Aug 10, 2011

Forgiveness - Do I really have to?

Mt 18: 21 - 35

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
"Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive him?
As many as seven times?"
Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.'
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
'Pay back what you owe.'
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'
But he refused.
Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed,
and went to their master and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?'
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart."

The great Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, said much about forgiveness. One of my favorite quotes is taken from his work, The Joyful Christian. He says this: “When we forgive evil we do not excuse it, we do not tolerate it, we do not smother it. We look the evil full in the face, call it what it is, let its horror shock and stun and enrage us, and only then do we forgive it . . . You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who have hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.” (C.S. Lewis – The Joyful Christian).

To me, that quote says a great deal about how God forgives. The Gospel above for this Thursday, speaks about forgiveness. It seems Peter is calculating the numbers and calling for an exceptionally generous amount of forgiveness, “As many as seven times?” Peter is being generous but still placing limits on how often he may say, “I forgive you.” Sooner or later, we might feel enough is enough. If all I ever do is forgive, what sort of responsiblility will the other party ever admit to? Won’t I just become a door mat for other people’s excuses?

God forgives without measure it seems Jesus implies: “I say to you not seven times but seventy-seven times.” In other words forgive without keeping score. That’s quite a stretch for sure. God, as Lewis implies, does not excuse evil and call it something it isn’t. An act which inflicts harm on another, particularly on the innocent and defenseless, is indeed evil. And so we must call it what it is. It may “shock and enrage” us as Lewis states.

But, in the end to be imitators of Christ, we must reach out not in revenge or retribution but in a way that may be an inspiration to the one who hurt me. Imagine coming to someone you’ve hurt gravely, with true sorrow in your heart, and that person says, “Forget it!”

Imagine coming to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation with the right disposition and the priest not offering absolution for sin. I don’t have to become buddy-buddy with eveyone who does not wish me well. I may do well to avoid them altogether. I may consider any association with them to be an occasion of sin for me. But, I wish them no harm and will not inflict harm upon them. Lewis implies when I come to that point, I can say I have forgiven. When I can say “I wish you well” forgiveness has happened. Not always an easy step to reach.

While that may be fine in our every day association with people and family members, what about horrific crimes such as those inflicted on the Jewish people by Hitler or our own act of terrorism in New York ten years ago or the tragedy of child abuse? How can I possibly not wish harm to those perpetrators? Good question.

One help may be to consider what is called the “Just War" doctrine. The Catholic Catechsim # 2309, says this:

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

• the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

• all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

• there must be serious prospects of success;

• the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the "just war" doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

In the end, we are not called to be a people of black and white justice. Jesus, in what is his most challenging teaching, urges us to take the high road – the greater moral standard will go a long way towards bringing peace to all our relationships. The charity offered to an enemy may be all that is needed to bring about their conversion or at least to take power away from the evil inflicted.

It is an admirable way to live. It is a Christ-like way to forgive.