How to Forgive

(Homily for Twenty-Fourth Ordinary Sunday - Year A)

Bottom line: We need to take our sins to the cross. The fact that Jesus cancelled our debt should inspire us to forgive others.

This Sunday's Gospel is about forgiveness. This is the heart of Jesus' message. Forgiveness is essential to our relationship with God - and also to each other. No relationship can last without forgiveness. Every married couple knows that. The same applies to any relationship: two friends, brother and sister, co-workers. To last it takes forgiveness, sometimes daily forgiveness. In this homily I am going to assume what we talked about last weekend - fraternal correction. Forgiveness does not mean putting up with abusive situations, especially when they involve those who are defenseless. Having said that, we must face the central issue in the Gospel: God's forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of each other.

Sometimes people ask me how to forgive. Perhaps a family member or in-law has hurt them. They find themselves thinking about what that person did, even wanting in some way to get back.

When someone tells about a resentment, one of the first things I want to do is to congratulate them - not for their anger, but for recognizing it. It is not easy to recognize resentment, even harder to admit feelings of hatred.* Sometimes you hear people say they have let go of ill feelings, that they love everyone - but in the same conversation they mention something a person said to them last year - or twenty years ago. We forget names, we forget birthdays, but we do not forget injuries. We might bury hurts for a time, but they come back. The first step to forgiveness is to acknowledge offenses - what Jesus calls "debts."

People who have deliberately offended do owe a kind of debt. But like the debtor in today's Gospel they are not likely to pay what they owe. So we have a choice: We can put them in jail, that is, cut them off - or we can release them, forgive the debt.

If we choose to forgive, how do we do it? There is only one way: the cross. We have to take our anger, our injuries, our hurts to the cross.** The cross brings healing because when we stand before it, we recognize our guilt. If you or I were the only person who ever existed, Jesus would have died on the cross to bring forgiveness. Our sins have placed Jesus on the cross.

Your sins and mine are like the national debt - beyond imagining. Shakespeare said, "Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?" Shakespeare did not mean that every person has committed great crimes against the state. But we have done so against God. He is all goodness. In today's Gospel Jesus says we are like a debtor who owes a "huge amount." The original Greek is "ten thousand talents." In Jesus' time, it would have taken the average worker fifteen years to earn one talent. You get the point: fifteen by ten thousand is a lot of work - maybe what it would take to build the great pyramid. We owe a debt to God that none of us can pay off. Our only hope is the cross. On the cross Jesus cancelled our debt.

That is good news. That is why the Gospel is called "Good News." Few things are worse that being heavily in debt and having no way of paying. Well, Jesus has taken our debt. On the cross he cancelled it. That is wonderful news, but there is a condition. We see it in today's Gospel and we say it every time we pray the Our Father: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

By recognizing Jesus' forgiveness we can - and we must - forgive those who have offended us. It is not easy. In fact it is the hardest part of following Jesus. There are people who I do not want to forgive. And there are others who I have forgiven, but the hurt comes back to me at a later date - with full force. I need to forgive a second and a third time. Jesus speaks about forgiving seven time seventy times. Sometimes an offense requires repeated forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not easy, but it is the only way to peace. Last Christmas Archbishop Sartain gave the priests a book called "Searching for and Maintaining Peace." It describes how through prayer and forgiveness a person can attain inner peace. It is the way of Jesus, the way of the cross.

I would like to say a word about forgiveness in relation to the 9-11 attacks since today is the tenth anniversary. I am not going to say it is a simple matter of forgiving terrorists (although if you are harboring anger against them, yes, you do have to forgive). Most of us have people closer to home that we need to forgive first - and of course, forgiving terrorists does not mean that we do not do everything possible to stop them and bring them to justice.

But on this 9-11 anniversary I would like to make a bit different point. Right after the attacks ten years ago, people in the media began saying that the problem is religious belief - that our world would be better without religion. A couple things need to be said. First of all, Stalin - and Hitler - already tried that. They wanted to create societies without traditional religion. Second, there is religion and there is religion. There is a big difference, for example, between a religion centered on conquest and a religion centered on the cross.***

For sure, we Christians have committed great sins in the past - and we continue to fail. But as we hear today, we need to take our sins to the cross. The fact that Jesus cancelled our debt should inspire us to forgive others. Amen.


*As old taboos fade, to admit feelings of hatred has become one of the new taboos of our culture. Those lobbying for public approval of homosexual behavior have made effective use of the social prohibition against such strong feelings. Of course, the effectiveness depends on an inability (or unwillingness) to distinguish the sin and the sinner. For sure, a Christian must repent if he hates any category of people (terrorists, active homosexuals, Republicans, whatever). On the other, a Christian must (in the biblical sense) "hate" what terrorists, homosexuals and even certain Republicans do.

**This is a particular challenge today since we live in a society where victims receive a certain status - even preferences and financial benefits. This encourages people to cling to a victim status. And it fosters a "victim mentality" in all of us. Regarding this I recommend Reinventing Yourself by Steve Chandler. The book is about how to transform oneself from the mindset of victim to that of an "owner" - a person who takes responsibility for his life, including his mistakes and failures. This can be a first step toward what Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel.

***In this context it is good to remember the Prayer of Fr. Mychal Judge:

Take me where you want me to go,
Let me meet who you want me to meet.
Tell me what you want me to say, and keep me out of your way.

Spanish Version

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

2017: Making Space for Others
2014: Finding Your Place Week 6 (Feast of the Holy Cross)
2011: How to Forgive
2005: He Remembers Their Sins in Detail
2002: Not Entitled to Forgiveness
1999: Forgive or Excuse?

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