A Powerful Homily On Forgiveness

TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A 20

“We are only as free as our ability to forgive. “

That is not a quote from the bible. It is a quote from a holy priest friend of mine. Yet it holds a great truth FROM the Bible. Let us talk about that in considering today’s readings. Let us look first at some quotes about forgiving, next the gospel, and finally at a story of Christian forgiveness.

Here are some quotes. St. Augustine said: “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” A wise person said: Forgiveness is an act of courage not of weakness. The strong forgive; the weak do not.” And another person said: “Forgiveness is a gift and never deserved.”

We are only as free as our ability to forgive. The Greek word aphes meaning “to forgive” also means “to free” or “dismiss.” We free both ourselves and the other person when we forgive.

I found that out in my own life. I have a lifelong priest friend that did something dumb and unintentional, but which complicated an already troubled relationship I had with one of the societies in the parish where I was pastor. What he did got to the bishop and it was the bishop who called me to inform me. I was beside myself. I asked myself, “What more could go wrong.” I was trying to do right both by the parish society and my friend, but I was crushed. I do not remember ever feeling so low.

What complicated the situation was the fact that my offending friend in all the years of our relationship has never said he was sorry for anything. So, perplexed, I asked for advice from another priest friend. I asked him: “What if I call him about this and he will not say he is sorry?” My priest friend told me, “Let it go, Jim. Just let it go.” I thought about it after I hung up. Just thinking about that answer seemed to lift a great weight from my shoulders. So, I did indeed let it go. Let it go—freeing words!

“Forgiveness is a gift and never deserved.” Our own forgiveness of sin from God is not deserved. It is an offense—no matter how small–against an All-Good God who has never offended us. His crucifixion, death and resurrection and the grace that flowed from it was an entirely undeserved gift of forgiveness. He asks that we receive the gift of his forgiveness and give the same gift to others. We are forgiven by God because of who he is not because of who we are. We forgive others because of who we are not because of who they are.

“Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” We make ourselves miserable and angry and we sometimes hold the grudge for a lifetime; in other words, we poison ourselves.

We will not budge; we dig our heels in until the other person first says he is sorry. And we never think of ourselves as arrogant. St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that a hardened heart is “a heart which recalls nothing at all of the past except injuries suffered.”

Forgiveness is an act of courage not of weakness. Courage is the willingness to be wounded. It is the attribute of those who are secure within but not self-righteousness. If we wait for the other person to make the first move, then we are keeping score. WE are bargaining. That is not what Christ did.

Let us now look at the gospel: Peter thought that he was being very generous when he asked the Lord, “How often must I forgive? seven times?” The reason: Rabbinic teaching was that a man must forgive his brother only three times. It was somehow deduced that God’s forgiveness extended only to three offences. Since it was not to be thought that a man could be more gracious than God, forgiveness was limited to three times. Three strikes and your out.

Peter takes the Rabbinic “three times”, multiplies it by two for good measure, adds one, and suggests, that it will be enough if he forgives seven times. Peter expected to be warmly commended. Jesus, however, said that there is no reckonable limit to forgiveness. “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” An uncalculatable number! A God-like number.

St. Paul tells us, “God proves his love for us in that while we were stillsinners (note that) Christ died for us” Before we had a chance to say we were sorry for our sins, Christ from the cross found an excuse ahead of time to forgive us: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

We want to exact an act of sorrow out of someone who hurt us before we offer forgiveness. That is not how God works. We sinned against God, but he took the first step approaching us with forgiveness. He has authorized his priests to keep on offering forgiveness in the sacrament of penance. In our pride, however, we do not come to receive it. In our pride, in turn, we do not want to give it. We are recommitting the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden; out of pride we are hiding ourselves from God’s mercy and forgiveness. Our excuse “we hid because we were naked and ashamed. Despite this, the Lord made garments for them to cover over their nakedness and shame. In his own nakedness on the cross, he redeemed us from our shame.

“Continued hostility makes a mockery of God’s goodness to us.” The history of our salvation is filled with God’s forgiveness seventy times seven. After Adam sinned, God promised us a redeemer. After Cain killed Abel, after his presumptuous descendants, thinking they could be like gods, built a tower to the heavens, after Noah and the flood which rid the world of the corrupt, after God had delivered his Chosen People out of 400 years of slavery and they worshipped a golden calf, God forgave his people. The list just goes on and on. He just keeps forgiving. We, on the other hand, hold on for a lifetime to some hurts that are minuscule in comparison to the hurts we have inflicted on our all loving God.

In the New Testament we see Christ personally extend his forgiveness to the tax collector, the prostitute, and other sinners of his time. In fact, he said tax collectors and prostitutes were entering his kingdom before the arrogant Pharisees because they owned up to the fact that they had sinned. They were filled with joy and gratitude knowing that they could be forgiven. He, the Good Shepherd seeks the sinner out like he said in the parable of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son welcomed back by the prodigal love of the Father. Christ is the Hound of Heaven chasing after those who flee from him. And some of us run the other way.

The point of the gospel parable is that God has forgiven us much more than we will ever have to forgive others. Our forgiveness of others will never reach the height and depth and breadth of his forgiveness of us. So, let us remember that forgiveness is a matter first between us and God rather than between us and the one who has offended us.

One of the most powerful images of forgiveness that appeared on the front page of many newspapers was that of Pope John Paul II sitting in prison with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, and forgiving him. Another one was this:

In October of 2006, the 28-year-old son of Terri Roberts walked into an Amish school in Lancaster, Pa. and shot ten young girls killing five of them before he shot himself. Mr. and Mrs. Roberts wanted to move away thinking the Amish would not be able to stomach the sight of them. The Amish came that night to tell them they wanted them to stay. Some of the parents of the victims came to the funeral of her son. The father and mother who lost two daughters in the shooting were the first ones to come up and greet the parents of their daughter’s killer. On Mrs. Robert’s part, she spent countless Thursdays afterwards caring for one of the most wounded of the surviving students.

This horrific tragedy itself was the result of unforgiveness. The killer had never forgiven God for the loss of his first child, a girl, who died 20 minutes after childbirth. He decided to get revenge on God by senselessly killing some other little girls. Trauma not transformed is transmitted. (repeat) Forgiveness transforms trauma. Forgive others. Forgive yourself.

We are only as free as our ability to forgive. It is not enough just to be a good Catholic. We are all called to be saints. Let us forgive therefore as we have been forgiven and answer Christ’s call to holiness.

Fr. H. James Hutchins (Fr. Jim) – retired pastor but very active priest and chaplain to The Kings Men, The Samson men’s healing retreat and Emmaus retreats

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