Does Jesus Put Conditions on Forgiveness?

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Mary Magdalene by Hugues Merle

Does Jesus put conditions on forgiveness?  We know in our minds that Jesus offers forgiveness to all.  Perhaps we were taught that by our parents, pastors, or teachers as a child.

But dig into your heart a little.  Have you always felt forgiven when you stepped out the confessional?  Especially when you confess the same sin you’ve confessed a hundred times before?  And when you commit that sin for the 101st time, do you think: that’s it! I’ve maxed out my credit with Jesus! There is no way He’s going to forgive someone as bad as me.

I know that’s how some do feel.  They want to believe in Christ’s forgiveness, but they don’t feel worthy of it.  Our own personal sins can feel so crushing, so horrible, and just so evil that we start to feel that we are beyond Christ’s mercy.

If you ever feel that way, consider David.  This ancient king of Israel commits adultery with Bathsheba, and then has her husband Uriah killed to avoid scandal.  Not only does David commit the very grave sins of adultery and murder, but he is also guilty of covetousness and pride.  When’s the last time you did something that bad?

Yet here we have David in our first reading confessing to the prophet Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  Nathan assures him, “The Lord on His part has forgiven your sin” (2 Sm 12:13).  If God can forgive a murderer and adulterer, why would He not forgive you?

Or just look at a crucifix.  I don’t care what your sins are, the execution of Jesus was worse.  Not only was Jesus entirely innocent and undeserving of any punishment; He is also the Divine Son of God, the Creator, being put to death by His own creation.  The crucifixion is the ultimate act of injustice.  There can be no greater sin. Yet from that very cross, Jesus cries out, “Father, forgive them!” (Lk 23:34).

David and Nathan

There are no limits on who God can forgive.  So let’s go back to our original question — does Jesus put conditions on forgiveness?  The answer is both yes and no.

First, the NO.  It doesn’t matter who you are.  It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are.  It doesn’t matter whether you are male or female, young or old, what language you speak, what culture you are from, whether you are gay or straight, married or single — none of it matters.  Christ’s offer of forgiveness is universal.

Nor does it matter what sins you have committed, or how many times you have committed them.  There is simply no sin more powerful than God’s love.  Nothing is beyond His ability to forgive.

Nor do you have to be perfect before you ask for forgiveness.  This is a mistake many make.  They believe that they have to conquer their sin all on their own before they bring it to the confessional.  No.  This is backward.  You take that sin to confession so that you might receive Christ’s help in overcoming it.  You cannot do it on your own.  It’s true: Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more” (Jn 8:11).  That’s the goal.  That’s the attitude we should have, of striving to sin no more.  But Christ’s forgiveness is not a one-time offer.  If we fall back into our sin after repenting of it, Christ wants us to repent again — and again, and again, as often as it takes.  There is no “limit 10 per customer” sign outside the confessional.  Come back as often as you need to.

Nor do you have to be worthy of Christ’s forgiveness.  This is another common mistake.  Many times, when we come to realize the gravity of our sin, we can feel unworthy.  That’s OK.  But we cannot let that feeling keep us from accepting Christ’s mercy.  Because the truth is no one is worthy of God’s mercy.  If we were, it wouldn’t be mercy.  The fact that we don’t deserve God’s forgiveness but He offers it anyway is what makes it an act of mercy.

So what’s the “yes” part?  Are there any conditions on Jesus’ forgiveness?  YES. There is one.  We have to accept it.  

That’s it.  It’s simple.  And yet, it’s the difference between the sinful woman and the Pharisee in this Sunday’s gospel reading (Lk 7:36-8:3).  The woman, traditionally identified as Mary Magdalene, anoints Jesus’ feet with costly oil, and washes them with her own hair and tears.  She pours herself out in love and service to the Lord, because she is so grateful of the forgiveness He has offered her.

The Pharisee cannot see past the woman’s sinful past.  He is so focused on condemning her that he cannot not see his own sins.  Like some of the other Pharisees we meet in the gospels, he likely thought himself righteous and so not in need of forgiveness.  Therein lies his demise.  For the one who doesn’t believe he needs to be forgiven is incapable of receiving forgiveness.

That is the only condition to receive Christ’s forgiveness: that we know and admit (to God, to ourselves) that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy, and then openly receive that mercy.  The only sin God cannot forgive is the one we don’t repent of.  This is because God never forces Himself on anyone.  He offers, He invites, but we have to accept Him freely.

Jesus does not forgive the sinful woman because she was more pious than the Pharisee.  He forgave her because she desired mercy.  Her piety is not the cause of her forgiveness, but the response to it.  Jesus does not forgive her because she kisses His feet.  She kisses His feet because she is deeply thankful for the mercy Christ has bestowed upon her; the only proper response to such a gift is love.

Let us repent today of any sins we are keeping locked away from God’s mercy, so that Christ may reach into those hidden places in our hearts and bring His healing forgiveness; and let us respond that that forgiveness like St. Mary Magdalene, with overflowing gratitude and love for our Savior.