Too often, we prefer the satisfaction of revenge to the oil of mercy. We demand justice and retribution instead of extending forgiveness to the one who has wronged us. We feel it is our right to be upset with our offender. Nevertheless, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that these attitudes lead only to dryness and emptiness in our hearts. Instead of reaching out and forgiving the one who has wounded or offended us, we prefer to contemplate ourselves with an air of superiority. What is missing in our hearts when we turn in on ourselves and deny our neighbor forgiveness?
Just as a lamp will not burn for long when running out of oil, our lives need forgiveness and mercy, just to make it through the day. Pope Benedict said in his homily at the Chrism Mass that “in the lamp of our lives, the oil of mercy should never run dry.” When we deny forgiveness, the oil of mercy has run out. The flame of love is in danger of going out for lack of fuel.
The wise virgins of the Gospel parable offer a good example of having oil in their lamps (Mt. 25:6-10). They had enough oil for their lamps because they went to buy more. Both the wise and the foolish virgins were followers of the bridegroom, and they were all invited to the wedding banquet. The decisive difference is that the wise virgins worried about how to be prepared for the bridegroom’s coming. The foolish virgins contented themselves with staying in the crowd. The Gospel parable demonstrates that “just being there” is not enough. The wise virgins will go in to enjoy the banquet, while the foolish virgins will be left outside. Their oil has run out.
The wise virgins go and buy oil to make sure that their lamps will burn brightly at the arrival of the bridegroom. The oil is the oil of mercy. They recognize the mercy of the bridegroom, who has invited them to the banquet, and respond generously.
The bridegroom does not owe anything to the virgins, foolish or wise. Whatever he gives them comes from the goodness of his heart. His is a free gift. Nevertheless, to be able to accept this gift, they have to carry their lamps prepared. It is similar in the case of God’s mercy. Who of us dares to demand God’s mercy? Who of us can say that we deserve it? God does not owe us mercy.
God’s mercy is a free gift: it is his grace.
Nevertheless, he likes to see that we respond well to his gift and share it with others. We will be forgiven as we forgive others. It is through our forgiveness of others that we stock up on our oil of mercy that is the fuel of our lamps.
Only noble souls can rise above the pettiness of harboring grudges to forgive. Anyone can demand retribution, but only noble souls can forgive. Each of us has experienced reluctance to forgive. We prefer holding on to the blame and pain to letting go and forgiving. There is some security factor involved: we are comforted to know that someone “owes us” something; and yet, we are the ones who owe forgiveness. Christ’s forgiveness of our sins leaves us with a debt to forgive others. As he taught us to pray in the Our Father, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The greatest example of forgiveness is Jesus Christ on the Cross. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:43). His forgiveness borders on the absurd. For his tormentors had a good idea of what they were doing to Christ. His forgiveness is so absolute that he is willing to risk the absurdity of ignoring the evil intentions of his enemies.
Ultimately, it is Christ’s forgiveness that enables us to be forgiving of others. Without the Easter message, we would be ensnared in a world of tit for tat. Our forgiveness is a response in gratitude to the forgiveness we have received. I am forgiven, that I may forgive. I forgive the wrongs others have done me because Jesus has forgiven the wrongs I have done him. By responding to Christ’s Easter proclamation, we will always recognize the duty to forgive.
Others do not have to earn our forgiveness. Christ has already earned it for them. We should be always the first one to reach out in forgiveness, often without even mentioning it. We must be capable of pardoning the secret wrongs, the offenses done to us that are known only in my heart. The oil of mercy is a gift that we have received, so that we may give it to others. It is a gift that we will always be able to exercise, for in the course of daily life, there are many opportunities to forgive.
Br. Nicholas Sheehy studies for the priesthood with the Legionaries of Christ in Rome.
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