Words of forgiveness are easily spoken. Living the reality – a life whose basic instinct is unconditional forgiveness – is beyond us. It is a grace that comes from God, and it is in the light of this grace that we are enabled to forgive. A moment of honest reflection soon reveals the remembered hurts, the prejudices and reservations that cloud our forgiveness. Each and every day we pray that the Father might “forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. In some ways it is an alarming prayer. We know, in purely human terms, that there are limits to our forgiveness, and yet we long for God to forgive us without limit.
Today’s readings lead us into the wonder of God’s forgiveness, a forgiveness that transcends all human limitations. The Book of Exodus records the apostasy of the children of Israel when they turned from the God who had delivered them from slavery to the worship of a golden calf, the work of their own hands. Superficially, it seems a crass transgression, unthinkable in any person of integrity. But we should hesitate before making this judgment.
The Golden Calf was remembered down the generations as a constant temptation. Surely we do the same when we fashion a life driven by selfishness, concentrating our energies not on the God of our salvation, but on the life that we have fashioned for ourselves.
The subsequent exchange between Moses and the Lord examines the many aspects of forgiveness. God’s initial reaction seems to express all the limits of a purely human forgiveness: “I can see how headstrong these people are! Leave me, now, my wrath shall blaze out against
them and devour them.” We see ourselves in these words in the hurts that run so deep that we cannot bring ourselves to forgive. As the dialogue progresses the intercession of Moses calls forth a divine forgiveness that transcends our limited forgiveness. Moses sought, as a grace recalling God’s past kindness to his people, a forgiveness that reached beyond justice. His prayer was heard.“So the Lord relented and did not bring on the people the disaster he had threatened.”
This same Lord is subsequently revealed as “a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger rich in kindness and faithfulness; for thousands he maintains his kindness, forgives faults, transgressions and sin”.
The whole point of this extended dialogue between Moses and his Lord is that we can never, as we sometimes do, presume on God’s forgiveness. It is a grace preceded by repentance.
Luke’s Gospel beautifully depicts the wonder of God’s forgiveness in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a parable that contrasts the limits of human forgiveness with the transcending grace of God’s forgiveness. We readily identify with the Prodigal Son. Like him, we have often been led astray by the overwhelming temptation of the present moment. Like him, our initial return can frequently begin with self-interest. The prodigal returned not because he was truly sorry, but because he was hungry. Like the prodigal, we long to be received back into a love that goes beyond anything that we might have expected or deserved.
Let us pray that having experienced such forgiveness, we might forgive as we have been forgiven. There is something of the resentment of the older brother in all of us, and, until that is eradicated, God’s forgiveness is yet to be completed in us.