Sep 9, 2011

24th Sunday - Super human forgiveness

The return of the Prodigal - Tissot

The Word for Sunday:

Sirach 27:30-28:7
Rm 14: 7-9
Mt 18: 21-35

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 hurt you and feel the power to wish them well. (C.S. Lewis – The Joyful Christian).

This quote from the writings of the famed Christian apologist C.S. Lewis is one of my favorites. It clearly defines the reality of evil but also supports the power of forgiveness as a source of true reconciliation between people. We all know that evil exists in the world – that is an undeniable fact. How we respond to the evil around us, what we do with the every day hurts that come our way, the weaknesses we all experience will make a difference in the quality of our forgiveness. But, forgive we must for to do otherwise is to live a life that is wraped up in self. A life that brings no peace and only continues to fester in our dark hearts turning over time to more than mere hurt feelings.

On this tenth anniversary of the great evil committed upon the citizens of New York City and this Nation, the readings this Sunday are particularly challenging. It’s clear that Sirach in the first reading supports the necessity of forgiveness, “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight . . . forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven . . .” In short, the choice is ours whether to extend reconciliation or not. Whether to, “. . . recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well” as C.S. Lewis reminds us.

The Gospel conversation Jesus has with Peter is a classic and well known quote: “. . . how often must I fogive? As many as seven times? Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times . . .” Then Our Lord goes on to tell a rather harsh parable about a king and his servants to illustrate the importance of retroactive justice and restitution.

In light of all this, C.S. Lewis’ statement about not excusing evil, calling it what it is but forgiving anyway by the extension of well wishes to your neighbor, may move us to question just how realistic is this concept of unlimited forgiveness. Jesus extends Peter’s generous inquiry about seven, “I forgive you’s,” to imply that we must be like God who always forgives those who seek it.

A number of years ago, I remember a conversation in which the other person posed the hypothetical question, “Could Hitler be in heaven?” Just the very thought of it sends chills down our spine, at least it does in mine, and we want to cry out, “NO!”

Could Sadam Hussein or Osama bin Ladan be there as well? What about those who perpetrated the great evil we remember this Sunday? What about the uncle or father or mother who abused their son, daughter or nephew? The child molester who knowingly robbed innocence of innocence? The seriel murderer? The doctor who knowingly kills a child through abortion or cooperates with a terminal patient seeking assisted suicide? The drug dealer or the pimp? Such blatant evil behavior cries out for justice not reward.

Maybe the key word is not “are they” but rather “could they be?” Such extreme examples may help us to understand that if we believe in a God who is all knowing, all loving, all truth, mercy, forgiveness and justice, then we must say they “could” be but whether they are or not is a matter only God knows. Chances are, they are not.

Forgiveness is extended to those who seek it. One grave sin does not turn me into a killer or liar. Many of such repeated sins would make me a murder or a liar. If our behavior is consistently oriented towards deliberate evil actions, then we become evil people who likely are so dark that the thought of reconcilation would be no where on our personal radar. As Psalm 95 states, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Personal accountability is essential as well to receive forgiveness.

However, to those who take responsibility for their actions, injustice can only be repaired by justice. The death penalty is a very controversial question these days. But the injustice of murder is not made just by another killing. The only way that injustice can be reparied would be to restore the murder victim to life – that is not possible.

True forgiveness, both Sirach and Jesus seem to imply, is offered to us if we are a forgiving people, “. . . remember your last days, set enmity aside . . .” It is extended to those who imitate divine forgiveness extended to those who freely choose, of their own will, to seek true reconciliation.

I’ll offer a bit more on this but for now, let’s prepare for this Sunday by reflecting upon where we are towards our neighbor and even ourselves. Is there some sin, some issue in your life that you feel is unforgiveable? Could God forgive you? What can I do to repair damage I have caused through my anger, harsh words, selfish action? Can we extend forgiveness to someone who is not asking for it? Should we? . . .