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On Forgiveness

“To err is human, to forgive divine.” Those oft-quoted lines of Alexander Pope are the focus of this weekend's Gospel, and this Lesson from Loyola Hall. Whom to forgive, and how, is what we should pay attention to this weekend.

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

First Reading: Genesis 18:20-32

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 138:1-3, 6-8

Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 2:12-14

Gospel: According to St. Luke 11:1-13

“To err is human, to forgive divine.”

This is one of the most quoted lines ever written by a Pope.  This Pope also gave us, from the same work, “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” and “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”  Only William Shakespeare is more cited in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations than this Pope. The Pope in question was Alexander – not Pope Alexander, but Alexander Pope, the brilliant eighteenth century English Catholic poet, satirist, and translator.

Forgiveness is one of the essential aspects of the Catholic Faith and is expressed most clearly in the prayer given by Jesus to His disciples in this week’s Gospel story.  The wording that is in Luke’s Gospel isn’t what we are used to hearing, but maybe that’s a good thing.  Too often the words of the one prayer that is universally accepted in the Christian world pass from the page to the lips and to the ears without ever entering either the head or the heart.

“Forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us.”

This line is a challenge to all who speak it, for it is a call to see that there is a necessary link between our asking God for forgiveness and our granting forgiveness to others.  Even more radical is the fact that nowhere in the Lord’s Prayer is there any mention of a requirement that people ask for our forgiveness or that they feel sorry for what they have done.  Jesus is implicitly calling His followers to forgive even those who are never going to ask for pardon because they don’t believe that they’ve done anything wrong.

It is difficult to say no to someone who sincerely seeks our forgiveness for the wrongs that they have committed against us.  We have an inherent desire to make things right and to feel sympathy for those who are truly contrite.  What Jesus is asking is that we go way beyond what feels right and enter the realm of the divine – to forgive those who neither seek nor desire our forgiveness.

As if to highlight the revolutionary nature of Christ’s approach, the reading from Genesis presents a scenario that never even considers the idea of unconditional forgiveness.  When Abraham asks God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction he is pleading on behalf of ‘good’ people and not the unrepentant sinners who have brought disrepute upon their cities.  Only after the arrival of Jesus are we offered the path of forgiveness whereby God looks past our sinfulness with a mercy beyond all human understanding.

Jesus confirms the radical nature of God’s love when He bluntly tells his disciples, “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in Heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” This allows us to remain hopeful – to believe that despite ourselves and our sinfulness God is always on our side.

It also gives us the true context for understanding how we are to treat those who “trespass against us.”  Alexander Pope put it well when he prayed, “Teach me to feel another’s woe, to hide the fault I see, that mercy I to others show, that mercy show to me.”

A.M.D.G.