Before Jesus was born, an angel appeared to Joseph and said, “You are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21 Right from the very beginning of his earthly life, Jesus’ identity was wrapped up in forgiveness.
Throughout his public ministry, Jesus taught forgiveness. When Peter asked him how often he must forgive his brother or sister, Jesus answered, “not seven times but seventy-times seven” (Mathew 18:22). In the Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). With the parable of the prodigal son Jesus gave a profound teaching about forgiveness (cf. Luke 15:11-32).
Throughout his public ministry, Jesus showed forgiveness. In today’s gospel he forgives the paralytic. “Courage child, your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:1-7). When a sinful woman washed Jesus feet, a Pharisee was very upset. Jesus responded, “Her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love” (Luke 7:36 -50). On the cross Jesus forgave those who were killing him. “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24).
There was a convert on Calvary. In Mark’s gospel we read that the centurion who stood guard over Jesus “on seeing the manner of his death, declared, ‘Clearly this man was the Son of God'” (Mark 15:39). What did the centurion see? He had seen many crucifixions. That wouldn’t impress him. However, the centurion had never seen anyone hanging on a cross, in agonizing pain, cry out, “Forgive them!” Seeing the gracious forgiveness in the heart of Jesus convinced the centurion that this was the Son of God.
There is much concern about the lack of faith in our modern world. How are we to lead people to believe? Yes, we can try to bring them to church. Yes, we can try to get them to read the bible. But when non-believers see us, the followers of Jesus, forgive everyone, everything, totally, unconditionally, day after day, year after year, “seventy-times seven times,” they will come to see with their own eyes what our God is like. For the power to forgive like that can only come from on high.
Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” And our God is the strongest of all.
Fr. Alan Phillip, C.P. is a member of the Passionist Community at Mater Dolorosa Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.