Prepare to be heard

Homily of the month

God obliterates your sins

When Saint Paul wrote that God "obliterates" our sins, he very deliberately picked a word that conveys the idea that God erases all traces of our sin from the record, writes Jim Manney in Prepare the Word's featured homily for the sacrament of Reconciliation.

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Sacrament: Reconciliation

ONE OF THE MOST remarkable things Saint Paul ever wrote was a single word in the second chapter of his Letter to the Colossians. The Colossian Christians were a little confused about their new faith, and Paul worked hard to explain who Christ was and what he had done. One of the most important things Christ had done, Paul said, was to forgive sins. To explain that Paul chose his words carefully—particularly the verb describing what Christ did with our sin. He “obliterates” it, the New American Bible translation says (Col. 2:14). Paul could have used other words with milder meanings—that Christ “cancelled” our sin or “crossed it out” or, simply, “forgave” it. But he very deliberately picked a word that conveys the idea that God erases all traces of our sin from the record. God not only forgives; God forgets, too.

This is what will happen this evening in the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. We will bring our burden of sin to God. If we repent of our sin and ask forgiveness, God will lift our burden from us—and then God will forget about it.

This will happen because God is who God is. As the psalmist says of God, “You are kind and forgiving, most loving to all who call on you” (86:5). God overflows with mercy and love. Tonight, look at yourself honestly. Consider the ways you have failed in your responsibilities, let other people down, cut corners, given into pressure, disguised the truth, lashed out at others, abused yourself. Look at all this without embarrassment—and bring it to God without fear. God will obliterate it.

This is the miracle of God’s forgiveness of sin. But along with this miracle comes a great responsibility—the responsibility to do likewise, to forgive others as God forgives us.

Along with this miracle of God's forgivenss comes a great responsibility—the responsibility to do likewise, to forgive others as God forgives us.

Jesus often spoke of this duty to forgive. One day, Peter decided to question Jesus more closely about it (Matt. 18:21ff). He wanted to know where the limits are. He asked, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” We all ask Peter’s question. When do we stop forgiving the wayward spouse, the hostile in-law, the vindictive neighbor, the scheming co-worker? Jesus gives Peter a hard answer. He answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” “Seventy-seven times” is a reference to an infinitely large number. We never stop forgiving, Jesus says.

To underline the point, Jesus tells a very tough parable. A king decided to settle accounts with his servants. One of these servants owed the king a very large amount, yet the king had mercy on him and forgave him the debt. However, the servant turned around and attacked another servant who owed him money. He refused to forgive the debt. When the king heard about this, he called the man back, revoked the pardon he had granted, and had him thrown into prison.

The lesson of the parable is very clear: Jesus insists that his servants have a forgiving spirit. It is a very challenging lesson because it seems impossible to act the way Jesus wants us to act. The wounds that people have inflicted on us are not superficial injuries. Consider the abused child, the betrayed spouse, the person cheated by a business colleague or lied to by a treacherous friend. Perhaps it is possible to be civil to people who have injured us this way. Perhaps we can refrain from exacting revenge. But to forgive, to really forgive? To forgive and forget—the way God forgives? That seems impossible.

BUT IT IS POSSIBLE to forgive this way, precisely because we are forgiven this way. God does not forgive us because we deserve to be forgiven. We are not basically good people who have a right to ask God to excuse our infrequent slipups. We are sinners who are redeemed by a merciful, loving God, a God whose mercy knows no bounds. We can forgive those who have wounded us not because they deserve to be forgiven, but because the grace of forgiveness lives in us through the sacrament that we will receive tonight.

This sacrament is called the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. The church added the term “reconciliation” some years ago to emphasize the way this sacrament restores the sinner to the community. Tonight, as you come forward to receive God’s forgiveness for your sins, pray for the grace to make reconciliation a reality in your own life. Pray for the grace to forgive those who have sinned against you. Pray for the grace to forgive as you are forgiven, the way God forgives you—the grace to forgive and forget.