Fr. Bedros Shetilian – OCP Articles – 25/12/2019
“To err is human, to forgive, divine”, – Alexander Pope
What a popular topic. People talk about it a lot, people speculate about it a lot, people say something, but indeed do the opposite a lot. When I think about this topic, I always remember Jesus’ words in Luke chapter 17 of forgiving your brother seven times in one day if he repents. If, but what if not? Should we forgive someone if he doesn’t ask forgiveness? Actually, Jesus in another chapter, Matt. 18 doesn’t put repentance as a condition for forgiveness.
The criminal’s case: As you may remember in my previous article on salvation, I brought up the example of the criminal crucified with Jesus who was told by Him that he will be with Jesus in paradise the same day, accordingly his sins were forgiven in one moment although we can assume that since he was executed he committed serious crimes. This raised some questions. Some people had a hard time accepting the idea of somebody who all his life being a criminal, and suddenly because at the last moment was able to believe and to repent, such a person’s sin could be forgiven and he could be saved. People may ask how it comes that they who devoted all their lives to Christ will have the same destiny as this criminal? Accordingly, they say people can live a bad life and do whatever they want and just at the last moment say they believe and repent and can go to heaven.
First of all, what makes this case unique is that it is directly coming from Jesus, so there can be no doubt on the judgment. Second; we have to point out that it is not about saying, even more, it is not about following the ritual, confessing and receiving communion. People may fool other people, but can they fool God? So, it is about how much a person can really repent, how sincere he is. In reality, it is not that easy or possible for someone who was all his life deeply degraded to sincerely confess and repent even though if he knows that he is about to die. It is very difficult to change our souls in one moment. The souls are the most complicated and the most mysterious components of human beings. In fact, such things happen rarely. As support for my argument, I would like to bring up the example of Hitler, who near the end of the war saw the collapse of his system, who knew that the defeat is imminent and in one way or another he will die, after all this did he repent? The opposite, he blamed for losing the war his own German people and made them the last victims of his barbaric and sick ideology and then committed suicide. Another major example is Judas who betrayed Jesus. His biggest sin was not that he betrayed, but that he didn’t repent and like Hitler committed suicide. Even Judas could be forgiven if he sincerely was able to repent. But again, this is the question. Was he able to do that? A person who deeply becomes under the control of evil gets to a place where he loses any ability to repent, a place where there is no way back.
Some scholars say that Judas was upset with Jesus because in the beginning, he thought that Jesus was the liberator of the Jewish people from their conquerors, Romans, a national hero and when he realized that was not the case he thought that Jesus was dangerous and He must be condemned. If that was the case and he was betraying Jesus for a good reason, then why did he take the money as a price for his action? This shows that Judas was deeply a corrupted person, someone as Jesus would put as a blasphemer against the Spirit, whose sins cannot be forgiven. Opposite to Judas, Peter, who also betrayed Jesus, repented and he was forgiven, although his sin was less severe since his betrayal was a result of weakness and not a result of an intentional directed evil act. Peter was not only forgiven but became the Rock of the Church.
The scene of the Crucifixion: Coming back to the scene of the crucifixion we can see the case of the second criminal who was exactly in the same situation as the first one, but who was behaving completely in a different way saying to Jesus: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”, in other words, saying to Jesus that you are not the Messiah, you are a liar. The case of these two criminals is a whole story about human nature, to show how extreme situations trigger to expose the real nature of human beings. The one on the left side of Jesus is angry and is throwing out his negative emotions, there is no sign that he is sorry for his crimes although he is also about to die. The other one answer to him: “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong”, in other words, he indirectly is confessing that he is a sinner. Then more interestingly, he turns to Jesus and says: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. This means first, he acknowledges Jesus at least someone from God’s side since he talks of Jesus’ Kingdom and most importantly, he thinks that he cannot be in that kingdom because he is a bad person and so that’s why he asks Jesus to remember him. Amazing, I wish all evil people were like this criminal. I think Jesus was moved by seeing this man’s behavior. In a moment when Jesus was betrayed by the closest people to him, his disciples, in a moment when he was condemned as a fake prophet by the crowd who just five days before on Palm Sunday was glorifying him, in a moment when He even felt that He was forsaken by His Father, at that moment he saw someone who was able to see who Jesus was and to say that openly, someone who was showing mercy.
Some people may say that this man was afraid because he was about to die. If that was the case, then why the other criminal didn’t act like this one? So, it is about the differences between people. The first one, on the left side of Jesus, is Judas type and the second one on His right side is Peter’s type. Jesus saw that the second one had heart, he was not completely degraded, that he didn’t completely silent, his conscience and in a moment of truth he was opening his heart to Him, to GodHimHi. Jesus reads that man’s heart, He as God didn’t look for the appearance but to the real intention and what is going on in the heart of that individual. What a beautiful picture which gives hope to the people who think that they have committed so many sins that there is no chance for them to be saved. Actually, there is. The most important thing is to open our hearts to God. Pay attention, that person didn’t ask Jesus to be saved; in the opposite, he showed to Jesus that he didn’t deserve to be saved, he showed humility (the tax collector case, in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector). It is shocking to see Jesus’ response: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise”. Not that he will wait or go through purgatory, but directly the same day he will be in paradise together with Jesus. This is the only example when Jesus said directly to somebody that he is saved, and that one was a criminal who repented, a sinner who confessed, a lost sheep that was found. What an impressive and beautiful story. God just wants us to be sincere and live with a conscience, He knows that we are imperfect and we are sinners, and He is just ready to forgive for a sincere change in our hearts. The story of this criminal, the one who was crucified on the right side together with Jesus, indicates that person became a criminal most likely because of circumstances and bad luck, rather than being an evil person in his essence, he just needed a chance to turn to God and the Crucifixion gave him that chance.
Statistically, we can say that people who are like this criminal are rare in comparison to the other one. In order to more deeply understand this issue, I will advise you to read the novel by Feodor Dostoevsky, the most Christian writers among the great ones and a writer who is also known to be a great psychoanalytic, to read his novel “The House of the Dead” was being in jail Dostoevsky describes and explains the nature of some criminals he had a chance to know and amazingly he shows that in reality, some of these criminals are good people. To finish saved criminal’s story, it is important to know that there will be a hierarchy in heaven. Certainly, this saved criminal won’t be as much as close to God as a saint or someone who devoted all his life to Jesus and goodness.
Forgiveness: There are different understandings of forgiveness. The Christian approach is clear; to forgive. Actually there is no other religion where there is such focus on the sinners and forgiveness. Jesus told many parables on forgiveness like the Prodigal Son, the most popular one among His parables. Jesus forgave sinners like the woman who committed adultery and should be stoned according to the Old Testament law (he also told her:” Sin no more”), he sat down with prostitutes and tax collectors who at that time in Judea were considered as bad as prostitutes because they were corrupted and were working for Romans, the enemies and the conquerors of the Jews. His words of forgiving seven times could be understood as not to limit ourselves. Some people say that they forgave already once and are not going to forgive anymore. This is quite common. Jesus just wants to show that we have to forgive more than one time to the same person, in other words, to give a chance more than one time, many times if it’s needed. If we are expecting God to forgive our sins, and we know that some of our sins are repeatable, especially if they become habits, then we have to do the same to the others: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. All this could be done in case of sincere repentance from the other side.
To forgive anyone? Because of this unprecedented approach in forgiveness, people sometimes get a wrong idea. They take the idea to the extreme, like to forgive anyone and for anything. The common perception is that people say Jesus forgave his enemies on the cross by saying: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”. Well, it is not as simple as it seems to be. We have to carefully read what Jesus says. He forgave only people who didn’t know what they were doing. His forgiveness was addressed to the crowd in front of him since they were misguided and to the Roman soldiers, since they had no idea who Jesus was, they were simply following orders. His forgiveness doesn’t apply to those who knew what they were doing, to the religious leaders. These people were corrupted and what they were doing was not for good reason, it was a result of power struggle from their side since they felt that their positions have been shaken because of Jesus’ ministry. In addition, these leaders were the enemies of their own people, the Jews since they made a deal with their conquerors, Romans, to share the power with them in order to control their own people and wealth and to do it in a corrupted way.
In Jesus’ words to these people, to religious leaders, there is not any forgiveness. In Mathew chapter 23 He calls them hypocrites, snakes, the blood of vipers, He says: “How will you escape being condemned to hell” and other terrible things. It is shocking to see that Jesus’ main conflict was with the clergy or to be more correct with the religious leaders including the council and the High Priest (the equivalent to Popes or Patriarchs today). This is a prehistory of what the institutional Church later turned to be, and that is a failure of Jesus’ plan. The conflict between Jesus and this group started because they were after Him, challenging Him, trying to trick him with controversial questions. Then it grew to something much bigger until they plotted to send Jesus to death. Actually, Jesus was not the first one, they did the same thing to some of the prophets before Jesus. They cannot be forgiven, first because they knew the Law and second because they knew very well what they were doing. Their evil acts were well planned and deliberate. And there is no evidence of these people or some of them have been repented and asked for forgiveness. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were exceptions.
General rules: The topic of forgiveness is wide and each specific situation may have a different solution. But if we want to put it in one sentence, we can say that Jesus’ whole preaching is about not to respond to evil by doing evil, but by trying to fix things, and especially not to hate. Loving and forgiving our enemies doesn’t mean let them to eat us, but try to correct them and if that is not possible then wish good for them, pray for them. In our acts, we should not do more than what it’s needed to protect ourselves and particularly never to be vindictive. If you see that someone is not talking to you because of a misunderstanding or because he is misguided then go and talk, at least try and even he doesn’t ask for forgiveness, forgive in this case. That’s how I understand Jesus’ words of forgiving in case if there is no apology. But if someone is evil indeed and you are certain that he knows what he is doing, then this is completely a different situation. In this case, complete forgiveness can be achieved only when such a person asks for forgiveness and you can see that he is sincere and you also see that he is changing his behavior to a good one. In real life, such things happen very rarely. Nevertheless, this should not stop us from praying for such people, to wish them good and that is they may change and become good human beings. I will put the issue of forgiving the Turks for our nation, Armenians, in this last category.
Failure: Nevertheless, it is unfortunate to see that there are still societies especially in the eastern countries where Christian people and families don’t talk to each other for a long period of time. It seems that they are missing this important part of Christ’s message. Some of these cases are serious, like when one child by cheating takes the entire will of the parents after their death without sharing it with other siblings. These cases are serious and they ruin people’s lives. For such serious cases, it is a must that the mistaken side should correct his mistake. But even here I will follow Jesus’ words to say hello to each other. To continue on this subject, besides such serious cases I have seen many examples when people don’t talk to each other for stupid reasons. This is connected to culture and ignorance.
This means that Christianity is less important for these people in comparison to their customs, understandings and to their pride. Once, I knew two people who have been not talking to each other for about twenty years. I found out that the reason was not serious. I tried to interfere. My attempt ended up that I was blamed for my effort not only by these two individuals but by certain numbers of people. However, in the West, this is less problematic since civilization makes people be more tolerant and forgiving towards each other. Actually, forgiving if it’s done in the right way, and that is with no humiliation after the mistaken side asks for forgiveness and fixes his mistake, makes people look stronger and that is for both sides. “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong”, was said by Gandhi. The opposite side of this is something I have seen in Russia when people say that they forgive someone who is still continuing to hurt them and showing no sign of changing in his behavior. I was shocked when people called this humility, which completely contradicts human dignity and Jesus’ message. I think that happens because people in Russia were for a long time under the harsh repressive pressure of communism, especially during Stalin’s period, which resulted in people to be hopeless and paranoid.
Social convenience: One of the biggest and most common realities regarding forgiveness is that after a conflict and after a certain time people just continue to talk to each other without an apology from the mistaken one. This is dominant and it is a result of social convenience. But this is far from being fair. A perfect outcome would be when people explain to each other, apologize and sincerely, with all their hearts, forgive each other. This is the Christian way, but this happens rarely because of pride. I think since most people ignore to go to the root of their problems, that is why conflicts get repeated and there is always insincerity in our social lives. Well, we are not in heaven.
Forgiveness and history: The paragraphs above are about our personal lives. When it comes to evil that has a larger social and political dimension then fighting evil is a must, forgiving, in this case, doesn’t work, history proves this. Forgiving and not acting result in a disaster. You got to fight and stop evil. Jesus set up an example when he cleansed the temple from the merchants. He was radical and violent; He overturned the tables but didn’t touch the people, he used as much force as was needed in order to accomplish His goal, He didn’t overreact. The issue of disrespect to a sacred place, the Temple, is not personal. In this case, it is deeper. Jesus was upset when he saw that the corruption went to the point that it was not hidden, and that was happening in the most sacred place. His message is, it is a must to fight social evil, an evil that is affecting large numbers.
In such political cases forgiveness and reconciliation come after peace is achieved and deals made between the conflicting sides, or when one side is completely defeated like what’s happened to Germany at the end of WW2. Allies’ behavior after Germany’s defeats in two World Wars is a great example and a big lesson on how to resolve historical problems in order to make a long-lasting peace.
After WW1 Allies punished Germany, they didn’t forgive, they put harsh reparations and restrictions on Germany which resulted in an economic downfall and that was one of the main reasons for Nazis to come to power. In the opposite, after the WW2 Allies didn’t punish Germany, but helped Germany to rebuild its economy and become a prosperous country again. In other words, Allies forgave Germany and the credit goes here mainly to the US for the Marshall Plan, a plan to help Europe after WW2. We know now that the second approach, to forgive, has proven to be the right one. Although there is politics in all this, nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that we cannot look to such historical events from a Christian perspective. God is in good politics, God is in politics based on morality, and God is in politics aiming to make peace and justice. The problem is that we see less of God-oriented policies, rather than man-oriented. When there is God-oriented politics, there is peace, stability, and prosperity, when there is man-oriented politics there is injustice, instability, and wars.
To finish I would like to quote Nelson Mandela who said: “Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon”.
About the Author
Fr. Bedros Shetilian was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1963. After high school, he moved to Armenia and then to Russia to pursue a musical education and graduated from St. Petersburg Conservatory with a master’s degree in symphony conducting. Between 1992 and 2003 he successfully worked as a conductor, with concerts in Russia, Armenia, and Europe. Fr. Shetilian attended the Catholic College in St. Petersburg and the Seminary of the Catholicosate of Cilicia in Lebanon. He was ordained as a married priest in 2003. Afterward, he was assigned to serve in the US. Since 2005, he has been the priest in residence at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. Fr. Shetilian continues to combine both his callings as a clergyman and a musician.
Fr. Bedros Shetilian – OCP Articles