The Absurdity of Forgiveness

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Whenever we read about forgiveness in sacred scripture, we are often looking at it from God’s point of view, where God is the offended party and humanity through various representatives is often the offending party—from Adam and Eve who ate fruit from the forbidden tree to Cain who slew his brother Abel, from the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah for their many abominations to Pharaoh king of Egypt who enslaved Israel, then the Canaanites, Philistines, Babylonians, Assyrians, Amorites, Amalekites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Samarians, and Romans for subjecting Israel to pain and misery for so many years in so many ways, from Judas who betrayed Jesus with a kiss to every lawbreaker since Moses who takes God’s name in vain, skips church on Sunday, dishonors his parents, kills, cheats, steals, lies, covets, and commits adultery. Have I left anyone out? So, when God lets anyone off the hook which is entirely God’s prerogative and tells us who call ourselves Christian to go and do the same, we can get a little defensive and resistant. Of course, God wants me to be perfect, but I’m not there quite yet. Nor am I in any hurry to get there. So, leave me be while I simmer and stew in my bitterness and resentment and self-righteous anger. And while we’re on the subject of my right to feel offended when someone offends me, why is it God asks us to let offenders slide yet fails to recognize that this only promotes a total lack of accountability and opens the door to even more unacceptable behavior?

It appears that God who created humanity endowed with the gift of reason can afford to behave unreasonably at times. But surely it sends a rather confusing message. When someone does something intentionally to offend me, it is perfectly reasonable for me to then be offended. That is probably why the ancient law of retaliation was quite popular. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But by offering forgiveness, God suspends his very legitimate right to be offended. In the reading from Exodus God shares with Moses a long list of legitimate grievances that would justify his letting loose his blazing wrath upon Israel and wipe them off the face of the earth. I imagine God was so displeased he was more than willing to revoke every promise he had made to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–that he would make them a great nation and one day settle them in their own land. Moses comes out like a hero in this story begging God to hold back and not bring dishonor upon his own name. We don’t actually hear that God forgave Israel’s offense, but God did threaten punishment then God relented. That sounds very much like forgiveness to me which is a highly unreasonable response despite God’s very detailed reasonable argument to the contrary.

St. Paul expounds on the wonders of God’s great mercy that he came to know intimately himself. He admits to being a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, enough reason in his estimation for God to reject him and appoint to the ministry a much more qualified candidate. Then he proclaims a core truth of the Christian faith: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. It is the only plausible reason for God to choose to extend mercy to Paul and to each of us that in us, Christ Jesus might display God’s boundless patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life.

Three parables in the gospel of Luke show us God’s perspective with regard to recovering a missing something or someone of great value but whose value is unknown to them entirely. Understandably, coins and sheep would not know their own value. But sadly, neither did a son grasp the immense love his Father had for him that despite squandering his wealth, breaking his heart, and rejecting him and everything he stood for, his Father would still take him back. The story is a parable about God’s mercy and is open-ended for good reason. There might have been great rejoicing at the lost son’s return, but the truly wise parent knows they would still need to talk in the morning and figure out what happens next. And that includes the other son who had stayed home. If the Father letting go of his right to resentment had room for them both in his heart and in his house, they would have much to figure out for the long road ahead.

And the question that I often hear with regard to forgiveness is whether or not life should return to what it was before as though nothing had disrupted it in the first place. For us to forgive in no way requires that we should also forget. If we forget, we have learned nothing. Instead, forgiveness is intended to restore both offender and offended to a working balance that allows each to function without further harm. If you had hurt someone, you can’t be allowed to hurt them again. If you had been hurt, measures need to be put in place to prevent you from getting hurt again. Forgiveness enables us to love as God loves, so we can desire the good for our neighbor that God desires for them. We need not experience warm fuzzies to forgive or to love. But both are acts of the will. And sometimes the good God desires will only be possible if offender and offended go their own separate ways. Our obligations and the unfortunate consequences of our offense remain. These are debts society holds us to account. But we can let go of resentment. We should. It is the only way for forgiveness to work.

Forgiveness is a most ridiculous and irrational response to those who offend us. But it is the way God has chosen to love us. And it is the only way we must take if ever we desire to love our neighbor just as God loves us.

Rolo B Castillo © 2022

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