Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
On March 28, 2010, a young man named Conor McBride shot his fiancée, Ann Grosmaire, in the head. The ordinary bickering of a teenage couple had escalated wildly out of control, and a fight pursued for thirty-eight hours over telephone and text message ended with Ann staring down the barrel of a gun.
The tragic tale of this incident is told with feeling and power by Paul Tullis in a January 4, 2013 article for The New York Times Magazine. But Mr Tullis’s piece is not a crime drama. He spends only a few brief paragraphs describing the terrible violence at the root of the story. Rather, the theme that really animates Mr Tullis’s story—and makes it startlingly relevant to today’s Gospel reading—can be gleaned from the title his article bore when it first appeared in print: “Forgiven.”
You see, Ann did not immediately die from the wounds she sustained. For four days she lingered in the Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, her face and hands (she had raised her arms to block the blast) swathed in bandages. For four days, her parents remained by her bedside in prayer. And though she never regained consciousness and could not speak, nevertheless her father Andy Grosmaire later said that in those four terrible days he repeatedly heard his daughter’s voice urging: “Forgive him. Forgive [Conor].”
Forgive the young man who had murdered his daughter? Inconceivable. How could anyone ever do that? And then, on the day Ann was taken off life support, Andy had a realization. As Mr Tullis tells it, Andy “was in the hospital room praying when he felt a connection between his daughter and Christ; like Jesus on the cross, she had wounds on her head and hand…Ann’s parents strive to model their lives on those of Jesus and St. Augustine, and forgiveness is deep in their creed. ‘I realized it was not just Ann asking me to forgive Conor, it was Jesus Christ,’ Andy recalls. ‘And I hadn’t said no to him before, and I wasn’t going to start then. It was just a wave of joy, and I told Ann: “I will. I will.”’“
Did you notice the utterly unexpected word that came in the middle of Andy Grosmaire’s quotation? I had to read it twice the first time I encountered Mr Tullis’s piece. As Andy heard Ann’s plea—as he heard his Lord’s command—to forgive Conor, he felt “just a wave of joy” [emphasis added]. Not bitterness, not rage, not grudging acquiescence. Joy! Joy is what Andy Grosmaire felt as he promised to forgive his daughter’s killer. The Grosmaires and the McBrides face a long road ahead. But in that joyful forgiveness, something happened to break the endless cycle of violence and retribution that mires so much of our world in darkness. Light broke into their lives, even in an hour of great grief.
Beloved, forgiveness is not easy. It does not mean pretending that the hurt never happened, or talking as if “everything will work out ok,” or acting like pain and loss are illusory. Instead, true forgiveness is costly. True forgiveness goes into the depths of our pain and loss, for the locus and focus of true Christian forgiveness is always the Cross. On the Cross, God takes to himself all of our wounds: the wounds we have dealt and the wounds we have sustained. On the Cross, God bears the full price of our pain: the pain we have caused and the pain we have endured. On the Cross, God shows us the ultimate cost of forgiveness: the sinless One becomes sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Forgiveness is not easy. But it is possible because of what Christ Jesus has accomplished for us on Calvary’s tree. So it is that the Church on Good Friday dares to proclaim: “We glory in your cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy resurrection; for by virtue or your cross joy has come to the whole world.” As we enter these final days before Holy Week, may you learn the hard joy of forgiveness at the foot of Christ’s Cross.