A few weeks ago one of my friends asked me, Is it not difficult to forgive? When I forgive someone they instead of seeing my virtue think I am weak and they even take it as an advantage and keep hurting me” I perfectly agree with my friend. Several times we try to be nobler and nicer to people trying to follow the teachings of Christ, but all that we get in return is hurt and insults. How to understand Jesus’ words?
Is there a limit for forgiveness? This question itself is wrong. Forgiveness and limitedness are contradictory terms. True forgiveness is unlimited. Jesus tells Peter, that one should be ready to forgive any number of times. Jesus lived a life of forgiveness. He was hurt by several people. His own people rejected him, his country men were against him, his own disciples abandoned and betrayed him, the ones who received several favours from him, condemned him, The Pharisees and Saducees wrongly accused him, the soldiers spat, slapped, flogged and crucified him. If Jesus had to keep a list of those who hurt him, it would have been the longest list of all the human beings. But he forgave everyone whole heartedly. In his weakness He manifested the great strength of God. Therefore we should not begin asking this wrong forgiveness.
But can we go on getting hurt? Forgiveness is not merely allowing someone to hurt us. If a person deliberately hurts us, we should tell the person concerned to stop hurting us. We have the right to get the protection from getting hurt. A wife who gets beaten up by her husband everyday for no reason, should tell the husband to stop hurting her. Jesus himself questioned the one who slapped him for no reason. He asked him for the reason. By questioning the offenders, or by taking measures to protect us, we are not going against the spirit of forgiveness. We condemn the act, not the person.
Jesus gives us the beautiful parable which explains everything. The king cancels the debt of his servant who owed him 10, 000 talents. Do you have any idea of how much a talent costs? A talent was a very high measure of money, worth between six thousand and ten thousand denarii, when one denarius was a day’s pay, so ten thousand talents is an astronomical sum (like a billion dollar for us), a debt so large that the servant could never repay it. It is said that the money the fellow servant owed can be put in one’s pocket, while the money this unforgiving servant owed to the king can be filled in a train which is 5 miles long. The simple lesson is, if God is willing to forgive us generously and unconditionally, why are we so unwilling to forgive the offences our friends commit against us?
If we look at our situation as it is, without pretending, we will find the following two universal truths.
One: We have all been hurt, often by those who are nearest and dearest to us. We have suffered injustice, partiality, calumny, misunderstanding, perhaps physical abuse, neglect, cruelty. Every one of us has had, to some degree, such painful experiences in our homes, schools, churches, places of work. There is no human journey without pain. We all have things to forgive.
Two: We ourselves have caused others pain. Most of the sufferings we have undergone, have also been passed on by us to others. Which of us is totally free of indifference, rash judgments, partiality, harsh words or gestures, thoughtless behaviour, and perhaps, of more serious harm done to others? Each of us, then, is a person who needs forgiveness.
No wonder we were told in the first reading: “He who exacts vengeance, will experience the vengeance of the Lord. Forgive your neighbour the hurt he does you, and when you pray, your sins will be forgiven. If a man nurses anger against his brother, can he then demand compassion from the Lord?”
Can any of us honestly refute this argument: “Showing no pity for a man like himself, can he then plead for his sin?” Based as it is on these two universal truths, Jesus' demand allows no exceptions: Forgive!
This command, however, needs explanation, for this central teaching of Jesus is often misunderstood. Well many persons will tell priests in confessional, “But, father, I cannot forgive and forget!”
Forgiving does not mean forgetting. If a neighbour cheated my family in a business deal, forgiving the person does not mean pretending that such an event did not take place.
Forgiving does not mean having nice, warm, pleasant feelings towards all. Virtue or sin is not found in our feelings, but in our decisions. Just as we feel spontaneous attraction to those who are kind, friendly, generous or charming, we spontaneously dislike those who cheat or are unfriendly. Christian love does not imply having the same feelings towards everyone. Such universality of feeling would be an impossible human ideal.
Forgiving does not mean pretending that everyone is nice and friendly and reliable. We know this is not the case. There are people who cheat, exploit, murder, corrupt children, sell drugs, exploit the poor. The world is not made up of only angels and saints.
What, then, does forgiving mean?
Forgiving is a decision, not a feeling, and involves two choices:
(1) The choice to do good to the person who hurt me; (2) The choice not to pay back evil for evil.
The choice to do good is illustrated by the example of a Belgian family whose fourteen year old son was crushed by a German tank during the Nazi occupation of Belgium in the Second World War. After the War, the parish priest of the village made this announcement one Sunday: “There are many orphans in Germany. Those of you who are willing to keep some German children for a few months or years (till Germany can rebuild its homes and factories), please meet me in the sacristy after Mass.” The parents of the murdered fourteen year old were among those who volunteered. They had a farm, kept two German boys with them, treating them like their own son.
Most of us do not have to over-come such intense pain, and reach out in such a heroic way. But we do have minor (or major) hurts to overcome.
Secondly, forgiving means not paying back evil for evil (“She spoke ill of me; I'll show her!” “He cheated me; wait till I get a chance!”). Such vengeful attitudes poison our own life and the world we live in.
Viktor Frankl, who suffered extreme atrocities in World War II (family destroyed, property lost, starvation and cold in the concentration camp) came out of it with a remarkable lack of bitterness. He had seen the best and the worst of human nature in the camp. He wrote, “Man is the being that built the gas chambers; he is also the being who went to his death with the “Hear, O Israel” or the Lord's prayer on his lips.”
A Catholic nun from Chennai went to a Hindu ashram to practice yoga and meditation. On seeing her, the guru asked her to recite the Our Father. When she finished, he said, “Sister, you have just said, 'Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. If you can sincerely say that, that is all you need to learn. There is nothing in meditation beyond this.”
Let us spend a few minutes in silence, try to recall the persons who have hurt us. Let us whole heartedly forgive them and lets us also ask pardon for the times we have hurt others. God will surely help us in this effort of us. This could help us to recite the Our Father in a meaningful manner. Amen.
Sunday Homilies Collection – Cycle A