24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) – September 13, 2020
St. Mary – Derby, KS
Sirach 27:30-28:7; Psalm 103:1-4, 9-12; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”Ephesians 4:32
(1) Forgiveness ≠ Reconciliation
Last week, the Gospel focused our attention on the theme of reconciliation. “If your brother sins against you,” what are you supposed to do? How do you go about repairing the relationship? Something has been broken by the person’s sin, so how do you restore peace and unity, how do you go about the ministry of reconciliation?
But it begs the question: “Alright, that’s great, Jesus, we’re all about reconciliation. But for reconciliation to happen, there needs to be forgiveness. So…how many times do I have to forgive? How many times do I have to forgive before I can finally say, ‘Alright, that’s it. We’re done!’?” And Jesus says, “Infinity.”
Our temptation is to start qualifying this statement. “Well, what Jesus means is to forgive unless they’re being obstinate,” or, “Forgive people for most things, but at a certain point you can’t forgive,” or, “Forgive people when they apologize.” Or we think, “Well, even Jesus said there is an unforgivable sin.” We start to qualify Jesus’ statement. We try to get out of this very clear, very simple, very straightforward teaching: forgive always.
(2) Resentment: When you don’t forgive
Let’s start with the opposite end of the spectrum real quick. What happens when we don’t forgive? Why do we do that? Why don’t we forgive? Well, for starters, they hurt us, they have done something that has caused us harm. Maybe they used us, made us feel like nothing more than a pawn in their own game. Maybe they lied to us, broke our trust, and the whole framework we had going is destroyed and we don’t even know what to believe anymore. Maybe it’s one of a hundred different things. The point being that we can usually come up with many good reasons and explanations for why and how we have been hurt, and how we don’t feel like the relationship can be repaired. And to top it off, we feel that if we forgive we are only encouraging their behavior, validating it, allowing them a free pass on all the harm they caused us, letting them get away with it.
So first of all, again, remember: forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing! Just because you forgive someone doesn’t mean that everything is back to normal, or that you trust them again, or that what they did doesn’t hurt anymore, or any of that! No. Remember: forgiveness is not reconciliation. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that everything is back to normal.
So what happens when we don’t forgive? Resentment. When we hold on to anger, when we recycle anger, when we replay the stories of someone’s sin over and over again—when we don’t forgive someone, we start to resent them. And don’t hear what I’m not saying! I am one-hundred percent aware that you can have every reason to resent someone. That is not what I’m saying. People can do horrible things that can make you resent them.
What I’m saying is that just like forgiveness is up to you, it’s the same with resentment. Resentment is a poison you drink yourself. When we resent someone, what we’re doing is recycling the hurt and the anger and the pain—and then you start-in on their entire character and person. Your husband forgot to put the seat down…again, “and he always does that, because he’s lazy, and he’s lazy about everything and he couldn’t accomplish anything if he tried, and really he’s just too stupid to realize that he’s so lazy, and he probably just gets it from his family, his mom is just like that, and to be honest with you I don’t even know why I married him!!” That’s resentment.
But in a moment of clarity—and again, I know that in the moment and in the aftermath, this is not easy—but in a moment of clarity, after we have let that resentment build up, what we can stumble upon is a painful truth. Holding onto and recycling the anger and the hurt caused by another, we discover that most of hurt we feel is now self-inflicted, the pain we feel is of our own making, and the path to healing we ourselves covered over. While we have spent days, weeks, months and even years hurting from what they did, we can discover that we were the ones causing the hurt to ourselves, because we would not forgive. It’s like the parable: someone owes you thousands of dollars, and you live your life expecting it back but never getting it—that hurts. But if you forgive the debt, stop expecting to get that money ever, everything changes.
Again. Do not hear what I’m not saying. I am not trying to blame the victim. I’m not saying that sin shouldn’t hurt you or doesn’t really hurt you and actually its just you hurting yourself, no. Again, the parable: you just got cheated out of thousands of dollars, that hurts.
But there is a lot of self-inflicted pain from our refusal to forgive. And after a while, the path to forgiveness and the path to reconciliation become more and more difficult not because of the sin but because we drank the poison of resentment.
Jesus says, “Unless you forgive from the heart.” Remember: forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. Jesus doesn’t say, “Unless you forgive from your feelings,” or, “Unless you forgive and forget,” no. “Forgive and forget?” I think that is one of the most dangerous lines we can tell someone else or tell ourselves. We tell the person, “I forgive you and I forget what you did, I don’t hold it against you.” And that’s nice, but it’s not true! We all know that. We are lying to them, and worse, we’re lying to ourselves. Because we don’t just forget. There have been incredible scientific studies that show that physiologically we don’t forget the sin or the hurt they caused; our bodies do not forget. That’s why you feel sick around someone that has really hurt you, you can’t stand to be around them. It’s not because you haven’t forgiven them, but it’s because “it is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense” (Catechism 2843).
(3) “Forgive us…as we forgive…”
There is that powerful line in the Our Father that we usually gloss over and forget exists: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Have you ever stopped to listen to what you’re praying? “Our Father…forgive us…as we forgive.” In other words, “God, as I forgive others, forgive me in the same way.” That’s serious stuff. Every time we pray the Our Father, we’re asking, begging God to forgive us in the same way that we forgive others. Our first reading says the same thing: “Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD? Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins? If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?” (Sirach 28:3-5). The Gospel says the same thing: when the servant neglects to forgive the very small debt, he is tortured for his unwillingness to forgive. Who is hurt by resentment and an unwillingness to forgive? You. That torture is self-inflicted, that poison is a poison you drink yourself.
In the news, you see the same thing. The past several months have been inundated with it. There is a lot of talk about sins, but not very much about virtue. And forgiveness seems to be highly underrated. And what has happened? Resentment, anger, division—and there seems to be no path back to peace and justice and unity. Reconciliation seems like it would take a miracle.
Reconciliation is possible. Of course it is. But not without forgiveness.
Where do we begin? How do we even start? It begins with Christ, with first acknowledging that he has forgiven us. That in our pettiness and weakness and malevolence, he has still forgiven us. And so it begins with allowing this power of Christ to flow through us. To speak a message of forgiveness instead of a message of “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad.” Everyone has sinned, everyone has some blame. But reconciliation can only happen when you first forgive.
There has been a little too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues. And forgiveness has been highly underrated.
“I know now that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbor’s defects—not in being surprised at their weakness, but edified at their smallest virtue.”St. Thérèse of Lisieux