When to Rebuke, When to Forgive?

This coming Sunday is the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s post we considered the nature of sin and the consequences of leading others into sin. Again we consider the opening verse of Luke 17: 3 Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4 And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.”

The disciples are warned to be on guard lest they become like the Pharisees. Several translations take the term adelphos as “disciple” but our translation does well to let it be literal as “brothers” [and sisters], retaining the communal kinship brought about by their common faith and service. Jesus is stressing that even individual sin has a communal element in that the sin of one may lead others astray. This sense of community is made clear in the Matthean parallel:

15 “If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. 16 If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.  If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (Mt 18:15–17). 

Sin poses a serious obstacle to the sinner and the community, but so too is the necessity of forgiveness – even in the event of multiple occurrences. The responsibility in this verse falls not upon the penitent person to demonstrate that repentance is genuine, but upon the disciple to demonstrate that he or she is capable of following Jesus’ command to forgive.  Matthew 18:21-22 extends the teaching into the realm of hyperbole with “Not seven times, but I tell you seventy times seven.”  Such are the high standards of the reign of God.

Brian Stoffregen writes:  “Who benefits most from forgiving? I think that it is the forgiver who benefits most. Holding grudges, living with resentments, can eat away at one’s life. The desire to get even can consume all of one’s energy. Forgiveness means “letting go” of all of that from one’s life. Forgiving others doesn’t undo the damage they might have done. Forgiving others doesn’t proclaim that what they did was all right. Sin is wrong. Forgiving it doesn’t turn it into a right. Forgiving others means that one will no longer let the past damage continue to control one’s own life in the present. It means giving up all hope of trying to change the past. It means living a new life in the present.

“The “sinner” may not ask for forgiveness. The “sinner” may not repent or admit his/her wrongs. The “sinner” may not accept forgiveness. But, often for one’s own mental and spiritual health, forgiving the “sinner” is necessary. As Jesus was dying on the cross, he forgave those who were killing him. Did they ask for it? Did they repent of their wrongs? Did they accept it? We don’t know. We know that Jesus forgave them. Forgiving isn’t always easy. There are people we may not want to forgive. So we pray, “Give us more faith,” so that we might be more forgiving.”

Image credit: G Corrigan, CC-BY-NC 2.0

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