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Each time we pray as Jesus taught us we ask God to, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us…..”

It would be far easier to forgive others if forgiveness had limits, if enough was enough and after forgiving, say seven times, we could proudly announce, “Virtue accomplished.” But Jesus’ economy of forgiveness is far more generous. We are to forgive seven times seventy times, which means we don’t count the number of times, we just continue to forgive, time and again,  because we are now in a new relationship, a relationship built on love; we forgive not with conditions nor with a calculator. We forgive because of our new, loving relationship with God.

In his sermon on the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Martin Luther wrote, “Hence no one should be so wicked and allow himself to be so angry, as to be unable to forgive his neighbor.”

John Mahoney, who played Martin Crane in the television show Frasier, died this past week. In remembering her friend, Cathleen Falsani Possley told of a “sullen menacing clerk” who rudely ignored her request to put two carefully selected perfectly ripe tomatoes on the top of the bag. Cathleen reached into the bag and put the tomatoes on top as the bagger grunted and shoved the bag at her. She was about to “lose my cool” when she thought, “What would John Mahoney do?” Instead of getting angry and ugly, she thanked the bagger and held the door for another customer on the way out. John Mahoney’s God, writes Possley, “is a kind God who will always love… and forgive.”

“Forgiveness is a choice,” writes Robert D. Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Forgiveness is “NOT reconciliation, forgetting, excusing or condoning.” Forgiveness “does not get rid of the injustice, but the effects of injustice” and the “benefits of forgiveness are significant: scientific analysis demonstrates that considerable emotional, rational and even physical health benefits result from forgiving.”

Speaking at a conference on Wellness, Fr. Brian Cavanaugh tells this story:

“I remember reading about a woman in the early 1900s who went to her doctor with a catalogue of complaints about her health. The physician examined her thoroughly and became convinced that there was nothing physically wrong with her. He suspected it was her negative outlook on life—her bitterness and resentment—that was the key to her feeling the way she did.

“The wise physician took the woman into a back room in his office where he kept some of his medicine. He showed her a shelf filled with empty bottles. He said to her: “See those bottles. Notice that they are all empty. They are shaped differently from one another, but basically they are all alike. Most importantly, they have nothing in them. Now, I can take one of these bottles and fill it with poison—enough poison to kill a human being. Or I can fill it with enough medicine to bring down a fever, or ease a throbbing headache or fight bacteria in one part of the body. The important thing is that I make the choice. I can fill it with whatever I choose.”

“The doctor looked her in the eye and said, ‘Each day that we are given is basically like one of these empty bottles. We can choose to fill it with love and life-affirming thoughts and attitudes, or we can fill it with destructive, poisonous thoughts. The choice is ours. And what will you choose? Life-affirming, positive, healing thoughts? Or, the seething poisons of anger, bitterness and prejudice? The choice is yours! Yes, the choice is yours, and that is also the problem.’”

“To be a Christian,” writes C.S. Lewis, “means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

– Stephen H. Swanson