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Forgiveness

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Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

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After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee visited a Kentucky lady who took him to the remains of a grand old tree in front of her house. There she bitterly cried that its limbs and trunk had been destroyed by Federal artillery fire. She looked to Lee for a word condemning the North or at least sympathizing with her loss.  After a brief silence, Lee said, “Cut it down, my dear Madam, and forget it.”

Last Sunday, the Catholic liturgy directed our attention to the virtue of charity.  The Church continues this theme, now drawing our attention to a very important aspect of the virtue of charity; the ability to forgive.

Peter’s impetuosity gives Jesus an opportunity to give us one of his greatest teachings on forgiveness.  Peter’s question, though, is not removed from the truth of his times.

It was Rabbinic teaching that a person was required to forgive only three times.  This teaching was based upon the Book of the Prophet Amos.  It was deduced that God forgives the sinner three times and punishes the fourth offense.  No one can be more generous than God, so it was held that forgiveness was limited to three offenses.

Peter thought that he was being more than generous by asking if one should forgive seven times.  Jesus’ answer must have surprised him when he said: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”  Biblically, the figure of seventy times seven is equivalent to always.

Jesus proceeds with a parable.  The points of the parable are very clear.  The parable illustrates the contrast between one person’s calculating approach to forgiveness and God’s infinite mercy.

The parable also shows us that nothing that people do to us can compare with what we have done to God.  If God can forgive us for all of our sins, then we must also forgive each person for the wrongs that they have committed against us.

Moreover, in order to obtain God’s forgiveness, we must forgive.

We all know that there is a lot of injustice and suffering in our contemporary society.  Sometimes as a priest, I am overwhelmed by the continual accounts that I hear from people that have been abandoned, abused, hurt and treated unfairly.  Mother Teresa is correct when she said that our nation is suffering from a famine of love.  Within the terrible hardships that hatred causes, forgiveness is the only way to maintain peace of soul, and even mental and physical health.

Let us consider some practical applications of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness.

To forgive is not the same as to forget.  We are all capable of stretching our hearts in love and forgiving anyone of any transgression.  Nevertheless, we can not forget the things that we have suffered.  In fact, we should not forget.  The memory of a past hurt can serve to help us be more prudent in our relationship with others.  We can never forget the things that happen to us.  There is a difference between remembering past hurts and dwelling upon them with resentment.

Jesus calls us to forgive everyone of anything.  If you find it impossible to forgive, just look upon Jesus crucified and hear his first words as he hung on the Cross: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”.  Maybe you have been hurt by someone who is fully aware of what he is doing.  Nonetheless, Jesus calls us to forgive and to forgive unconditionally from the heart.

However, we must understand that a personal act of forgiveness does not necessarily mean that one may or even should resume contact with the person who committed an offense. In most cases, a relationship will be renewed and it will grow stronger because of the act of forgiveness.   But, in some cases, although the transgressor has been forgiven, it may be impossible to have any contact with that person.

There are dangerous people that may never change.

There are people who are mentally ill and may not even know it.

There are people who are evil.

These people need a lot of prayer and when dealing with these kinds of people, the best approach is to do two things: forgive and run as fast as you can.

There is an interesting story that comes to us from Spain.

It just so happens that a father and son got into an argument.  The son ran away and the father set off to find him. He searched for months, but he could not find him. Finally, in a last frantic endeavor to find him, the father put an ad in a Madrid newspaper. The ad read: Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father. On Saturday 800 Pacos showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.

Over my almost 30 years as a Catholic priest, many people have asked me about how to forgive.  In any situation, forgiveness is an act of love.  It is a matter of just doing it.  Some say that they are willing to forgive only if the other person forgives first.

It seems to me that this Sunday’s gospel passage is saying something very different.

True love is always the protagonist.

If the person is still living and you are able to continue the relationship, then the act must be done verbally and personally.

If the person is living and you are unable to continue the relationship, the act of forgiveness can be done through personal prayer and maybe even a letter.

If the person that has offended you is deceased, it is very beneficial to write a letter to that person and read the letter at the gravesite.  Finish the letter with a short prayer, bury it in the ground, and you will be amazed at the results.

The only way to experience the God of infinite mercy is to maintain a heart incapable of hatred.  Hatred is like bad cholesterol; it blocks intimacy with God.  This is why Jesus said: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God”.  (Matthew 5: 7-9)

In conclusion, it is true that to live in this difficult world without hating anyone is certainly possible only if we are generous and people of deep spirituality.

Let us conclude with a beautiful little story about Thomas A. Edison.

 He was working very hard on his first light bulb.  It actually took him 24 hours to put the first one together.  When Edison was finished with one light bulb, he gave it to a young helper, who nervously carried it up the stairs to a storage area.

Step by step he cautiously approached the storage area, obviously frightened of dropping such a precious piece of work.

The young boy dropped the bulb at the top of the stairs.

It took the entire team of men 24 more hours to construct another bulb.

Finally, tired and ready for a break, Edison was ready to have his bulb carried up the stairs.  He gave it to the same young boy who dropped the first one.

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Acknowledgements: http://www.sermonillustrations.com