Wait… we gotta forgive everyone who repents, no matter how often?

The Gospel reading from the Mass this past Monday is rather fitting, given the current political climate in this country. It’s Luke 17:1-6.

Jesus said to his disciples, Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the one through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, I am sorry,you should forgive him. And the Apostles said to the Lord, Increase our faith. The Lord replied, If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.

Every time I prepare a lesson for RCIA at my parish, I have at least somewhere in the back of my mind the admonishment that Jesus starts with here. If I teach falsely, whether out of malice or out of indifference, that is on me for leading others into sin. My sin is far greater than theirs. I will be judged far more harshly than they will be judged. I need to make the effort to ensure I speak the truth, even if it’s not a palatable truth. Especially if it’s not a palatable truth.

I also must be willing to rebuke sinners. Rebuke is not a bad word. It does not mean harsh. It just means to reprimand or admonish. No one changes their ways if they are insulted or belittled, so rebuking shouldn’t be done in an angry or hateful manner. It must be done firmly, but with love and compassion. And if the person who is rebuked repents, then I must be willing to forgive that person. Not just that one time, and then it’s ok to withhold forgiveness if they do it again. EVERY time they repent.

Note the response of the disciples. Jesus emphasizes how important forgiveness is by saying they are to forgive someone who wrongs them even as much as seven times in a single day, provided that person keeps coming back and repenting, and they ask him to increase their faith. This isn’t just some pithy request. This is the disciples saying that this is incredibly difficult and they will need God’s help to do it. It is difficult enough to forgive someone who does something evil once and then repents. But to forgive someone who does it over and over and over again? To keep forgiving them when they ask for it, expecting that they may go back and do it again soon?

Yes. We must always forgive someone who is repentant.

Along with that, we must of course continue to rebuke the people we know who have not repented of their sins. Just as a parent does not stop reprimanding their child after the child has done a particular bad thing a hundred times, we must never stop correcting sin. We shouldn’t be going out our way to find people to correct, however. Jesus is talking about us correcting a brother, someone we know. Correction is more likely to be accepted from a friend than from a stranger.

Would you stop doing something you didn’t think was wrong if a complete stranger walked up to you and said, “Hey, stop that?” No, you would not. Such a correction would have to come from someone you know, someone you respect, someone to whom you are willing to listen, before you would act on it.

So in this time when tempers run high, when hyperbole is the rule of the day, when it is easy to belittle and insult those with whom we disagree, we must act with charity. If you’ve been insutlingly rude about President Obama for the past eight years, now is a good time to stop and ask your liberal friends to forgive you. If you’ve been insultingly rude about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton (or both) during this recent presidential campaign, now is a good time to ask your friends who supported either one to forgive you.

Be sincere. Don’t just make it words. Make it the truth in your heart. Mean what you say when you say, “I am sorry”. And try to be more respectful going forward. Try to admonish and reprimand without without anger. You will be far more likely to change the hearts of others when you do that than when you insult and belittle.

As the current extraordinary jubilee year, this great year of mercy, comes to a close on 26 November, it would behoove all of us to remember to keep mercy in our hearts and show mercy to others. It would also behoove us to be willing to rebuke our brothers who sin. Not to insult them or make them feel bad, but to call them back to Christ. The goal is eternal life with God, and we should desire that everyone to share in that great and wonderful gift.