What did Jesus teach about forgiveness?
For Jesus, forgiveness is of paramount importance. It is the flip side of the love coin. Love ranks first, the top side, heads. Jesus wants us to love one another as he has loved us, and he explained that the way that people will know that we are his disciples is by the love that we have for one another (Jn 15:12,15; 13:35). But our love is imperfect. We damage our relationship with God and neighbor when we sin, the coin flips, tails. To remain in sin and alienation is to be in a tailspin. Forgiveness is the way to turn the coin back to heads and return to love.
Jesus often spoke about forgiveness, forgave those who sinned against others, forgave those who sinned against him, and asked the Church to continue his healing ministry. Jesus taught, “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you” (Mt 6:14). Peter asked Jesus how often it is necessary to forgive, and Jesus replied, “Seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:22), a number to be taken symbolically, not literally, for the never-ending way that we ought to forgive.
Jesus liked to use parables to illustrate various aspects of forgiveness. During his conversation with Peter, Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt 18:23-35). Luke’s gospel has a series of five forgiveness parables: the barren fig tree (Lk 13:6-9); the bent over woman (Lk 13:10-13); the lost sheep (Lk 15:4-7); the lost coin (Lk15:8-10); and the greatest forgiveness parable of all, the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32).
Jesus was extremely kind and merciful in the way that he forgave those who sinned against others. Jesus told the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven” (Mk 2:5); when a sinful woman bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair, Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven” (Lk 7:48); when a woman caught in adultery was brought before him, he said, “I do not condemn you” (Jn 8:11); and as Jesus hung on the cross he told the repentant criminal, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43).
Even more compelling is the way that Jesus forgave those who sinned against him directly. For Jesus, forgiveness was not an automatic, it was intentional, a conscious choice. After the Roman soldiers had scourged and nailed him, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them” (Lk 23:34). After the resurrection Jesus had every right to be furious. Peter had denied him. The others had deserted him. When he entered the Upper Room, they deserved a severe reprimand, but instead, with divine compassion Jesus said not once but three times, “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19,21,26).
Jesus asked his disciples to continue his forgiveness ministry. Jesus told Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19); and after the resurrection Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them” (Jn 20:22,23).
About Father Michael Van Sloun
Father Michael Van Sloun is pastor of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in Wayzata, Minn. As a former school principal, high school instructor and athletic coach, he has always been a teacher. He now teaches the faith as a homilist, Bible study leader, retreat director, pilgrimage guide and author of numerous articles.
© 2008, Rev. Michael A. Van Sloun
Used with permission.