The Church draws its teachings on forgiveness from Jesus, who spoke frequently about forgiveness in a religious culture that punished sin heavily.
It is easy to know what Jesus taught about forgiveness because his followers asked Him explicitly about it. Here is His exchange with His disciple Peter in Matthew’s gospel.
‘“Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”’ Matthew 18:21-22
What does Jesus mean by this? Most understand Jesus to be telling Peter to forgive his brother an unlimited number of times. This is, of course, a difficult teaching and a real test of our human capacity to love others.
Jesus goes on to cement this teaching in the most famous Christian prayer, the Our Father, which includes these lines:
‘“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”’. Matthew 6:12
Here, Jesus makes a connection between God the Father’s mercy and forgiveness to us and how this is an example of how we should love those who sin against us. Catholics experience God’s forgiveness and mercy directly and powerfully through the sacrament of confession.
This extraordinary depth of forgiveness characterises Jesus’ ministry. Many stories feature this, but perhaps the most famous is the story of the woman caught in adultery (meaning that she has had an affair) who will be stoned as a punishment for this sin.
Jesus says to the crowd:
‘“Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”’ John 8:7
When no one does, He turns to the woman and says:
‘“Has no one condemned you? … Neither do I condemn you; go and do not sin again.”’ John 8:10-11
Here we can see clearly that Jesus does not dismiss sin, telling her directly to not sin again, but also inspiring those who would punish her to be forgiving.
This hard teaching of forgiveness reaches its most difficult and most powerful form in Jesus’ teaching to love even your enemy.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”’. Matthew 5:43-48
Whilst this is very challenging, it has also been the foundation for great social change and was a great inspiration for Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful campaign for the Civil Rights of black Americans.
‘This command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.’ Martin Luther King Jr.