24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A); 9-17-17
Sir 27:30-28:7; Ps 103:1-4,9-12; Rom 14:7-9; Mt 18:21-35
Deacon Jim McFadden; St. John the Baptist C.C.
Last week’s readings spoke of reconciliation. This week we consider the same theme, but from the perspective of forgiveness. We all know how difficult it is to swallow our pride and to say that we’re sorry when we have offended another. But, it may be even harder to forgive when we have been offended personally or as a nation as we remember 9-11. And yet, we pledge to do exactly this everyday when we say the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Some would say that forgiveness is the distinguishing feature of Christianity. But, today’s reaching from Sirach shows that may not be true. Jesus admonition to forgive others comes from his Jewish tradition which is based on mercy: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice: then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven…Should a man refuse mercy to his fellows, yet seek pardon for his own sins? (Sir 28:2,4).
Sirach knew that wrath and vengeance can erode the spirit of the one harboring them. When we’ve been deeply hurt, when trust has been broken, when expectations have been dashed, when someone failed to come to our help or defense, when we’ve been abandoned, when our reputation has been assaulted, anger may be the starting point as we seek to forgive others. This anger may express itself in an explosive reaction: it can plan some form of revenge. This anger may express itself in a seething reaction: it can go underground and hold its breath and become calcified in the form of resentment. It can transform into more complex emotions of anxiety, stress, or depression which we try to escape through various kinds of obsessions and addictions; many engage in self-medication, resulting in drug or alcohol dependency. It can make it very difficult to have healthy relationships with anyone. Unchecked, it can effect our bio-psycho-social-spiritual makeup, which makes it very difficult to be genuinely present to others.
If we do not forgive those who have hurt us, then we are allowing ourselves to be possessed by an inner tyrant of rage. Failure to say, “I forgive you” holds us frozen in the past. Dante, in The Divine Comedy, described those in Hell as being frozen for all eternity. An old Chinese proverb says that if a person cannot forgive, and opts for revenge, he should dig two graves—one for the offender and one for himself.
An incredible model of forgiveness is given by Phyllis Rodriguez, whose son died in the attack on the World Trade Center, and Aicha el-Wafi, whose son was convicted for his rolel in planning the attacks. The two women met when Aicha el-Wafi came to the United States for her son’s indictment and asked to meet family members of the victims. She connected immediately with Phyllis, the only mother in the group. They both had lost a son; they both were suffering. Walking through her grief, Phyllis came to see that “forgiveness is being able to accept another person for being human and fallible. I don’t forgive the act, but trying to understand why someone has acted in the way he has is part of the process of forgiving.” To this day, the two women together speak out against violence and speak of understanding and tolerance.
Instead of denial/repression and anger/resentment, Jesus offers us the Third Way. From the Christian perspective, emotional and spiritual health is found in a different kind of attitude: the movement “toward people,” who are our brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. This entails forgiveness as necessary and reconciliation if possible. It is making a choice today based upon a past grievance, so that I can have a future relationship with the offending person. This Way, which Jesus called the Kingdom of God is a movement towards quality relationships that are mirrored in Trinitarian love of giving and receiving. Brothers and sisters, I believe that we can’t enjoy quality relationships with anyone, if we’re stuck in a relationship in which we are embittered, resentful, and unforgiving.
But how does one forgive a pedophile whose behavior robs children of their innocence, possibly their faith in God, and undermines their chances for healthy intimacy? How does one forgive a murderer who has snuffed out the life of a loved one? And, will we ever be able to forgive the terrorists who blow up innocent people?
Left to ourselves, we can’t. The bottom line is that we need to pray for the courage and grace to engage in the process of forgiving someone who has hurt us. The healing act of forgiveness is not possible without the saving grace of the Risen Christ. His love prevents us from falling into the chasm of the darkness of stunted emotional death, or the raging fire of unresolved anger and hatred. So, we go to Him and ask for the strength and courage to pray for the ones we need to forgive. As we abide in Christ, our prayer changes our hearts.
Our Lord Jesus, Whom we are about to receive in the Eucharist, describes himself as “The Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:5-6). He challenges us to the way of forgiveness, the truth of repentance, and the life or reconciliation. We need to do so for our well-being and that of our society. An act of forgiveness is immediately an act of compassion for ourselves and for the one who has harmed us. Even the world of science and medicine are discovering the therapeutic benefit of people making peace where there has been hurt and resentment. As the People of God at St. John the Baptist, let us pray that we live out the deep riches and wisdom of this Way of Jesus, the Way of forgiveness. Amen.