The Awesome Duty of Forgiveness
I tell you solemnly, whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven. – Matthew 18:18
We know only too well that injury comes our way, and often from the most unexpected quarters. We expect our enemies to try to harm us, but when it is a friend, or a family member, or our dearest beloved, it hurts more than we could ever imagine. We have all experienced this. And we have all, most likely, responded badly. In this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching us a very difficult, but ultimately soul-saving idea. He is telling us that the most intimately important duty in human relationships is that of forgiveness. This is the central message of the Incarnation. In contemplating this passage we realize that forgiveness is the ultimate expression, the most profound evidence of love. And the purest model of this profound truth is Jesus.
Though we know that this is the truth, we also know that our human reaction to unjustified injury is usually a complex mix of powerful emotions; from the terrible interior sense of betrayal and hurt that takes our breath away and burns our hearts, to the powerful intensity of anger and the urge for vengeance. We want to hurt them back, to feel the satisfaction of what we feel is a justified victory over them. But Jesus tells us something truly revolutionary in this passage. He gives us a formula for obtaining both brotherly or sisterly correction and healing for both parties. He tells us something profoundly awesome too. Whatever we bind on earth, or in other words, refuse to forgive, will be remembered in heaven. Whatever we loose, that is, forgive, will be considered forgiven in heaven. This should give us real pause. We remember, suddenly, how Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and we realize that we will be forgiven only as well as we have learned to forgive those who have sinned against us.
What does it take to forgive another? We know from experience that it is a very difficult process, both internally and externally. It is fraught with emotions, even with doubts. Yet Jesus is telling us here that what we do with our injury, is directly related to us, as well as to the one who has injured us. Forgiveness is the the force that heals all wounds, that binds back together the broken heart. Forgiveness heals both parties. It heals the one who has been injured by letting go of anger and replacing it with compassion. It heals those who have injured us by liberating them from the burden of their guilt and by welcoming them back into the embrace of our love. Where there is injury healed by pardon, the relationships that are repaired are not just renewed, but they are strengthened. In forgiving we make love more important than redress. When we are the one who has been forgiven, we begin to realize what love really is. We begin to understand how we have injured love, and we begin to feel the liberating powers of repentance and contrition. In the difficult act of fogiving the other, we participate, in some small way, in the salvific act of Jesus, within the intimacy of our personal relationships. Forgiveness, therefore, is the heart and soul of love. That is a fact. We know it. We know how hard it is to forgive, yet, we also know that nothing so powerful could ever be easy.
Contemplate Jesus on the Cross and you will begin to understand the meaning of forgiveness as an act of pure love. Reflect on his death on that cross and you will begin to understand why forgiveness is, truly, love in action.