In the novel Les Misérables, John Valjean steals the silver utensils from the priest that had given him food and a bed to sleep in. This is the nature of sin that it takes without asking, wounds without shame. When the police catch the thief and bring him and the silverware back to the priest, the priest does not demand that the thief grovel and beg for mercy. He does not even ask the thief to confess his sin. Instead the priest insists that the items were a gift and that John Valjean had forgotten to take the silver candlesticks as well. Here then was a debt of stolen property and more grievous a debt to justice. Not only are these debts forgiven but a gift is also given. The gift is a seal, a guarantee that the thief is released. After giving the candlesticks it is then impossible that the priest could ever hold the debt over the head of the thief. In fact, with the gift the identity of "thief" is erased and the new identity of beloved friend is proclaimed.
|Sword of Damocles|
What we often call "forgiveness" is not really forgiveness at all. It is forbearance -- the setting aside of a just demand for compensation (an eye for an eye). The required payment of the debt is suspended--for a time. Forbearance may hold out the prospect that good behavior will earn continued forbearance, but not forgiveness and so not freedom. The debtor remains condemned, like Damocles, with a sword suspended above his head by a single strand of hair.
The indivisibleness of love and forgiveness is illustrated in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son. The son demanded his share of the inheritance while his father still lived and by doing so he declared that he wished his father were dead. After squandering the money and facing starvation he truly repents of what he has done. Making his way back home, he does not expect forgiveness but hopes for the forbearance to be treated as a servant. But, Jesus tells us, while the son is still a long way off, his father sees him and runs and embraces him. (Luke 15:11-23)
The father had been deeply hurt that day when his son had turned his back and left. The father had every right to reject his son. It would have been generous of him simply to go back into the house and sit and wait for his son to come and prostrate himself at the father's feet and beg for forgiveness. That act of contrition would be a start toward healing some of the deep wound he felt. But the father did not wait. He ran to his son.
More than that he embraced him and gave him gifts and ordered that a celebration be prepared. Why? Because the son he loved and thought dead was alive and had returned to him. It brings him joy to give his son gifts: rings, clothes, and forgiveness because love's greatest desire is the for the good of the beloved.
Among sinful humanity, there may be no greater reflection of divine grace than an act of true forgiveness. We are told to imitate Christ in this way: "Forgive others as the Lord forgave you …" But how can we forgive those who have hurt us so deeply? This is a hard thing to do, and without love it is impossible. We cannot truly forgive unless we first love and this also is the work of God in us. "We love because God first loved us." We only begin to love others because "God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us." This love, which God gives us, looks for and longs for reconciliation with others because it is the nature of true love to pursue what is beloved. "While we were still sinners, God demonstrated his love in this: Christ died for us." (Col 3:13b, 1 John 4:19, Rom 5:8)
Even though God has given the Holy Spirit to us, our pain and pride can keep us from freely loving and forgiving others as God has loved and forgiven us. How can we stir up real love for those who have brought us so much pain? We begin by seeing the love of Christ. He is "the author and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame." Christ is like the father of the prodigal son who despised the shame associated with hiking up his robes and exposing his bare legs as he ran to embrace his son. Christ endured the cross because he knew he would gain the joy of an eternity with those he loves -- sinners like Peter who abandoned Christ and denied even knowing him and Saul/Paul who hated and persecuted Jesus' followers and sinners like me and you. Like Christ our Lord, we should look beyond the pain of our wounds and look ahead with faith to the joy of never ending love and friendship with those we forgive. In our forgiving we "clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience … and over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together." (Heb 12:2, Col 3:12,14)