“Luke 23:33-34 recounts, ‘When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left. Then Jesus said, [Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.]’
At the very moment of His body being tortured to the utmost extremity, Jesus somehow musters the strength to speak, and what does He say? ‘Father, forgive.’”
That was Patrick Conley on a recent episode of The Inner Life where he and Fr. Eric Nielsen discussed the value of forgiveness and the ways we can imitate Christ in seeing past the offenses of others.
Jesus provided us with the gold standard for forgiveness when He hung up on that cross and forgave His murderers. And that example was taken up by followers everywhere, from St. Stephen the first martyr to St. Maria Goretti to Pope St. John Paul II, and more.
But, as Patrick pointed out, forgiveness is far from an automatic process. From the outside looking in, it may seem easy, but these stories of the saints and forgiveness are founded firmly on a life dedicated to personal holiness and the imitation of Christ. We are all human after all, and it’s only natural to feel intense emotions when we are seriously wronged, harmed, or offended. But it takes divine assistance to overcome our anger, indignation, and desire for retribution. It takes a supernatural outlook to see the Son or Daughter of God within our offenders and offer them peace and forgiveness.
How deep is your love? Fr. Eric offered listeners a way to understand depth of love. “Think of the person who is your greatest enemy. How well do you love that person? Because that’s a test of how deep your love is. Can you love that person who is your biggest enemy?”
That is the example offered to us by Jesus and the saints. St. Stephen was stoned to death and what were his final words? “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
And what about eleven-year-old Maria Goretti’s final words after being assaulted and fatally stabbed by her assailant? “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli…and I want him with me in heaven forever.”
What kind of fervor and love possesses a person for them to be capable of giving up all feelings of hatred and ill-will toward someone who has just sought to end their life? It is only through the power of God that someone can forgive as Jesus did.
Fr. Eric examined Jesus’s words, “Forgive them, they know not what they do.” In a literal sense, the Romans knew exactly what they were doing: They were making a condemned prisoner suffer. But from a moral and supernatural perspective, they had no idea the extent of their evil. Jesus’s example invites us to take up that perspective when we feel we are being wronged.
“They don’t realize how much they’re hurting their soul by hurting me. They don’t realize my dignity as a child of God. They don’t realize how much God looks down on what they’re doing,” said Fr. Eric. “And so, Father forgive them because if they really knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t do it.”
It wasn’t just the Romans who inflicted suffering on Jesus. It was the whole world. He bore the sins of all of us, with no exceptions. So, when He asked His Father in heaven to forgive “them”, He was also asking for redemption for the sins of you and me. How many times have we offended God out of self-interest? Innumerable times. And how many times has He granted us forgiveness? Every time that we’ve asked for it.
Forgive others as Jesus forgave His killers. Forgive others as God forgives us in the confessional. Forgive others as we would want to be forgiven from others we have wronged.
The only path to heaven is through the cross, through suffering, which means that we will encounter people who we have the opportunity to forgive. In those moments, remember the examples of Our Lord and His saints.
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