The Origin and Meaning of Forgiveness

Eleventh Sunday of the Year (C). 2 Sam 12:7-10.13; Ps 31; Gal 2:16.19-21; Lk 7:36-8:3

Today’s Gospel and First Reading are clearly about forgiveness, a response to wrongdoing that has proved surprisingly difficult for philosophers to explain. Forgiveness is more than pardoning, the kind of act done by a person of power to cancel debt. Forgiveness is certainly not the same as excusing, tolerating or otherwise endorsing what is wrong. Forgiveness is regarded as something wholesome and laudable, but also something that is rare: the natural response to being sinned against is, at best, to seek to balance the books, to render an “eye for an eye”. The response of Christ from the cross, however, is very different, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” If we are disciples of Christ, how then can we be forgiven and learn to forgive?

One clue to understanding forgiveness is to look at the origins of the word. The word “forgive” comes from an old English word forgiefan, which is itself made up of two words: giefan, meaning “give” and for-, meaning “completely”. So the word forgiefan conveys the sense of giving completely. There is, however, another and surprising meaning of forgiefan, namely “to give in marriage”. So this one word of forgiveness is rooted in a union of two ideas: “to give completely” and “to give in marriage”. How, then, can this interpretation help us understand today’s readings?

To make the connection, it is helpful to recall what God desires of us and for us. We are not on a production line, with God as the quality assurance manager checking if we make the grade and discarding shoddy goods. If this comparison was valid, in the case of the Pharisee and the woman in today’s Gospel, the Pharisee would clearly have turned out much better than the woman with the bad name in the town - even though she had shown such sorrow for her sin. What God desires of us is actually something that might seem very strange indeed, namely something rather like our souls being given in marriage to Him. A very concrete witness of this vocation is that of a nun or woman religious, but this union is actually the calling, in different ways, of all who share the life of grace. This idea helps to show why the Christian concept of morality is subtly and radically different from that of the world. For the world, what is shameful about the kinds of sins implied in the First Reading and Gospel is the notion of the loss of self-control, which is a wound to one’s pride or self-esteem. For Christ, on the other hand, what is evil about these sins is that the love that should have been given to God has instead been thrown away for the sake of false love. The dark power of sin, what gives sin its sting, in a Christian understanding, is not so much the wound to self-esteem but the betrayal of one’s true love for a lie: it is the breaking of this relationship in favour of a kind of disordered love which leads, if unchecked, to a progressive degeneration of the soul. And this is why Jesus commends the woman’s rather bizarre actions over those of the Pharisee, Simon. She has sensed, in some obscure way, that it is her sins have caused her to lose that which is most lovable, that which she ought to have loved, the one who created her for love, namely God Himself. When she wets the feet of Jesus, she senses that it is God Himself to whom she is pouring out sorrow for her sin. When Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven,” her soul finally finds peace because she is spiritually reconciled with God, that union, symbolised by marriage, has been restored.

What lessons can we draw? First, not to be afraid of coming to God for forgiveness – in particular, the Sacrament of Confession can bring extraordinary healing to the soul. Second, to remember what kind of relationship God really wants with us. What give moral commandments their force is not so much an impersonal standard of perfection, but that their transgression breaks a relationship of love with God. Conversely, what ultimately purifies us and makes us holy is a personal relationship with Christ, the ultimate fruit of the sacraments and prayer.

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