24th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached September 17, 2017; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Last Sunday I spoke about the responsibility that bishops and priests have to warn the people of spiritual danger, dangers that threaten the salvation of our immortal souls.
Today, Jesus himself gives us a warning, concluding his parable with these words: In anger the master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from your heart.
Now the debt we owe to God is something that can be forgiven, but it is beyond our capacity to repay the whole debt. That means that if we are handed over to the torturers until we pay back in full, we will be ‘paying back’ forever, while being tortured ‘forever’. In other words, the hardness of heart by which we refuse to forgive our brothers and sisters, our fellow servants, can land us in hell.
This is serious business, but we also need to understand aright what it means to forgive a brother from the heart.
Let us start of by considering an example of perfection in a difficult situation. I am going to take an example from marriage, because in marriage the two have a special obligation to forgive and seek reconciliation because they promised before the altar of the Lord to love and honor each other all the days of their lives.
So I will consider the forgiveness of infidelity in marriage. Let us look at what is required for perfect forgiveness, from the heart.
First, on the part of the unfaithful spouse: he or she must truly recognize the gravity of his offense, ask for pardon, and promise to change.
On the part of the faithful spouse: he or she, recognizing the sincerity of the repentance, must forgive fully, sincerely, and without reserve, which means not counting the sin against his spouse and giving him or her a second chance. This certainly involves taking a big risk and exposing himself to the hurt of being betrayed again.
Finally, the act of forgiveness, given and received, is only a beginning, from there the two must go forward working together to rebuild their relationship, heal the wounds, and restore the mutual trust and confidence.
When we consider an example like this we see all the elements of true forgiveness; we see its greatness and difficulty. We see that it is something we should not make light of. Forgiveness should be open-eyed and intentional.
Now on a day-to-day basis forgiveness is usually an easier path to follow, but the elements are the same. We walk together as brothers and sisters, we offend each other in many ways, we need to be ready to recognize our offenses and ask sincerely for pardon, and likewise we need to be ready to pardon, freely and fully.
At the same time, the consideration of infidelity in marriage also leads us to recognize the situations where forgiveness is impossible. There is the case of the serial adulterer, who when caught will profess his sorrow, ask forgiveness, and then just continue doing the same; or else will just deny the deed and try to act as though he hasn’t done anything wrong.
What we need to recognize is that obstinate offender can’t be forgiven because he does not recognize the offense and is not truly sorry for what he has done. Further, we need to recognize that words are not enough. There are people who will use the words to manipulate others; there are also people who will practice emotional blackmail. There is no reason for the Christian to let himself be held hostage, so to speak, by these sorts of people. Simply speaking, where sincerity is lacking, forgiveness is impossible.
For the most part, though, in our day-to-day life we find ourselves somewhere in between the extremes where perfect reconciliation is possible and where forgiveness is not even possible.
We can take as our general rule the words of Jesus in another place. If your brother … wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry’, you should forgive him. (Lk 17:3,4) That sets the context for Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer in today’s Gospel. The context is those sorts of daily faults that we all commit. Jesus is asking, in this context, “When is enough, enough.” Jesus by changing the seven times to seventy seven times, is in effect telling us that there should be no limit to our forgiveness. So long as we are walking together as brothers and sisters we should forgive one another without limit.
So in practice we must always be ready to forgive, when forgiveness is called for, or at least we should be moving in that direction. We should never refuse absolutely to forgive. The sort of hardness of heart that says, “I will never forgive that person for what he has done to me,” is the sort of thing that leads a person to hell, indeed, hell already begins in that hardened refusal to forgive.
Still, we need to recognize honestly the obstacles to forgiveness that we find in ourselves: we must seek to overcome the hurt, the loss of trust, the anger, the hatred, and the bitterness we find in ourselves.
Regardless of whether or not the offender repents, we will destroy ourselves if we give way to feelings of wrath, hatred, and bitterness, no matter how justified they may seem, no matter anger, hatred, and bitterness will consume us from within if we do not bring them under control, but instead insist on hugging them tight. Those uncontrolled feelings will lead us to commit many sins and, for our own part, to remain blind and unrepentant, so the Lord will have no choice but to remember our sins in detail.
Further, only if we let go of the feelings of anger, hatred, and bitterness will be ready to forgive when the time comes, or even reach out to the offender before he even asks forgiveness.
All these considerations should help us to distinguish between forgiveness as an act of the will and the negative feelings of that can make it difficult for us to forgive. While we must work to bring those feelings under control, at times we must make the act of forgiveness, despite those feelings; then we must try our best to follow through upon the act in the way we treat the other person while we continue to work to bring our feelings under control.
So let me summarize matters here: we must forgive the one who is truly repentant, but we must not hold on to anger, hatred, and bitterness, even in the case of the hardened offender. That means that forgiveness is really a path that we must walk between overcoming our feelings, being ready to forgive, and working and waiting for the actual moment of forgiveness and reconciliation. Finally, it is important that we learn to pray for those who hurt us; we should really make a point of praying for those who have hurt us.
This path of forgiveness is certainly a difficult one. It requires that we consider, in an objective manner, all the circumstances of the situation, that we make some sort of judgment regarding the sincerity of the offender, the gravity of the injury, the level of trust that has been lost or remains, our own ability to risk further wounds, and also our obligation to protect others.
This means that we cannot just let ourselves be driven this way and that by our emotions, but we must think things through. We will not be able to think things through, however, unless we learn to live in a world of objective reality, unless we let ourselves be governed by truth.
That also means we must overcome the influence in our lives of the dictatorship of relativism that surrounds; relativism works against the practice of mercy and forgiveness, leaves us at the mercy of our emotions, renders our professions of repentance and forgiveness superficial at best and often leads us to deceiving even ourselves.
So far I have spoken about the reality and practice of forgiveness itself. Finally, though, we need to ask about motivations. Why should we forgive? To avoid going to hell? To keep from being eaten up inside by anger? Those are valid reasons, but if we remain there we will never really acquire the generosity and greatness of soul needed to forgive.
If consider again Jesus’ parable, the Master forgave the wicked servant a debt he could not possibly repay. The Master treated the servant on the basis of mercy, but the servant wanted to deal with the Master on the basis of justice – he was deluded into thinking that somehow, if only he had more time, he could actually repay the debt in full.
That suggests that for us the key is to recognize the gift of God’s mercy in our own lives. That supreme gift of his mercy was shown us through the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross. He paid our debt in full and through him we are made capable of repaying our debt; through him God receives our petition for mercy and bestows, almost as a matter of justice, a full and complete pardon. In Christ, justice and mercy have truly embraced (cf. Ps 85:11).
The Holy Mother of God, the Mother of Mercy, who stood by the Cross of her Son, would lead us to look upon his wounded side from which the saving stream of Blood and Water flowed forth, and to recognize, understand, and receive the gift of God’s mercy. Through that gift of divine mercy we will be given also the generosity of heart and greatness of soul that will enable us to walk the path of forgiveness in our own life.