The Gospel reading this Sunday is the Gospel of John’s version of the commissioning of the disciples to continue Jesus’ work of reconciliation. For most Catholics today, the phrase, “forgive people their sins,” probably sounds like a reference to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, despite the fact that Baptism is the primary Sacrament of forgiveness. During Jesus’ lifetime, however, this phrase would have been closely associated with the juridical power exercised by rabbis to dispense a person from one or another of the many obligations of the Mosaic Law.
In its original context, Jesus was commanding his disciples to continue to spread his message of reconciliation with God and people. Very quickly, this command became associated with the ritual washing that we recognize today as Baptism. Almost twenty centuries have elapsed since Jesus issued this command to his disciples, and it remains the Church’s vocation to spread the message of reconciliation.
The primary means of reconciliation with God and neighbor is through the repentance that leads to Baptism, but there is a daily, habitual practice of reconciliation that is required of Jesus’ disciples, as well. The several layers of meanings of the phrase, “forgive people their sins,” have in common the aspect of a juridical act, but there is more to the task of forgiving than judging the morality of other people’s lives.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ acts of forgiving sinners and reconciling outcasts were always associated with his expectation that his disciples would grant forgiveness to one another on a habitual basis. The ritual forgiveness of Baptism, then, is inextricably associated with the interpersonal forgiveness that heals and strengthens human societies.
Today, forgiveness is widely misunderstood. In secular society, forgiveness is misunderstood to be the granting of permission to those who act in anti-social ways or as a cowardly alternative to standing up for oneself. In the Church, forgiveness is often misunderstood to be the imposition of a uniform code of conduct on all Church members.
In the teachings of Jesus, forgiveness isn’t the process of organizing the world in order that everyone is just like oneself. Forgiveness isn’t forced compliance or coercive judgment; nor is it an act of denial or cowardice.
In the teachings of Jesus, forgiveness means forgiving all people because all people need forgiveness.
Specifically, in the conversation recorded in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus was commissioning his disciples to preach the Gospel of reconciliation in order that all people might be reconciled to God and one another. At a practical level, however, forgiving other people’s sins means nothing more and nothing less than granting forgiveness freely and without reservation.
The various misunderstandings of forgiveness have something in common in addition to the element of judgmentalism; they share in common the phenomenon of complaining about the nature of the world. We have become so accustomed to complaining about the behavior of others that the thought of not complaining seems incomprehensible. Complaining about the behaviors we judge to be undesirable isn’t forgiveness; it is the opposite of forgiveness.
I am well aware that Jesus’ commandment is difficult to accomplish. It is counter-cultural; it goes against human nature’s desire for retribution and our generation’s desire for ample material with which to validate our complaints. Perhaps, the reason that we find Jesus’ words so difficult to understand and practice is that those words require such a profound change in the way we live.
If you are reluctant to forgive, please ask yourself what improvement has come about in the world thus far as a result of your unforgiveness and complaining. If you can be honest with yourself, you will notice that no improvement ever results from blaming and complaining.
Today, the Sunday within the Octave of Easter, has taken on the moniker “Divine Mercy Sunday.” The reasons for this reinterpretation of the Octave of Easter, and for the obsession with God’s Divine Mercy, are, I think, directly linked to the lack of forgiveness in the Church and in the world. Any baptized person who worries about being the recipient of God’s Mercy is severely lacking in faith. Baptism into the redeeming death of Jesus is God’s guarantee of mercy for sinners and outcasts. Worry about the absence of God’s Mercy from one’s life can come only from one source: the absence of human mercy from one’s own heart.
As we have exhausted every other possibility, perhaps it’s time to take Jesus’ teaching seriously: forgive other people their sins!