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Unilateral forgiveness

Jesus said to the woman, "Your sins are forgiven" (cf. Lk 7:36-50). What beautiful words from our Savior to this sinful woman. A wonderful act of forgiveness and mercy, except that ... she had not asked for it. In fact, no one in the Gospels asks for His forgiveness - not the paralytic lowered through the roof for healing, not the jeering crowd on Calvary. Yet He forgives them anyway. This woman, by her gestures of repentance - bathing His feet with tears, drying them with her hair, and anointing them with oil - she comes the closest. Her actions speak what she in fact never says: "Forgive me."

All of which emphasizes God's initiative: He forgives before we ask. He bestows mercy even though we are unworthy of it. He does not require that we be perfect in order to be forgiven - that would be a contradiction. He does not insist that we ask in just the right way, with all our i's dotted and t's crossed. That would amount to Christian reincarnation: Keep trying until you get it right. No, He extends forgiveness before we are ready, before we even ask. So, when we ask for forgiveness we are not trying to change His mind, as if He has to be cajoled and persuaded. Rather, we are availing ourselves of something already extended to us. We ask for His forgiveness, not so that He will give (for He already has) but so that we can receive.

This should give us confidence in approaching the sacrament of penance. Forgiveness awaits us there already. We enter the confessional not to convince the minister to forgive but to avail ourselves of what he is there to give. The requirements for a good confession (examine the conscience, make a firm purpose of amendment, list the sins clearly and do not withhold mortal sins) are not tests or hurdles, but how we open the soul to receive forgiveness. And even after all that no one can say he confessed perfectly. No human act of repentance can sufficiently express the gravity of sin or make one worthy of mercy. So, like the woman in the Gospel, we sort of barge into the confessional and awkwardly but sincerely give expression as best we can to our sorrow for sin and desire for reconciliation. Forgiveness awaits us in the confessional. We simply need to avail ourselves of it.

Our Lord's initiative in forgiveness - His unilateral decision to forgive before anyone asks - should likewise shape our mercy toward others. We pray daily for a correspondence between God's mercy and ours: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

God extends forgiveness before we are worthy, before we even ask. We, however, hold grudges and say, "I will forgive so-and-so when he comes and asks." Or "I will forgive her when she shows me she is sorry." What if God did that? What if He withheld His mercy until we had performed some act worthy of it? We approach Him in confidence precisely because we know that He forgives despite our unworthiness. Others should feel the same freedom with us.

This is what it means to love one's enemies - to make the interior decision to forgive, whether or not the other asks for our forgiveness. The day may come when the person asks, in which case we can be reconciled. Other times, sadly, that day may never come - in which case we imitate Our Lord even more by bearing in our hearts forgiveness for those who have not asked. Christian forgiveness goes forth before the offender has repented,despite his unworthiness. That is how Christ acts towards us and how we ought to act toward others.

Fr. Scalia is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's delegate for clergy.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013