Twenty-forth Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 17, 2017)

The immensity of the subject, forgiveness, is too much for one homily. I have given the RCIA talk on forgiveness in other parishes, and the talk has to be longer than an hour. Let me share a few thoughts about dealing with the serious hurts every one of us has suffered.

Often we react in one of two ways: either we retaliate, however violently or subtly / passive-aggressively or we retreat into silence and self-pity and wait for the offender to apologize.

Unforgiveness has a health dimension, because gnawing consequences of unforgivensess can negatively affect the health of mind and body. It also has social consequences. It affects families and communities. Malachy McCourt, who grew up with his brothers in the home described in Angela’s Ashes, said he let go of the murderous rage he used to hold onto. “Resentment,” he wisely said “ is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Payback seems so natural, but it is not only ineffective; it is also counter-productive.

In weighty situations, forgiveness is not instantaneous; it is a process. Let’s look at approaching the problem from Peter’s viewpoint. He wants to know how many times he is expected to forgive. This approach simply entangles us in a numbers’ game, doling out forgiveness by the spoonful. That is ineffective, useless. It misses the point: reconciliation is the goal of the process.

First of all, we need to realize our own sinfulness. We are not perfect people. How can we hold another to perfection? We need to bring the situation to God, to pray during the process, this may sound like simplistic piety, but we who have been there and done this know its value.

To forgive serious hurts, we need to see the situation from God’s viewpoint. For God, forgiveness is total and is not measured. Let’s hear what Jesus taught, then what he modeled for us. In his first sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, we hear Jesus: “You have heard the commandment, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’” But what I say to you is forgive; he replaced this “law of talon” with the law of love.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes his point so strongly that he does something very unusual: he tells us the fearsome consequences of unforgiveness. He taught: “With the measure you measure, it will be measured to you.” And in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The tragedy in today’s Gospel is that the unforgiving servant never really experienced in his heart the forgiveness the king had granted him. If we do not experience in our heart; that is, really appreciate God’s forgiveness of us, we cannot extend forgiveness to others. In our heart we receive God’s mercy and offer that mercy to others. That is a heart-transforming dynamic. Forgiveness is a spiritual example of “use it or lose it” - God’s mercy. In the words of George Hebert [1593-1633], “He who cannot forgive breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass.”

Having heard what Jesus taught, let’s listen to what Jesus modeled: From the cross, Jesus said of the Romans and Jews: “Father, forgive them they don’t know what they do.” Following the Resurrection, he entered the upper room saying, “Peace”. Instead of raging against the disciples for deserting him and/or denying him, he simply forgave them, reassuring them of right relationship: peace/shalom.

We need to acquire the habit of forgiveness, get to the place where it becomes a knee jerk reaction to forgive instead of a knee jerk reaction to lash out. If we were to dedicate the same amount of time we spend nursing our injuries on giving thanks for God’s mercy to us, the forgiveness habit would overtake us. We practice for big forgiveness by putting aside the small hurts and irritations that constantly come our way.