How to Forgive

When someone does something that offends you, how do you react? Do you give in to gossiping and complaining about that person, or do you go directly to him and try to work through the problem. In today’s Gospel, our Lord tells us that if someone sins against us we should give to him and try to work things out together. In this way, He is suggesting to us a good way to practice the virtue of humility.

When we are wronged by others, we instinctively want to talk about it. We should stop and think, though, whether talking about being injured will serve a good purpose. More often than not, it is merely complaining and back-biting directed at exacting revenge from the other person at the expense of his reputation. Rather than adding merit to our suffering by suffering quietly, as our Lord encourages us to do, all too often we lose the opportunity to suffer well by complaining and grumbling.

Our Lord explains today that instead of giving in to this temptation, we should go to those who have wronged us (or that we perceive as having wronged us!) to try to work things out together. Just think of how many problems would be avoided, how many difficult situations would be diffused if we followed this advice! All too often we harbor grudges in our hearts, allowing them to become infected with feelings of bitterness that make it difficult to love ourselves, others, and God, instead of approaching those with whom we experience conflict.

Even if this strategy fails, our Lord still encourages us to keep calm and not endanger the person’s reputation by spreading our cause to more people than is necessary. Take one or two others along with you, he says. Oftentimes we feel like we need to enlist the moral support of every person we know when we are dealing with conflict, drawing strength in our convictions and feelings of having been wronged from their sympathy. This is not, though, a Christian way of approaching conflict. Rather, we should be concerned with the truth more than with winning our way, and we should be ready to yield to others in order to pursue peace (provided, of course, that we never compromise the truth).

If all else fails, our Lord says, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector. We know from the Gospels that gentiles and tax collectors were the objects of hatred by the Jews of our Lord’s day. However, we should also remember that He encouraged a different approach to these people with whom the Jews refused to be in contact, dining in the homes of tax collectors and drawing near to Gentiles who were regarded as unclean. In short, our Lord desired to convert these people whom He loved very much. We should imitate His love by praying fervently for anyone we perceive as having wronged us.

Our Lord also has important words for the Apostles, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Here we see a prefigurement of the power to forgive sins that will be given to the Apostles after the Resurrection. The Church’s power to bind and loosen, though, goes beyond even the ability to forgive sins in the Sacrament of Penance. As our Lord indicates here, sometimes in the most difficult of circumstances, the Church must even call someone to conversion by declaring him to have separated himself from the body of Christ. This is not only the Church’s right, but it is also sometimes Her duty, given to Her solemnly by the Lord.

Far more often than using Her power to bind, though, the Church uses them to loosen. She is very slow to punish and removes any punishments at the repentance of the sinner. Through Her priests, She is a generous and merciful mother in forgiving our sins in the Sacrament of Penance, never growing tired of reconciling us to God.

We live in a culture that seems to prefer punishment to forgiveness, especially when that punishment can be given publicly to someone’s political or social rival. Our Lord’s example to us is precisely the opposite in encouraging us not to harm the reputation even of those who harm us and being always quick to forgive.

Written for the radio show “Readings and Reflections.” Originally aired on August 12, 2015.