September 13, 2020: Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Pastor’s Corner
Forgiveness is hard. From experience, we know that when we are hurt, taken advantage of or neglected, we find it difficult to respond with love and mercy. Yet embracing the difficult can be liberating. In today’s Gospel, Jesus challenges us with the necessity to forgive, even as he reveals its transformative power. There are three keys to unlocking the door of forgiveness in our lives. The first key to forgiveness is to recognize what it is not. Forgiveness is not about F.E.A.R.: Feelings, Excuses, Apology or Resolution. Forgiveness is not about Feelings. Often, strong feelings can inhibit our desire to forgive. We think, “I do not really like this person, I don’t see how I could forgive them.” Consider that Christ himself does not say that we have to like everyone, but we are called to love even enemies. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the crucifixion. Presumably Christ did not have warm, fuzzy feelings for those who were responsible for his death. Yet his first words on the cross are “Father forgive them.” When it comes to forgiveness, feelings are beside the point. Forgiveness goes deeper than emotion to the heart of the hurt. Excuses are a false forgiveness. When we’ve been deeply wounded, it does not help simply to minimize the reality of the hurt. Simply, saying “it’s not a big deal” or “I’m an adult and can be the bigger person” does not acknowledge the truth of the situation. When we excuse or deny the wound in our soul, we risk the seeds of bitterness taking root and festering over time. Forgiveness does not begin with an Apology. “There is no way I can forgive someone who does not admit their wrong and say that they are sorry.” Often, the process of forgiveness never begins because we assume that the offending person must first try to make amends. Yet, waiting for such an apology places the care of our soul into the other persons hands. If they never realize or are never able to offer such apology, we are stuck brooding for an apology that will likely never be offered. Forgiveness is not the same as Resolution. Although there are times when apologies are offered, forgiveness is given and the relationship is renewed and even strengthened in this process, we cannot assume that this will always be the case. Some relationships cannot be reestablished. It takes two to form friendship and sometimes separation or distance is the best option. False forgiveness comes in many forms and the first key is to recognize these FEARs in order to go deeper.
The second key to forgiveness recognizes that to forgive is a choice. The reading from Sirach says: “Can anyone nurture bitterness against someone and expect healing from the Lord?” The first person harmed when we harbor resentment is ourselves. Failing to forgive is like taking a sip of poison and expecting it to harm the other person. Choosing to let go of bitterness in our heart begins this healing. Even if we recognize that letting go of bitterness is difficult, the desire to want to let go and forgive is a start. One of my litmus tests for forgiveness is: Can I pray for those who have injured me in the same way I pray for myself? When I can ask God to bless the offender with the same blessing, strength and grace I pray for myself, then I know I am on the right path of healing.
The third key is that forgiveness is a process. We cannot expect that simply choosing to let go in a moment has the power to heal all wounds. When Peter asks Jesus, “How often do we need to forgive? As many as 7 times?”, Peter assumes that forgiveness is simply a moment. (In Biblical numerology, 7 is the number of completion or perfection, e.g., the days of creation.) Jesus’ response of “77 times” reveals that forgiveness must be even more complete or perfect than we suppose. Forgiveness is not a “one and done” event, but a choice made over and over, however long it takes. If we were to suffer a broken bone, simply setting the bone is not an immediate cure. It takes time for bone to heal, muscles to be strengthened and full range of motion to be realized. Forgiveness is surgery for our heart. It takes time, perseverance, and patience for us to let go of bitterness and rancor.
After preaching about these three keys, someone told me, “Fr. Michael, you made it sound so easy. But’s it’s not. Even though I know I should let go and forgive, I can’t seem to manage it.” My response: “Amen! That’s why they say to ‘err is human but to forgive is divine’.” We can employ all the strategies and keys to forgiveness we want, but if the divine Spirit of forgiveness is not present in our life, we won’t be able to forgive. After the Resurrection, when Jesus encounters his apostles, they need his forgiveness. Jesus says: “Peace be with you” and breaths the Holy Spirit into their lives. This Spirit of Peace brings forgiveness, strength and healing. As we consider those who have harmed us, let us pray for this same Spirit to be active in our lives. “Come Holy Spirit, let bitterness and rancor not take root in my heart. Let me not find refuge in feelings, excuses, apologies or resolution. Help me to choose to let go and let peace grow.”
~ Fr Michael