our day. Also, this is one of the Spiritual works of Mercy – gladly forgive injuries; the adverb, gladly, is very important to note because it is done not grudgingly but with the heart of a true Christian that breeds joy all the time, joy that comes from no other than the Lord himself. Forgiving those who hurt us does not brand us as weak, but makes us strong.
May the Holy Spirit help us in the accomplishment of this sacred mandate with sincere hearts even when it proves very difficult. Amen.
God bless you
Alfred Adewale Martins
Archbishop of Lagos
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