Forgiveness a way of life

  • August 31, 2011

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 11 (Sirach 27:30-28:7; Psalm 103; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35)

Forgiveness is what we hope for and expect when we have done wrong but are often reluctant to grant to others. But today’s readings are definitely in the “hard sayings” categories for they lay down the law: forgiveness is not optional or something that would be nice but fundamental. Unwillingness to forgive is responsible for much of the world’s fear and violence. It imprisons us with those we hate.

Many people naively believe that all of the teachings of Jesus were utterly new and never before heard. Actually, most of His teachings are either paralleled in or derived from Jewish tradition. Forgiveness is a case in point — much of what we see in the reading from Sirach is reflected in the Gospel of Matthew. Sirach insists that forgiveness is a package deal — if we expect forgiveness from God we must be willing to extend forgiveness to others. Harboring grudges and desiring revenge is not dignified with psycho-babble but called what it is: sin. A constant remembrance of the shortness of our life, as well as the commandments and the covenant with God, should be enough to dampen anger. We all stand before God — we all have fallen short of His glory — and we all need and hope for mercy and forgiveness. Hatred, anger and the desire for revenge never accomplish anything positive but merely sow the seeds of further conflict and violence. With wonderful divine irony the readings for this Sunday, all having to do with forgiveness, fall on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 horror.

G.K. Chesterton wrote, “To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable.” It would seem to many that the 9/11 event would be a shoo-in for that category and so it is all the more important that we listen to what God has to say. Many would say that forgiveness is impossible and even undesirable for events as bloody and horrifying as 9/11, other types of massacres or the murder of loved ones. But following Chesterton’s words these are the very acts that are in most need of forgiveness. Many rise to the occasion and forgive their tormentors and those who have robbed them of those near and dear. Forgive, not condone or excuse, for people must bear the rightful consequences of their actions. This is not a sign of weakness but of spiritual and moral strength. They simply refuse to hate and thereby let evil be victorious.

How can we bear grudges when we do not live or die to ourselves? We belong to the Lord; we live in the Lord. In that relationship there is no room for negativity and anger. For believers there is no other reality than the Lord. Paul makes this clear as he discusses the futility and presumption of passing judgment on another who has been welcomed by God and for whom Christ has died. It is very difficult if not impossible to legitimately claim a close relationship with God while still clinging to anger and hatred towards others.

Picking up many of the traditional Jewish teachings, Matthew’s Jesus illustrates just how uncompromising God’s forgiveness is. Peter asked Jesus a rather sarcastic question: just how far are you going to carry this forgiveness thing? How many times do I have to forgive — seven? But Jesus’ reply is a shocker — seventy-seven times — a million times! Forgiveness must become a way of life. The story of the unforgiving debtor illustrates His point. The mean-spirited and unloving individual refused to forgive someone who owed him a fraction of what he had just been forgiven by his master, even when the poor fellow pleaded for mercy. (Don’t be too hard on him, he represents all of us!) When he finds out what has happened the furious master recalls the debt that he had cancelled and has the hardhearted servant thrown into debtor’s prison. The parable ends with the ominous warning that those who refuse to forgive will be treated in a similar fashion. This is not what we want to hear — no cheap grace or feel-good religion here, but religion that stretches us.

On this sober anniversary perhaps we can all begin to put away negativity, hatred, anger, resentment and the desire to get even. We can take the first hesitant steps along the way of peace and restore a wounded and fearful world to God.