Forgiving For Our Sake
September 11, 2005
Matthew 18: 21-35
A married couple was going through a rough time. In the process, they both said and did things that hurt one another deeply. But with patience and commitment, they worked things out, and began moving forward together. But not completely. One day the wife complained, “Why is it that you keep bringing up my past mistakes? I thought that you had forgiven and forgotten.” “I have forgiven and forgotten,” said the husband, “but I don’t want you to forget that I have forgiven and forgotten.”
When someone hurts us, it is very difficult to forgive and to forget. This is what makes today’s gospel so challenging. Jesus is relentless in his insistence that we do not forgive people once, or seven times, but seventy times seven times. And what are we to make of that strange violent verse that ends the gospel, where Jesus assures us that our heavenly Father will hand us over to the torturers unless we forgive our brothers and our sisters from our hearts? What is that about? Whatever happened to a compassionate and understanding God?
As strange as it may seem, that violent verse at the end of the gospel is the key to understanding the parable itself. For it is not telling us what God will do, but in fact what will happen to us if we do not forgive. If we refuse to forgive, we will live in torment, unless we change our minds. For the simple human truth is this: when we have been injured deeply, we can never recover until we forgive.
Now we should be clear on what forgiveness is and what it is not. Forgiveness is not pretending that everything is fine. It is not making an excuse for the person who offended us. It is certainly not putting ourselves back into the same situation where we can be hurt again. (In fact, in some cases, the best decision is to break off contact with the person who has hurt us.) But what forgiveness is, is realizing that we cannot change the past and refusing to let what we cannot change control us. Because if we refuse to forgive, if we choose to feed our hurt, that hurt can grow and deepen and compound with anger and hatred. That hurt will rule our lives and hold us captive.
This is an old truth. Centuries before the birth of Christ, the Greek play, Medea was written. In this drama Medea kills her own children to exact revenge on her husband, who committed adultery. When her husband asks her, how could she kill her own flesh and blood just to spite him, Medea calmly answers, “Because I hate you more than I love them.” Feeding a hurt creates a monster, a monster that can destroy us. The only way to slay that monster is forgiveness.
This is an important truth to remember this weekend, as we celebrate the anniversary of 9/ll. In the next few days we will remember the tragedy of that event, the heroism of those who tried to save others, and the grief of the families that lost loved ones. But even in the immensity of that tragedy, we as Christians are still called to forgive. Forgiveness does not mean that we make excuses for the evil that was done. It certainly does not mean that we relax our vigilance to protect ourselves in the future. We are called to forgive the terrorists, not because they deserve it, but because we need it. For if we try to build a future based on hatred and revenge, we will became what we hate. Mahatma Gandhi, a man who knew much about humanity and world relations, once said, “If we base our relationships to one another on revenge, if we deal with one another based upon ‘an eye for an eye,’ soon the whole world will be blind.”
Jesus is not being cruel in today’s gospel. He is warning us about a hard truth. Feeding a hurt will destroy us. What happens in our life is not always fair; it is not always right. But if we want to be free, if we want to be at peace, if we want to live, we must forgive our brothers and sisters from our hearts.
September 11th and Forgiveness
September 11, 2011
Matthew 18: 21 – 35
You might not know that I do not choose the scripture readings that we read every week here at church. We follow a universal lectionary that assigns readings each weekend for Catholic churches throughout the world. The lectionary follows a cycle that repeats every three years. So whatever readings you might hear on a given Sunday have not been chosen with an eye to current events. They have simply come up in the great mechanism of the lectionary in a pre-set fashion.
So, how stunning is it that this weekend, as we celebrate the tenth anniversary of 9-11, the reading that has come up for us is this powerful reading from Matthew’s gospel where Jesus commands us to forgive those who have hurt us. Do you think God is trying to tell us something? And it would certainly be the voice of God, because I’ll tell you one thing for sure. As you participate in the many public events to commemorate 9-11 this weekend, the one word you will not hear is the word, “forgiveness.” You will hear about honoring the dead, about protecting our country, and about preserving the American way of life. All of which are very good things. But no one from the President on down will ever suggest that we should forgive those who attacked us ten years ago.
There is only one voice that tells us we should forgive. It is the voice of Jesus. And, this teaching of Jesus to forgive our enemies is perhaps his most difficult teaching. It is the one that goes most against our human inclination, the one that is most unpopular. That is why even politicians who wrap themselves in religion, who go to prayer breakfasts, who would never think giving a speech without ending “God bless America”—even those politicians will never cite these particular words of Jesus. They know that if they were to suggest that we forgive Al-Qaeda, it would be the end of their political careers.
But we are not gathered here this morning as politicians. We are gathered as disciples of Christ, trying to understand his teaching. So what sense can we make of this challenging command that we are to forgive those who have hurt us from our heart?
All of us carry hurt. 9-11 is a clear example of the way we were hurt as a country in a violent and unjust attack. But, we also carry hurt on a more personal level. It could be the hurt that comes from divorce. It could be the hurt that comes from a friend who betrayed us, from someone at school who made fun of us, from someone who ruined our reputation, or from someone at work who made false charges against us to further their own career. Whatever hurt we carry, Jesus commands us to forgive the person who has hurt us.
If we are going to follow that command, we have to be clear on what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not naiveté. When you forgive someone it does not mean you trust them. Al-Qaeda has hurt us in the past and is capable of hurting us in the future, so it makes perfect sense to take steps to prevent another attack. A friend who has betrayed us in the past or a family member who has manipulated us in the past has the ability to hurt us again. And so it might make sense that we withdraw from that relationship. Forgiveness is not naiveté. We have every right to protect ourselves.
What forgiveness is letting go of past hurts so that we can live. In this respect today’s parable tells us two important things about forgiveness. The first is this. If we are called to forgive, we will have more success if we focus our blessings than our hurt. This is what the slave in today’s gospel does not do. He has been forgiven a huge amount by his master. He has been tremendously blessed. And yet, when he runs into a fellow servant, all he can think about is what is owed to him. We should not follow that example. As we are called to forgive, the first thing we should do is to remember how fortunate we are, how many people love us and support us, how many opportunities we have. When we finally understand our blessings, we will probably find that they are so much greater than our hurt, just like the case of the man in the parable. If this is the case, we may also find the strength to let our hurt go.
The second thing that the parable teaches is probably even more important. At the end of the parable we are told that the man who could not forgive was handed over to the torturers. The parable is not saying that God will torture us, but it is reminding us that if we do not forgive we will be tortured. If we do not forgive, we will be miserable.
After all, Jesus commands us to forgive, not because the person who hurt us deserves it, but because we need it. We are called to forgive, not for the offender’s sake, but for our own sake. If we do not forgive, we suffer. We keep reliving the attack. We keep brooding over our pain. We keep strategizing about how to get even. We lose sleep because of our anger and our suffering. We fantasize about Islamic militarism. We fixate on imagining how those who hurt us will also suffer. Our life becomes consumed by our hurt. It is only by forgiving that we will find peace.
It is not easy to be a disciple of Jesus because He commands us to forgive our enemies. But, as we try to forgive we will be more successful if we count our blessings rather than licking our wounds. And, we should not wait too long to act, because as long as we do not forgive, we will suffer.
It’s forgiveness or the torturers. You choose.
Facing the Serpent
September 14, 2014
God tells Moses to do a strange thing in today’s first reading. He wants him to take a bronze serpent and put it on a pole so that all of Israel can see it. Why would God ask Moses to do that? Our God is a God of life and healing, and we know that God plans to use this bronze serpent as a means to heal Israel. But why would God make healing dependent upon looking at a bronze serpent? In order to answer this question we have to appreciate what the serpent stands for. It stands for Israel’s sin. Israel grumbled against God in the desert and broke their trust in God’s plan. So the serpent is failure, disbelief, fault. How is it connected to healing? One would expect that if you were seeking healing you should look at something positive. Would it not be better for God to tell Moses to put an angel on a pole, so everyone could look at that? But the scriptures say it is the other way around. If we want to reach life, we must first see what is against life. If we want healing, we must first face our sickness. God tells Moses to put a serpent on a pole so that we understand that if we want to get to what is right, we must first confront what is wrong.
When we fail, when we sin, when we hurt someone by our words or deeds, our first impulse is to brush that offense aside and move on. “It wasn’t my best day, but let’s not linger on the past. Let’s look to the future.” But denying our fault, dismissing our sin, does not lead to healing. It is only when we really see the consequences of our actions, how deeply our words cut, that we can truly feel the need for forgiveness. It is only when others see that we appreciate the damage that we have done, that they become willing to accept our apology.
This truth does only apply on a personal level. For years ISIS has been advancing in Iraq, but it took the sight of a gruesome beheading before America began to respond. Domestic abuse is a scourge in our country. But it took a video before a pro football player was dismissed. We need to see what is wrong, and we cannot be dependent upon our news media to provide us with videos. We need to see on our own what is wrong in our political system, in our prison system, in our educational system. Only then can we move towards healing.
In order to get to what is right we must first see what is wrong. In order to attain life, we must confront the serpent. Our God intends to bring us to life and healing. So let us make today the day that we face the things that we have done wrong so that by God’s grace we can come to life. Let us look deeply at all that is broken in our society, so that we can become partners with God in healing our world.
Acting Against Evil
September 17, 2017
Every parable has more than one meaning. That is why it is always possible to find in a parable new meanings we have never seen before. The best way to find new meanings is to begin with a question. So here is the question I would like to pose to today’s gospel parable: How is it possible that a servant who has just been forgiven a huge debt by his master goes out and demands payment from a fellow servant for a much smaller amount? How is it possible that someone who has experienced such profound mercy cannot extend even an ounce of mercy to someone else? Is this first servant dense? Does he forget the generosity that has just been extended to him?
I think neither is true. The servant who was forgiven the huge debt is either dense or forgetful. He is corrupt and insincere. I think we should see this first servant as a manipulator who uses people and circumstances for his own benefit. His words to his master, “Be patient with me and I will pay you back in full,” should not be seen as a sincere promise but rather as a ploy to play upon his master’s emotions. This first servant understands that his master is generous and compassionate, so he is betting that he can use his master’s goodness for his own advantage. When his master, indeed, forgives him his entire debt, this first servant does not feel thankfulness, only success. That’s why when he goes out and finds a servant who owes him money, there is no thought of generosity or mercy. The other servant is merely pawn in the game that the first servant is always playing for his own profit.
Now, when we see this first servant from this vantage point, he becomes an example to us of the people in our lives and in our world who are without moral compass, people who will do or say anything to get what they want, people whose lives are not about helping or serving but about winning, and all the people and circumstances they encounter are merely means to that end. When we see the first servant as a manipulator, the other servants become the heroes of the parable. They are the ones who recognize the first servant’s insincerity and manipulation, and they do something about it. They go and report the first servant’s cruelty to their master, and that servant’s game playing comes to an end.
When today’s parable is seen in this way, it becomes a reminder to us of our responsibility to work against what is wrong in our world. To be a follower of Jesus, we need to do more than say our prayers and be kind to others. We need to recognize the presence of insincerity and manipulation around us and do something to expose it. The message of today’s parable might be well summed up in a famous quote that is often attributed to the Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke. Burke says, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”
Jesus’ parable then calls us to recognize the presence of injustice, prejudice, and manipulation in the world around us and to work against it. Do you know someone in your family or among your friends who habitually finds humor in degrading people because of their race or religion? Do you know a bully at school who continually demeans others because of their sexual orientation or the way that they speak? If so, today’s parable tells us that it is not time to remain silent, but to ask: “What can we say or do to make it clear that such behavior is unacceptable and wrong?” Do you know somebody in the business community who wears a sincere face but actually uses other people for his or her own advancement? Are you aware of someone in public office or running for public office who is without moral compass, only interested in winning votes to be elected? If so, today’s parable tells us that it is not the time to do nothing but ask, “What can we say or do to expose such duplicity?”
The parable in today’s gospel warns us not to kid ourselves. There are players around us who are more than willing to use prejudice, fear, and ignorance to serve their own self-interests. That is why we, as followers of Jesus, must speak out and act on behalf of justice, mercy, and the common good.
September 13, 2020
We live in a contentious world. We live in a society where the differences between people are growing wider and louder. When we disagree with someone, it is becoming the common practice not only to state our opinion but to tear down or attack the person who disagrees with us. Civility and respect for one’s opponent are quickly set aside.
I wonder how many of us here live with anger on a daily basis, carrying it around with us as we go through our routines. How often does the anger within us burn in our gut, waiting to explode when someone crosses us? The anger can come from a variety of sources. We can be angry because someone we trusted and loved turned on us or slighted us. The anger tells us never to speak to that person again. We can be angry because of an economic situation, because we feel that things are stacked up against us and the know-it-alls at work do not respect us or value our contributions. The anger within us waits for the time when they will be put in their place. We can be angry because of the polarization of our political situation. “The Democrats are crazy.” “The Republicans are out of their minds.” We follow the media with knots in our stomach waiting for the next politician to say some senseless thing.
The anger is killing us, and yet we will not let it go. The author of the Book of Sirach understands this. In today’s first reading he says, “Wrath and anger are hateful things, but the sinner hugs them tight.” Even though it drains our energy, compromises our effectiveness, and makes us miserable, we continue to feed our anger to make it grow.
So what can be done to break this destructive pattern? We need a new perspective, and Sirach offers us one. He says, “Remember your last days, and set enmity aside.” What would happen to your anger if you were just told you have two weeks to live? Would you call up a person who hurt you or your boss at work and tell them how much you hate them? Would you run out to put a bigger political sign on your lawn? Maybe. But Sirach is betting that you would not. Sirach is betting that when we realize that we will all die, when we recognize our own mortality, anger can slip away. When we see how few days we have left and how valuable each of those days are, Sirach is betting that we will choose peace over rage, love over hate, and forgiveness over anger. Remembering our own mortality reminds us that we too are sinners, we too have hurt others, we too have been wrong on many occasions. When we remember our mortality, it gives us room to let go of anger, to let go of pride, and discover a way to be patient with others.
Now, God willing, for most of us death is not around the corner. But it is still valuable to remember our mortality. By doing so we can find the freedom to let go of anger and to live whatever days we have left in peace, forgiveness, and joy.