Fr. Richard's Sunday Homily, August 5, 2018
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Let Us Forgive One Another in His Name
Epistle: 1st Corinthians 9:2-12
Gospel: Matthew 18:23-35
I would like to ask you to think on a really big scale for a minute here. What do you imagine it would be like if every person in the world, right now, today, forgave everyone who had ever sinned against them? How would this world change, and our lives in this world, if every man, woman and child pardoned every single person who had ever harmed or offended them? Starting at home, and forgiving not just those who are alive, but even those who have died, and then moving out from the family and relatives, this great wave of forgiveness spreading out from each person to their neighbors, community, people they may never even have met but who may have angered or offended them. Could you even imagine a single day where there would be nothing in the hearts of any person except the peace of pardoning others? And then what would happen the next day?
The Gospels are full of the idea of pardon, and even in the Lord's Prayer we ask our heavenly Father to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. This is a powerful act. But I think people often forget or fail to see that forgiving others is not something that is good only for the people we forgive. It's also best for us. Forgiveness is in our own best interest. It frees us from a negative bond with another person, a tie that only brings bad thoughts and ideas with it and often leads to bad actions as well. If we do not pardon other people, then we are indeed tied to them by their offense against us. The tie may be weak and thin, as when somebody cuts you off in traffic. You may be over it quickly, even if you don't forgive them specifically, and you may never remember that offense or that person again. But the ties between us and people who have hurt us can be very strong and very deep, and those who can harm us most intensely are usually those who are closest to us. Forgiveness is the power to drop those hurtful chains that weigh us down and that keep us from a greater life of peace and love and happiness.
Sometimes people want to hold on to the sin that has been committed against them, especially if it was a serious offense. They can go over it, and over it in their own thoughts, re-living that offense again and again and again in their heads, and in their emotions. We kind of tend to see that as rather natural behavior. "How can I help it? Of course, I keep thinking about it. It makes me so angry, I am so very hurt. Look at what she did, look at what he said." Imagine that you cut your finger deeply and you bandage it up to stop the bleeding. Would you take that bandage off every half hour and start poking it to see if it will still bleed again? Don't we sometimes do the same thing when others offend us, and replay the wounding in our heads over and over again? Even if the other person meant to deliberately hurt us we, in fact, continue the damage by allowing ourselves to continue in anger, or hurt, or pain, or thoughts of revenge or punishment or even hatred. The other person said or did something to us once at a particular moment of time, but we, ourselves, can stretch that moment of time out and relive it over and over again.
I've often wondered why we do this. Sometimes it seems that we may kind of, sort of, maybe think that we are somehow hurting, or punishing the offender by our anger and hostile thoughts about them, even if we never say or do anything to them. It's as if the sheer act of angry thoughts against them in my own head is somehow a kind of punishment for what they have done to me. “I’ll show you! Look at how mad I am! Okay, maybe you can’t see me, but I’m still really mad.” It's not logical. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t do it.
Yet perhaps the biggest reason to not forgive others is that we believe it helps us to defend ourselves, protect ourselves. We hang on, we don't forgive lest we forget, we are prepared to defend; we're on our guard against anyone or anything that might want to harm us. Forgiveness is a weakness in our defense that we won't allow. We stand strong and unwilling to pardon the guilty, and we are prepared. But of course, who is the stronger person; the one who can forgive or the one who will not? I think we all know the answer.
Now, here is the biggest problem that people have with the act of forgiveness. They think it involves emotions. They believe you cannot forgive another person unless you feel like forgiving them. They think that if you are still angry, hurt, upset or feel betrayed by the other person you cannot forgive them. They say that if they are still bothered, angered, disturbed or hurt by the thoughts of what the offender did to them, then they haven't forgiven them, even if they thought they had pardoned them. There are people who say they have been so deeply wounded they can never forgive the person. It is not within their power to do so.
I have learned this is a very hard idea to sell, but dear friends, our forgiveness for other people has nothing to do with our emotions or feelings about them. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and I am always free to choose to forgive. It is an act of the will, an act of my intention. I choose to forgive you. And it's done. Now if I choose, freely, to forgive you there are consequences for me. I cannot then seek revenge or try to repay you for the harm you have done to me. I may not return damage for damage. I have chosen to forgive you, as my Father in heaven forgives me my offenses. Jesus tells us to today to forgive from our hearts, but He doesn’t mean by our emotions, but rather the heart as the center of our persons.
Now, does that mean that my emotions are healed, that my wounds have vanished, that my pains are gone? Does that mean, now that I've forgiven you, that I want to be your best friend, that I'll never have a bad thought about you, that I can completely act as though it never even happened and it will never bother me again?
No, no, no. Of course not. Our emotions about hurtful actions and the people who are behind them are another matter. Those are not always easily repaired, and we may have to struggle with them for a long time if we've been deeply hurt. But please know and understand that our free will choice to forgive another person is a rational act, and it has nothing to do with our emotions or our feelings about what has been done to us, or the person who did it.
But it is only when I choose to forgive that I can really start to make progress on the damage I have suffered, and it is a certain thing that the Lord will help us to ease those pains and perhaps even cure them. He Who freely chose to accept death on a cross knows what it means to bear the weight of the sins of other people, and yet completely forgive all who ask Him even though we do not deserve it. As He forgives us, let us forgive one another in His name and live in greater freedom.