The Malta Independent 17 August 2019, Saturday

The story of forgiveness

Sunday, 14 April 2019, 08:56 Last update: about 5 months ago

As Holy Week starts today, I cannot fail to see the intimate connection between forgiveness and the Paschal Mystery. Jesus suffered, was slain and rose from the dead, forgiving his enemies!

How can we miss that powerful episode which Luke portrays so well in his Gospel? In chapter 23 of his account of the Passion, he recounts: And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do". And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!" (Luke 23:33-35).

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The context of the words Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34), is dramatic. Starting, of course, from the place itself: The Skull. The latter shows that Jesus was treated like any other criminal, even though he was innocent. According to the Romans, this spot outside the gates of the city was a place where they crucified criminals as a sign to those who visited the city that they did not tolerate criminality. Jesus' death was used as a deterrent to crime. To add insult to injury, the Gospel says that they crucified him with the criminals, one on the right and one on the left (Luke 23:33). Then, after his crucifixion, they cast lots to divide his garments (Luke 23: 34), before his very eyes! Moreover, the people that had received so much mercy from him, stood by, watching; (Luke 23:35), instead of defending him. The rulers kept ridiculing him by saying: "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!" (Luke 23:35).

And the response of Jesus, amid that shame, terror, insults, indifference and ridicule, was simply to ask the Father to forgive them because they did not know what they were doing.

The Church Fathers have some interesting comments to make on Jesus' forgiveness. St John Chrysostom says: "Because the Lord had said Pray for them that persecute you, this likewise He did, when He ascended the cross, as it follows, Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them, not that He was not able Himself to pardon them, but that He might teach us to pray for our persecutors, not only in word, but in deed also".

St Jerome comments: "I can return bite for bite, if I like; when hurt myself, I can fix my teeth in my opponent. I too have had a liberal education... But I prefer to be a disciple of Him who says: 'I gave my back to the smiters...  I hid not my face from shame and spitting.' When He was reviled He reviled not again. After the buffeting, the cross, the scourge, the blasphemies, at the very last He prayed for His crucifiers, saying: 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' I, too, pardon the error of a brother."

And St Irenaeus of Lyons reflects: "And from this fact, that He exclaimed upon the cross: 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,' the long-suffering, patience, compassion and goodness of Christ are exhibited, since He both suffered, and did Himself exculpate those who had maltreated Him."

 And what about me and you? Are we ready to forgive and excuse those who harm us? Are we ready to show them Christ's compassion, goodness and patience - even if it means that we suffer in doing so? Do we really consider them as our brothers and sisters? In fact, how ready are we to pray for our persecutors in word and deed?

If, as Pope Francis said in his 10 April catechesis: "we are debtors, ... because we have received so much in this life: existence, a father and a mother, friendship, the wonders of Creation ... because, even if we succeed in loving, none of us is able to do so with his/her own strength... [save] with God's grace,... we love first of all because we have been loved; we forgive because we have been forgiven": why not forgive those who have hurt us?

Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap


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