24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 9-17-17 Sirach 27:30-28:7, Ps 103:1-12, Romans 14:7-9, Matthew 18: 21-35
We use the word “forgiveness” at every single Mass. Let’s spend a few minutes talking about what forgiveness is, and is not.
Let’s start with what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not forgetting, like Christians are a group of people with voluntary memory loss. Forgiveness is not reconciliation. To reconcile means to establish a friendship or shared understanding of something; to come to agreement. Forgiveness is not condoning. When we condone an act, we simply overlook it without protest. Likewise, forgiveness is not dismissing. When a court case is dismissed, the legal action is withdrawn and nothing else is done. Forgiveness is not some vague sort of tolerance. Tolerance is when we allow or respect something as permissible. Finally, forgiveness is not pardoning. When the governor pardons someone in jail, he releases them without further punishment, he excuses their crime.
Most of us, including myself, would have used one or more of these words to define “forgiveness.” But we would have been wrong. Forgiveness is not about excuses or overlooking or tolerating or withdrawing. One dictionary definition I like is “to renounce anger or resentment against.” It is a decision to not carry negative emotion against something some one else did. It is not a judgment but rather a decision about our own behavior. It is not something we create, but something we learn from the Spirit of God. Our relationship with God shows us that we can be loved even when we are at our worst. This discovery is so enormous that we want to pass it on to others.
For starters, forgiveness is gift from God; it is an act of faith. Two very familiar scriptures might help. First, is Matthew 18:22, when Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive a brother and, I suspect, tries to appear generous by suggesting 7 times. Jesus responds, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Please understand that the number “7” is the number for complete or finished, or even perfect. That’s why creation in Genesis is a “7” day event. Peter thinks if he forgave seven times, it would be perfect. Jesus tells him that he must multiply his answer by 10, and then add another 7 for even more perfect. What? It means infinite, limitless, endless. That must have taken the wind out of Peter’s sail, as it does mine. Incidentally, that 77 is a direct quote, using the exact same Greek phrase, from Genesis 4: 24, and is referring to limits on revenge against Cain for the murder of his brother. Jesus is talking about unlimited forgiveness- of a terrible crime. This is what brings peace to our families, our communities, and our world.
The other familiar scripture is the Our Father, Matthew 6: 14-15. “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” It sends a chill up my spine every time I say it. It’s very clear. Can we say, “Of course we are forgiven; Christ’s death on the cross forgave my sins,” and still not forgive others? There are many Bible verses that respond very clearly to that. One is Colossians 3: 12-13, “Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy & beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must do also.”
Forgiveness is one of the most powerful actions a Christian can perform. The only thing harder than forgiveness – is to not forgive. To not forgive is like carrying a brick around with you, every day, always, everywhere. To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and then find out that the prisoner is not someone else, but yourself. And to not forgive tends to grow into something even more ugly. If we are angry and hold a grudge against one person, we are likely to begin to generalize that anger to other people. Ethnic hatred and racism, for example, are often based in anger against one individual or event.
We may say we will “try” to forgive people. Here I need to quote a famous movie character, Yoda, in Star Wars. Yoda said, “Try not! Do or do not! There is no try!” When we try, we leave open an expectation of possible failure; better to decide to do. Forgiveness is not wimpy; instead it tends to be an attribute of strength and confidence.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until we have something to forgive.” It might be well to look at forgiveness as purposeful commitment or a jouney. A therapist, when writing about forgiveness, suggested that forgiveness is a long-term plan, and may require a wait 10 or more years before the other party is willing to respond. He urges people to continue to make regular contract for however long it takes.
The tragedy of the 2006 Amish schoolhouse shooting in Pennsylvania will always be with me. When a man entered a schoolhouse and killed 5 little girls, the Amish families not only offered forgiveness but also food, help and friendship to the shooter’s wife and children. They did it because they knew the Gospel, not to look good. They had a firm commitment to obey the Word of God, knowing that, despite the pain and trauma in their lives, it was the right thing to do, and it was that choice that would restore love and peace. It was a powerful witness to the world. We also have that choice available to us.
So we can boldly say, “I will show Christ’s love by forgiving those who do not even ask for forgiveness. I will leave fairness and justice in God’s hands. I will forgive others just as the Lord forgave me. Today I will give myself the gift of forgiveness. ” Is there someone I need to forgive?