Forgive or Excuse?

(Homily 24th Sunday, A)

In our new religious education we have taught our children many beautiful things, but sometimes we have not been very practical. For example, we have stressed that God is good and loving, that he always forgives and that we should forgive each other. Great so far. But unfortunately we haven't taught our children how to forgive. They learned how to excuse others, "well, I know he didn't really mean it," or "it wasn't his fault," or "it was nothing." All this has a certain value, but in real life it is like hitting the outer circles of target. Excusing does not score a bull's eye.

There is a huge difference between excusing and the kind of forgiveness Jesus describes this Sunday. Before explaining that difference, let me say that excusing does have its place. The person who excuses tries to sort out the intentional from the unintentional. All of us say and do things without much thought. We don't want others to hold us responsible for every single word and gesture so we try to extend the same courtesy. Nor do we understand all the forces which drive or paralyze humans. Excusing others can be very appropriate. It can even be necessary to excuse oneself. I have kicked myself for days over some stupid thing I did. "Bloom, you idiot!" I would mutter to myself. But if anything was a sin, it was my wasteful self-flagellation. I should have just learned my lesson, done my penance and tried to avoid the same mistake.

To excuse others and even ones own self can have an important place. But in our culture it slides into something else. We tend to be influenced by certain determinist philosophies which say that everything we do is beyond our own control. Karl Marx taught that the driving force of human history is dialectical materialism. Thus each man's ideas, values, actions could be predicted simply by knowing his social class. Freud also taught determinism, but felt that our actions could be explained not so much by economics as irrational psychological forces. Today the determinist philosophy that reigns supreme, almost uncontested, is Darwinism (also called naturalism). It attempts to explain human behavior in terms of our evolutionary past*. Darwinism draws its power from the great respect people have for science and its representatives like medical doctors. For some people science and Darwinism are one. But they are not. If anything, current science contains many discoveries which suggest a more complicated picture than flat mechanistic determinism. Still, that view of the world and man dominates our culture. It is possible to give a response to the determinist whether Marxist, Freudian, Darwinist or some other kind. First congratulate him on discovering the wellspring of all human thought and behavior. But then ask, "how is possible that you have risen above the irrational forces which blind the rest of us? No doubt, you are smarter than I but how can you be freer if we are all predetermined?" The determinist is like a person sitting on tree limb which he cuts off with his own philosophical saw. If all judgments are the product of irrational forces, why pay any attention to one he just made?

That is also the weakness of the approach which would "excuse all." Where does the power to excuse come from if there is no true freedom? And no matter how much we may desire to excuse everything, we eventually run up against true evil, something that is pre-meditated and deliberate. At that point the "excuse all" philosophy falls apart. You will hear something like, "Well, I am a very forgiving person, but what he has done can never be excused." Do you see how the words get mixed up? What he actually means is, "I thought I could excuse - that is explain away - everything, but I have finally come face to face with a true human person, someone who has genuine freedom and has used that freedom to do terrible things. I will not forgive him." That is the crisis point in our marriages. An outsider might view the incident as small. What are those two so steamed up about? But the insiders know the poison dart had been carefully stored and deliberately hurled at a precisely chosen moment. The former easygoing peace can never be restored. The real tragedy here is not so much the insult. It happens sooner or later in most marriages, usually sooner than later. Indeed such a crisis comes to all relationships. The tragedy is that we have not taught our young people how to forgive. All the psychology, all the communication skills (important as they may be) cannot overcome a genuine offense. Only forgiveness can.

It is not a matter of "forgive and forget." What Jesus says this Sunday sounds more like "forgive and remember." Not brood over the offense, but remember that you owe so much more to God. Jesus talks about a "huge sum" owed to the king and a fellow servant with a "much smaller amount." Actually the comparison is the difference between the change I have in my pocket and the net worth of Bill Gates. What we owe God is like the U.S. national debt (after the Reagan presidency). By comparison the offenses against us are miniscule. Does this seem like wild exaggeration? It is not. Consider St. Therese of Lisieux. When you read her autobiography what shines is her attentiveness and singleheartedness. Yet before God she was painfully aware of her sinfulness. Her mind was clear; ours are clouded over. We need to ask God for a tiny glimpse of what we owe him, what his mercy means. Only then will we be able to forgive the true real hurt we have suffered from that other person.

How often should we forgive? Most of us say, "I will let it go this time, but it better never happen again." Only a real sucker would forgive three times. Peter was being extravagant to suggest forgiving seven times. But Jesus says seven times seventy times.** This does not just refer to the number of offenses, but also to how often the offense might present itself to our consciousness. Many years ago one of my parishioners hurt me very deeply. He knew the exact combination of words to leave me gasping and I have every reason to believe his did it with malicious forethought. Even now I can recall his words - and desire revenge. I am sure I have been asked by God to forgive him seven times seventy times. Now I cannot say I have successfully forgiven him a full 490 times. But I know that my own sins - those of my youth as well as the more dreary ones of my middle age - are all equally present before God. So I must keep trying.

In today's first reading Sirach assures us that the Lord recalls the sins of the vengeful "in detail." (Sir 27:30) He urges us, "remember your last days, set enmity aside." Wise words, but difficult to live. Let us ask God's grace to put them into practice right now, before we approach the table of Christ's sacrifice. And the wisdom to teach them to our children.


*An example of evolutionary determinism: Newsweek magazine had an article which revealed the evolution basis for much human activity including philandering (otherwise known as fornication and adultery). The philanderer is driven by the impulse to project his genetic material as broadly as possible. The same drive impels all animals and plants, even the tiniest microorganisms. These theories have an appeal similiar to Marxism (currently recast as Feminism). They offer a key to interpret all human behavior. Next to them Christianity with its doctrines of Free Will, the Fall and Redemption can seem terribly complicated. The question of course is not which is more simple, but which is true.

**Hopefully parishioners will have heard last Sunday's homily on "fraternal correction," and know there is a time to confront - and a process for doing so. A typical case which requires something more than basic forgiveness is that of an abusive or alcoholic spouse.

From Archives (for Twenty-fourth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2011: How to Forgive
2005: He Remembers Their Sins in Detail
2002: Not Entitled to Forgiveness
1999: Forgive or Excuse?

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Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C


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