St. Josephine Bakhita, taken from Africa and confined as a domestic slave during her early life, famously forgave her former owners, saying, “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.” St. Josephine spent her final years as a religious sister near Verona, Italy.
More well-known is the saga of St. Maria Goretti and her tragic end. When Maria was 11, Alessandro Serenelli tried to take advantage of her. She bravely fought, exclaiming “God does not wish it!” Outraged, Alessandro stabbed Maria several times. She died a day later, after expressing her forgiveness. The saint even hoped that he would repent and be in heaven someday. “I want him with me in Heaven forever!” she said.
Saint John Gualbert was born in 11th-century Florence where his younger brother was sadly murdered. St. John pursued the murderer and was about to slay him when the assassin extended his arms in the shape of a cross and asked for mercy in the name of Jesus Christ. The day happened to be Good Friday. Forgetting revenge, the saint embraced his brother’s killer. Then, entering a church, St. John thanked God for quelling his impulse to add murder to murder. As he prayed, the image of Christ on the crucifix appeared to incline his head toward him. St. John was inspired to leave society and enter a Benedictine monastery, later founding his own monastic order.
This coming Sunday’s Gospel passage doubly portrays human forgiveness as integral to the Christian life.
At the beginning of the passage, St. Peter approaches Jesus and asks, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answers saying, “Not seven times but seventy-seven times.” The dialogue here is reminiscent of Genesis where God ensures Cain’s safety by a seven-fold vengeance: “Whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him seven times as much. (4:15).” Forgiveness is serious business in the Bible. Human beings should not be interested in getting even; they should rather be concerned with healing and reconciliation.
Jesus leaves no doubt about the crucial place forgiveness will play in the Christian life by preaching the parable of the unforgiving steward. Having been seriously let off the hook by the master of the estate, an ungrateful steward pressures a fellow worker to pay back a much lesser sum. He has no mercy. When the master learns of such hardness of heart, he takes action. “His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt when you asked. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’” Jesus then soberly concludes, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”
Jesus’ insistence on forgiveness as integral to the Christian life was also made clear in his celebrated prayer as recorded by St. Matthew: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors (6:12)” as well as by St. Luke: “…forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us…(11:4).” And of course his own words on the cross, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do (Lk 23:34),” speak most eloquently of mercy.
Later, St. Paul would offer the same instruction to the Romans. “Beloved, do not look for revenge, rather leave wrath to God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ Rather, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good (12:19-21).”
These examples of the Christian saints and these teachings of Jesus and St. Paul on forgiveness were anticipated by the thoughts of Sirach as Sunday’s first reading insists: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD? Could anyone refuse mercy to another and then seek pardon for his own sins? (Sir 27:30-28:7).” Jewish tradition, Christian teaching, the saints’ examples, and even folklore agree: “Forgive and forget, or revenge and regret.” Mercy, compassion and leniency are indeed integral to a devout life.