Message for 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Fr. Joseph Levine; September 13, 2020
Readings: Sirach 27:30-28:7; Psalm 103:1-4,9-12; Rm 14:7-9; Mt 18:21-35
Today’s 1st reading and Gospel complement each other with the themes of anger and forgiveness. Our 1st reading gives us a rather vivid image of a certain kind of anger: Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. This matches the attitude of the unforgiving servant in the Gospel who seizes his fellow servant by the neck and demands repayment of the debt.
The sinner hugs his anger tight.
It is one thing when a person merely loses his temper because of a lack of self-control. That is not a good thing, but the anger soon passes and the fault is diminished, especially if the person is making a real effort to master his temper. If a person ‘hugs his anger tight’ that speaks of willfully holding on to anger after the initial explosion of the passion. That willful anger is truly a mortal sin that blinds the mind and blocks forgiveness.
That helps us understand two parts of forgiveness.
There is forgiveness in act that responds to the sincere request for forgiveness. The aggressor says, “I am sorry, please forgive me.” The injured party replies, “I forgive you.”
There is also forgiveness in intention, which anticipates and prepares for, hopes for, and prays for the opportunity to make the act of forgiveness.
This stands in contrast to the sinner, who hugs his anger tight, continually turns over in his mind the angry thought, “He did this to me.” That complaint against the aggressor overrides every other thought in his regard. Somebody points out that the offense was not really that great, or that the offender was more thoughtless than malicious, that really he is not such a bad person, or that really, Jesus want us to forgive, none of that matters to the sinner who hugs his anger tight. The thought, “He did this to me”, keeps coming back and driving out every other thought to the contrary. The bitter memory rules his mind and heart and governs his behavior. He is consumed by his anger. He hugs his anger tight like a man hugs his wife and the two become one flesh. He is identified with his anger. He becomes his anger. Just as he reduces his enemy to the offense, he reduces himself to his anger. He becomes small and petty. Such anger is truly a terrible thing. Alas that there are people who actually do surrender themselves to their anger in this fashion.
Forgiveness in intention, then, lets go of the anger, lets go of the complaint, lets go of the “he did this to me.” The injury is still recognized for what it is, but it is placed in proportion. The offender is not reduced to the offense and the injured person does not let himself be reduced to his hurt. The hurt may indeed be grievous, but even so the vision is expanded. He is able to consider mitigating circumstances. He is open to reconciliation. He puts his priority on the true and the good, rather than his own injury. He is able to pray for the offender. If the request for forgiveness comes, he is capable of giving it in truth and sincerity.
Those are the basics ,but there are a couple of special situations, in terms of anger and forgiveness, that I should address.
The first can be exemplified by the case of the abused woman. First, I should note that even in the case of a legitimate marriage, abuse can be a reason for separation, but not for divorce. In any case, because the woman has experienced strong feelings for her partner, because she has invested considerable time and emotional energy to him, and because she often feels a Christian obligation to ‘forgive’ all these things tend to keep her in the relationship, while the man, knowing this, will use these very things to manipulate the woman.
We must first of all be clear that today’s Gospel lesson does not actually apply in this case. The man is not turning seventy-seven times and asking for forgiveness; his request is a lie; he is merely using words to manipulate the woman.
As the woman begins to recognize the truth of the situation the decisive question, assuming a legitimate marriage, will be whether or not she can establish sufficient liberty of heart to remain in the common life, enduring the abuse, perhaps for the sake of the children – that is possible – or whether or not in addition to establishing an interior emotional distance, she will need to establish a physical distance as well.
Now, with that emotional or physical distance established, we can consider what forgiveness looks like in this situation. Because of the abuse she will of course run into the temptation of hatred and bitterness. That is not the right path, not even to protect herself. Rather, she must practice forgiveness of intention and prayer, letting go of the ‘complaint’ and bitterness in her heart, while at the same putting up a ‘hard’ exterior front against the man to protect herself from her own weakness for him. That will be even more necessary if the relationship was not a legitimate marriage.
This is the path of Christian realism. God can work miracles of conversion and reconciliation, but while we should be open to such miracles should they occur, we cannot rely on such miracles. We must honestly recognize the situations where change will truly require an extraordinary miracle. We must not pursue the illusion that God will simply change the heart of someone who has proven himself time and again to be deceitful, abusive, and manipulative. That is not a life of faith, but of naiveté. There comes a time when a person needs to shake the dust from his feet. (cf. Mt 10:14)
Unfortunately, this sort of naiveté has become a common fault in the public and social life of Christians in recent decades. It was not always so. Living in a secular, unbelieving, post-Christian world, unbelievers and superficial or false Christians, have learned very well how to manipulate the Christian obligation to forgive, and Christians have fallen for it. Bishops and priests have readily succumbed to these manipulative tactics in the public realm.
When we distinguish between forgiveness in intention and forgiveness in act, we are then capable of making a realistic judgment about actual circumstances, without succumbing to manipulative tactics. Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.
The next special situation that needs to be addressed, during this election year especially, is the intensity of political vitriol and hatred that is poisoning the social life of the country. It would be nice to just declare neutrality in order to escape all the vitriol and hatred, but that is not possible, especially because there has been an ongoing and concerted attempt to eliminate all public presence of belief in Christ, not just from politics, but from business, education, and health care as well.
Many people have observed that there was a time in this country when people could disagree about politics and still be friends. What often fails to go noticed is that such friendly disagreement presupposes at least a general human consensus about some basics of right and wrong. That is what made possible, for example the friendship between the atheist George Bernard Shaw, and the Catholics GK Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc. The more the general human consensus disappears, the harder that sort of friendly disagreement becomes. What George Bernard Shaw didn’t realize was the degree to which he took for granted a basic Christian view of morality. That general consensus, rooted in the inheritance of Christianity, has now been largely dissolved.
When one side shows up fully armed for battle, showing every intention to fight, you don’t go out to meet them unarmed, as though for a peace conference. That, again, is pure naiveté. Such naiveté can be winning in a person who has no serious responsibilities in life, but with responsibility there almost always comes a duty to protect that is undermined by naiveté. At that point naiveté becomes a dangerous fault that needs to be corrected.
It is necessary to learn how to fight the culture wars and fight as Christians. The weapons of Christian warfare are first of all faith, then prayer, then the word of God in Scripture and Tradition, then human reason. Nevertheless, on the popular level of videos, podcasts, slogans, and memes, this needs to be expressed with words and images that are effective and readily grasped, while remaining true and fair, in accord to the medium in which they are presented.
Using the social media as an example, we might have to encounter all sorts of vitriol, but we should not indulge in vitriol, hatred, or personal attacks. Mockery is a powerful popular weapon, but it is also a dangerous one that can easily descend into contempt and hatred. Further, I have seen Facebook posts, by devout Catholics, with a photo of a prominent political figure and the words underneath “pure evil”. Watch it! Perhaps, given the medium, that is merely a way of decrying the evil at work in that person, but no human being is ‘pure evil’. In any case, are you winning anyone over this way?
The final goal actually is not winning an election, but the salvation of souls, even the souls of political adversaries. Forgiveness in intention, letting go of the sense of personal grievance, and prayer for others must always have first place. That interior attitude must also shape our outward actions even when we must fight.
Remember the salvation of souls. Think of your own soul. Remember that one day you will have to appear before Christ the judge and render to him an account of your thoughts, words, and deeds. Remember that you must pray, Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Remember the covenant, the new and eternal covenant in the Blood of Christ, poured out for the forgiveness of sins, renewed upon the altar in the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
None of us lives for himself, and no one dies for himself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or we die, we are the Lord’s. For this is why Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.