The transition from the strict justice of the Mosaic Law to the mercy of “forgive thy enemies” in the teachings of Jesus sheds light on the glory of the Incarnation, which we are celebrating in a special way during these Christmas days, as well as on our participation in the life of Christ in the Sacrament of Penance.
King David viewed his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah as offenses against God alone: “Against thee [God], thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight, so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment.” (Ps. 51:4) The Psalmist also expected God to crush his enemies: “And in thy steadfast love cut off my enemies, and destroy all my adversaries, for I am thy servant.” (Ps. 143:12)
Desire for vengeance can seem as boundless as God’s mercy. It’s telling that when David provoked God with his census, he (again) feared human wrath more than divine punishment: “I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.” (2 Sam. 24:14)
“An eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” expressed the strict justice of the Mosaic Law, which – contrary to the way that it is often read today – actually restrained the limitless human inclination to vengeance and prepared the Israelites to exercise mercy.
The Old Testament, however, has very few examples of mutual forgiveness. The Wisdom literature foreshadows the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.” (Sirach 28:2)
The account of Joseph and his brothers is a touching example of reconciliation. Jacob, in his last words to his sons, instructs them to seek Joseph’s forgiveness for their attempt to murder him: “Say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I pray you, the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’” (Gen. 50:17)
In contrast to the “eye for an eye” emphasis of the Mosaic Law, Jesus’ teachings repeatedly emphasize the obligation to forgive others:
- “[I]f your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” (Lk. 17:3)
- “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mk. 11:25)
- “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you.” (Mt. 6:14)
- “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Mt. 6:12)
Peter’s response to the new emphasis on forgiveness shows that it caused consternation among the Apostles: “Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’” (Mt. 18:21). Peter was probably not pleased with the response: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Jesus doesn’t relent. He teaches us to forgive others as He forgives us, “if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Mt. 5:39) God’s forgiveness of us depends upon our willingness to forgive others.
The change in emphasis comes into fuller focus when we consider the meaning of the Incarnation and the Church. The revelation in Genesis that God created man in His image and likeness is a hint of basic dignity despite the Fall. In the Person of Jesus, God and man are reconciled. The Incarnation reveals that sins against God are also sins against man.
David sins against God, but also against Uriah, who carries the divine imprint. Our sins crucified Jesus, true God and true man. We see the results of our sins in His crucified humanity, and we seek His forgiveness in His humanity as our Brother.
By Baptism, we also become members of His Mystical Body and brothers in Christ. As Saint Paul teaches, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body/” (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-31, as well as Col. 1:18; 2:18-20; Eph. 1:22-23; 3:19; 4:13).
As members of His body, we are in union with Jesus, true God and true man. When we sin against man, we sin against His body. When we forgive others as members of His body, we become instruments of His mercy. Hence, it is fitting and obligatory to forgive others, and to seek the forgiveness of others – by word or deed – even as we continue to pray with King David, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned.”
Note that Jesus institutes the Sacrament of Penance during His first encounter with the Apostles after the Resurrection: “‘he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” (John 20:21-22).
When priests hear confessions, they represent both Jesus and those we’ve offended by our sins. In the words of absolution, Jesus – in union with His Mystical Body, the Church – grants forgiveness with the certainty always provided by the Sacraments.
When we confess our sins to a priest, we seek forgiveness for our sins against God and man – and God and man are reconciled. The Sacrament of Penance enshrines the “machinery” of mercy and is a synthesis of all Scriptural teaching on mercy and forgiveness.
Scripture does not reveal a God of justice in opposition to a God of mercy. Instead, Scripture discloses a just and long-suffering God, Who intervenes in history to mercifully restore our dignity defaced by sin, precisely by leading us towards a renewed righteousness and justice: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Ps. 51:10)
*Image: Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni, 1773 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]