Communal Dimension of Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Biblical Reflection for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time A

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By Father Thomas Rosica, CSB

TORONTO, AUG. 30, 2011 ( Today’s Gospel passage from Matthew 18:15-20 compels us to consider the essential elements in the process of forgiveness among members of the Church community. Matthew’s text stresses the fraternal correction of members who sin; the importance of the disciples’ prayer (19-20); and the continuous need for forgiveness that must be extended to repentant members of the Christian community (21-35).

At Caesarea Philippi, we learned that Peter is the foundation on which the Lord builds the edifice of the Church. Peter is entrusted with the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to open or close it to people as he sees fit. Peter will be able to bind or to loose, in the sense of establishing or prohibiting whatever he deems necessary for the life of the Church. Peter is entrusted with the keys. In Verse 18 of today’s Gospel, we see an almost identical repeat of the expression found in 16:19, and many understand it as granting to all the disciples what was previously given to Peter alone.

The harsh language about Gentile and tax collector in today’s Gospel likely reflects a certain period in Matthew’s Church community when it was probably composed of Jewish Christians. Just as observant Jews avoided the company of Gentiles and tax collectors, so must the congregation of Christian disciples separate itself from the arrogantly sinful members who refused to repent even when convicted of their sin by the whole Church. Such individuals are to be set outside the fellowship of the community.

The Church’s teaching on penance and reconciliation

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him. At the same time it damages communion with the Church. For this reason conversion entails both God’s forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church, which are expressed and accomplished liturgically by the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. Only God forgives sins. Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, “The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” and exercises this divine power: “Your sins are forgiven” (CCC 1441).

Binding and loosing

The Catechism of the Catholic Church goes on to explain the meaning of the “binding and loosing” in today’s Gospel. This ecclesial dimension of their task is expressed most notably in Christ’s solemn words to Simon Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (CCC 1444). The office of binding and loosing that was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of the apostles united to its head. The words bind and loose mean: Whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God (CCC 1445).

Christ instituted the sacrament of penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion (CCC 1446).

More than forgiving and forgetting

Forgiveness never means to overlook what someone has done to us. The emotions we feel when someone has wronged us are genuine, real, upsetting, and they must be honestly and painfully acknowledged and dealt with. They can provide a way of healing with the hurt and of moving toward healing and forgiveness. Harboring feelings of resentment, unforgiveness, anger, hate and rage can prevent the healing process from ever beginning. To forgive is not to say that what others did to us was okay. To genuinely forgive means that I refuse to allow the hurt to prevent me from growing and moving forward. If I refuse to move forward, wallowing in my own hurt and anger, I become paralyzed by the evil that has taken place.

An unforgiving spirit and festering resentment harden my heart and block it up from any flow of love. I am terribly diminished when I cannot forgive others. If I am sincere about forgiveness, I must allow God to remove my hard-heartedness and meanness of spirit. Forgiveness does not mean forgetfulness. It is rather a conscious decision that I make in my head, and pray that it slowly descends to my heart.

What are some painful examples of forgiveness in action today? Forgiving the person who murdered my innocent child does not mean to push for them to be released from prison. To forgive the husband who has been routinely violent does not necessarily mean choosing to take him back after violence and infidelity. To speak rationally to the wife who left her husband and children for another partner does not condone the terrible suffering that followed for the entire family. To forgive the priest who has abused children does not mean advocating for his return to active ministry around children. To speak honestly to the boyfriend who abandoned the young woman when she found herself pregnant and refused to have an abortion as an easy way out of the mess is the beginning of forgiveness and healing for all involved. We need clear thinking when it comes to making wise, compassionate judgments about the great, ambiguous situations in which we often find ourselves.

The frequently used expression “forgive and forget” is not a scriptural or particularly Christian saying. Jesus offers us another way in which we can forgive even while remembering a past hurt. When I forgive in the name of Jesus Christ, and with his strength and presence, I can actually help others who have been deeply hurt and begin the healing process. Just as there is nothing that one human being cannot do to another, there is nothing that one human being cannot forgive another, with the help and grace of Jesus. 

Amish Forgiveness

In light of today’s Gospel on the necessity of forgiveness, I wish to recall a tragic incident that occurred several years ago in the United States that caused the entire world to reflect on the meaning of forgiveness. I know how much the story jarred me in my own understanding of forgiveness.

The Amish school shooting at the West Nickel Mines School, an Amish one-room schoolhouse in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, in Bart Township of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, took place Oct. 2, 2006. A lone gunman, Charles Roberts IV, stormed the Amish School, releasing 15 boys and four adults before tying up and shooting 10 young girls. Roberts then killed himself.

On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls warned some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, “We must not think evil of this man.” Another Amish father noted, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he’s standing before a just God.”

An Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. Amish community members visited and comforted the killer’s widow, parents, and parents-in-law. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts’ funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims.

Marie Roberts wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbors thanking them for their forgiveness, grace and mercy. She wrote, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”

Toward authentic reconciliation and hope

Many people criticized the quick and complete forgiveness with which the Amish responded, insisting that forgiveness is inappropriate when no remorse has been expressed, and that such an attitude runs the risk of denying the existence of evil. Those who have s
tudied Amish life noted that “letting go of grudges” is a deeply rooted value in Amish culture. They explained that the Amish willingness to forgo vengeance does not undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong, but rather constitutes a first step toward real reconciliation and a future that is filled with realistic hope.

The emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation in the response of the Amish community was widely discussed in the international media. Forgiveness is woven into the fabric of Amish faith. Such courage to forgive jolted the world as much as the brutal killing itself. I have often felt that the transforming power of forgiveness may be the one redeeming thing that emerged from the horrendous massacre at Nickel Mines in 2006.

The Amish forgiveness raises many thorny questions for us. It may be one thing to forgive a mentally ill killer; but what about those who are not out of their minds, who intentionally murder or threaten to do so for political ends or personal retaliation? How does forgiveness relate to justice? If everyone forgave so quickly, would it truly transform human relations or lead to civil anarchy?

Watchers of the morn

Today’s first reading from the prophet Ezekiel (33:7-9) uses the expression “watchman for the house of Israel” (2). This word “watchman” or “sentinel” speaks of someone who will announce salvation (Chapters 33-48), just as the same word (3:17-21) referred to Ezekiel’s ministry to announce judgment (Chapters 3-24). The use of the word “watchman” or sentinel certainly evokes the memories of Pope John Paul II’s use of that word during World Youth Day 2000 in Rome and again in the preparation of World Youth Day 2002 in Canada.

In his message announcing World Youth Day 2002, Blessed John Paul II wrote: “You are the light of the world. …” For those who first heard Jesus, as for us, the symbol of light evokes the desire for truth and the thirst for the fullness of knowledge that are imprinted deep within every human being. When the light fades or vanishes altogether, we no longer see things as they really are. In the heart of the night we can feel frightened and insecure, and we impatiently await the coming of the light of dawn. Dear young people, it is up to you to be the watchmen of the morning (cf. Is 21:11-12) who announce the coming of the sun who is the Risen Christ!”

In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (13:8-10), Paul considers the obligations of charity. When love directs the moral decision-making of those who bear the name of Christian, the interest of law is safeguarded (9). Love anticipates the purpose of public legislation, namely, to secure the best interests of all citizens.

Through World Youth Days, young people are commissioned to be watchers of the morning, bearing the light of Christ and announcing hope and salvation to a world often steeped in darkness and despair. There is no better school of reconciliation, forgiveness and peace than World Youth Days that model to young people the constitutive elements of the Christian life and what true citizenship means in the Kingdom of God.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20.]

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Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, chief executive officer of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network in Canada, is a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. He can be reached at:

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