Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Father William Most Collection

Must Forgiveness Be Accepted?

[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." These few words from the Cross contain a great puzzle.

Some modern writers have said1 the most distinctive feature about Jesus was that He forgave sins without asking for any repentance: He welcomed and ate with prostitutes and publicans and if He asked for a change of heart, He did that after accepting them, not before. So these words from the Cross seem to be precisely a forgiveness without any repentance at all. At the every moment when His enemies were putting Him to a terrible death, He excused them, asked for forgiveness for them. Further, since He had said and knew that "I and the Father are one, (John 10:30). "His request could not go unanswered. So it would seem they were forgiven in the very act of sinning.

Could we explain away the problem by saying that they really did not know at all what they were doing? Hardly. They had seen His wonders, His cures, His exorcisms. They knew He was a true prophet, at the very least, and a holy and wonderfully good man. The thing they did not know what that He was divine - but they must have known more than enough beyond that point to be guilty, hideously guilty.

So, unless we wish to go along with Luther's famous dictum, "Even though you sin greatly, believe still more greatly"2 we will instinctively think something is wrong.

And there is something wrong: even though Jesus shows a heroically kindly disposition, we cannot believe that He was almost giving permission in advance to sin, by not asking for repentance as a condition of forgiveness.

So we must take refuge in some distinctions. It is one thing for Jesus, for the Father, to be willing to forgive; it is quite another thing for the sinner to actually take in, to receive the forgiveness. For what is forgiveness? It is not, as Luther thought, a merely forensic or external thing, declaring innocent or "acquitting" one who really is still totally corrupt inside. Rather, forgiveness means the infusion of grace into the soul, to really make it holy; forgiveness does not mean simply "acquitting" the guilty, while leaving them totally corrupt.

Therefore, Jesus did ask for the grace of forgiveness. His prayer was surely heard, for at the very moment He was so painfully earning the very thing He asked for. And of course, since He knew He was/is God, He Himself granted what He Himself asked.

In brief, then, He did ask that the grace of forgiveness be offered. That does not at all say that all to whom it was then being offered accepted it. Sadly, as St. Paul laments at length in Romans 9-11, most of them did not accept.

Why then did He ask for this grace for them. We can easily see two reasons.

First, He wished to show the marvelous mercy of God. It was so great as to call for pardon for sinners in the very act of the worst conceivable sin.

Second we need to notice that there is a difference between vengeance and a desire that "all righteousness be fulfilled", (Mt 3:15) as Jesus said when John did want not baptize Him.

There is major lost concept in today's theology. Perhaps we should say not lost, but rejected so strongly that it is hardly ever mentioned. Paul VI gave one of the greatest Magisterium texts on it at the very time when it was being suppressed: "Every sin brings with it a disturbance of the universal order, which God arranged in His inexpressible wisdom and infinite love".3 This is the thought of Psalm 11.7: "God is sadiq [morally righteous] and He loves sedaqoth [morally right things." So if what is objectively right is violated, the Holiness4 of God wants things put right again. Hence Paul VI continued: "So it is necessary for the full remission and reparation of sins...not only that friendship with God be restored by a sincere conversion of heart, and that the offence against His wisdom and goodness be expiated, but that all the goods, both individual and social, and those that belong to the universal order, lessened or destroyed by sin, be fully reestablished, either through voluntary reparation...or through the suffering of penalties."

An ancient Rabbi, Simeon ben Eleazar, writing about 170 AD and claiming to quote Rabbi Meir from earlier that century gave us a helpful image to grasp this picture: "He [anyone] has committed a transgression. Woe on him! He has tipped the scale to the side of debt for himself and for the world."5 So the sinner takes from one pan of the scales what he has to right to take: the scale is out of balance. The Holiness of God, loving all that is good, wants it rebalanced. How? As Pope Paul VI said, it is done by reparation or by enduring penalties. If a sinner stole property, he begins to rebalance by giving it back; if he stole a pleasure, he begins to rebalance by giving up some other satisfaction he could otherwise have lawfully had. Jesus owed nothing, but to fully rebalance,6 He gave up infinitely more than all sinners together had taken. His Mother, as Pope John Paul II wrote, shared in that work by the "obedience of faith," by her taking part in "perhaps the deepest kenosis [self-emptying] in human history."7 Further, " a sharing in the sacrifice of Christ - the New Adam - it [her faith/kenosis] becomes in a certain sense the counterpoise to the disobedience and disbelief embodied in the sin of our first parents."8

But vengeance or revenge is quite different from the desire that the objective order be rebalanced. Vengeance means willing evil to another so it may be evil to him. The martyrs under the altar in the beautiful image of Apocalypse 6:9-11 ask God to rectify the order in respect to their blood. Being with God, they cannot have any attitude of vengeance, though some unfortunate translations of the verse do use that word.

It is safe for the martyrs who are with God to desire that rebalance; it would have been safe for Jesus to express that too. But He wished to teach us that even though this desire for rebalance is legitimate, in fact, even excellent, yet it is highly dangerous. For human weakness is apt to have a hard time refraining from sliding over the line from a legitimate desire for the rebalance of goodness, to a desire for revenge. Hence Jesus willed to give us the example: On this side of the great divide, we do well to refrain from a desire that in itself is legitimate. He gave us the example. David at the time when the son of Shimei cursed him meekly ordered his men not to strike the offender (2 Sam 16:5-13). Yet at the end of His life he instructed his son Solomon not to let the man go unpunished (1 Kings 2:8- 9). That was not illegitimate, if meant as a desire for the rebalance of all goodness. Yet Jesus taught us by His example it is better in this world to abstain from that sort of desire. We mentioned in passing that Jesus knew He also was the one who forgave: "I and the Father are one." Pope John Paul II beautifully described the state of His consciousness thus: "If Jesus feels abandoned by the Father, He knows, however, that this is not really so. He Himself said, 'I and the Father are one.' (Jn 10:30), and speaking of His future Passion He said; 'I am not alone, for the Father is with me'(Jn 16:32). Dominant in His mind, Jesus has the clear vision of God and the certainty of His union with the Father. But in the sphere bordering on the senses, and therefore more subject to the impressions, emotions, and influence of the internal and external experiences of pain, Jesus' human soul is reduced to a wasteland, and He no longer feels the presence of the Father".9 Within a human being there are many levels of operations, both in body and in soul. It is quite possible at times that the "fine point of the soul" as St. Francis de Sales called it,10 may be in calm and sunshine, while all the lower slopes are plunged in bitterness and darkness.

It was precisely within this terrible darkness that He asked for - and as God offered - forgiveness. Sadly, most of those present would not accept this tremendous offer.

This pain of His soul was always present, during His whole previous lifetime. Pius XII in his Encyclical on the Mystical Body, told us that from the first instant of conception, His human soul saw the vision of divinity, in which all knowledge is to be had - including that of His future sufferings. It is not irresponsible of Pius XII to say this - as some have asserted -he was not writing in the context of an imagined medieval scene, but in the context of the modern debate on the consciousness of Christ, sparked in the writings of Galtier in 1939.11 The same Pius XII insisted in Humani generis in 195012 that if the Popes in their acta deliberately take a stand on a matter then debated by theologians, it is removed from debate, and the teaching comes under the promise, "He who hears you, hears me." Of course, the promise of Christ cannot fail. Pius XII reiterated his teaching in Sempiternus rex,13 and in Haurietis aquas.14 The Doctrinal Congregation under Paul VI lamented that many were still not accepting this teaching.15 It is obvious that these two Popes, by repeated statements, meant to make the teaching definitive.16

So it was then, in the context of the culmination of a lifelong nagging pain (cf. also Lk. 12:50 & Jn 12:27) that burst into nightmare that Jesus prayed, in order to teach us how to live: "Father, forgive them." 


1Cf. the review, by Donald Senior, of E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Fortress, Phila., 1983) in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, July 1986, pp. 570-71.
2Epistle 501, to Melanchthon, Aug.1, 1521, in Luther's Correspondence, (Lutheran Publication Society, Phila, 1918. II, p. 50).
3Paul VI, Indulgentiarum Doctrina, Jan 9, 1967. AAS 59.7.
4The Anselmian theory said God had to provide compensation, an error, and also said it was basically God's justice that was involved. We do not deny the relation to His justice, but if we center our position on that some will say: "If I am offended, I do not always demand justice. Why cannot God be nice about it?" But if we say, correctly, it is His Holiness that abhors all evil and wills all that is right, we bypass the objection.
5Tosefta, Kiddushin 1.14.
6Many theologians today are in despair of explaining the "price" of redemption, mentioned by St. Paul in 1 Cor 6.20 and 7.23. They notice that satan was the captor, and refuse to think the blood of Christ was given to him. On the other hand, the Father was not the captor, and so did not receive the price. But the words about a price are metaphorical. That does not mean they have no content, but it does mean we may need to adjust the meaning in a sort of analogical sense. Here we propose that the "price" was to rectify the objective order, willed by the Holiness of God.
7John Paul II, The Mother of the Redeemer, March 25, 1987, Vatican Translation § 18.
8Ibid., § 19.
9General Audience, Nov. 30, 1988.
10St. Francis De Sales, Treatise on the Love of God 9.12 and 9.3.
11DS 3812. Cf. P. Galtier, L'unité du Christ - Etre, Personne, Conscience, (Beauchesne, Paris, 1939).
12DS 3885.
13DS 3905.
14DS 3924.
15AAS 58, 659-60.
16It is a generally accepted theological principle that if a doctrine is taught repeatedly on the Ordinary Magisterium level, that teaching is infallible.



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