Love and Forgiveness
In the Gospel reading, Peter wants to know how many times he has to forgive someone who sins against him. What is the number of times, Peter wants to know, that he has to forgive that sinner? But this question is confused. There is no such number as the one Peter is looking for. There is no limit on the number of times we have to forgive someone who has sinned against us.
We can understand the point of this Gospel story if we see the connection between love and forgiveness. Refusing to forgive is refusing to love, and it is never acceptable not to love. That is why it is never right to withhold forgiveness either.
The relation between love and forgiveness also helps us see the difference between forgiving a wrongdoer [on the one hand,] and enabling him to continue in his wrongdoing. Love wants the good for the beloved. A person who forgives a sinner loves that sinner; and because she loves him, she has a heart for his good. A wife who continues to live with a husband who beats her isn't forgiving him. She's helping him to get worse. There is nothing loving or forgiving about enabling a person to get worse. For her to forgive her husband is for her to want his good, even in the face of his bad treatment of her. But his good requires, first of all, that he stop hurting her, and then that he repent his terrible treatment of her.
If he is unrepentant, if he rejects goodness and love, then she can want the good for him anyway. But her forgiveness of him will be like a gift that can't be given because he won't receive it. Then the best she can do for him is to keep a distance from him, so that he doesn't get worse by continuing to hurt her.
God's love is like this, too. God's forgiveness is always there and so is God's love. Because God loves every person, God is offering the good to every person too, no matter what his sins may be.
So God does not keep a careful distance from us even when we sin. What stands between us and God is only our willingness to receive the gift God is offering. If we will only not reject it, the gift of God's love and forgiveness will be given and received.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University