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The Challenge of Forgiveness

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cycle A

First Reading: Sir 27:30--28:9
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12
Second Reading: Rom 14:7-9
Gospel: Mt 18:21-35

Jesus spent his public life proclaiming God's truth as it applies to human activity and relationships - proclaiming this truth publicly and courageously, and in the face of constant threat and opposition.

No one dealt more effectively with forgiveness than Jesus. He was telling the divine story. He wanted to imprint on our minds and hearts the indelible image of God as the forgiver "par excellence". He wanted to remove the cloud of doubt and fear that hangs so tangibly over the relationship between God and us. And so He talked on so many occasions about the compassion of His Father, about how readily and completely He forgives us, over and over again. He taught us about forgiving seventy times seven times; about leaving one's gift at the altar to go and seek reconciliation first. He forgave others constantly, unconditionally - the adulteress, the divorcee at the well, the tax-collector, Peter, Judas, His executioners. He warned of us of the effects that anger can have in breaking the bonds of our shared humanity.

Anger is certainly the most common and the most destructive of human passions. It is our natural defense against people or things that threaten or attack us unjustly. But it is also a formidable weapon when it is used unreasonably to hurt, to punish, to frighten others.

It doesn't take much to remind us of the terrible destruction that flows from anger: wounded hearts, broken homes and families, ruined relationships and shattered lives. Anger so often leads to hatred and suspicion. It blinds our judgment. It festers; it makes us petty and spiteful; it destroys our peace of mind. Ultimately, it makes us morose and resentful, mistrusting and insecure. Anger is the raw material of cruel prejudice, of civil and national strife, of religious fanaticism and of terrorism and war.

There is no more important lesson for us to learn as followers of Jesus: that of giving and accepting forgiveness - lovingly, totally, unconditionally. If we haven't learned that, we really haven't begun to learn the meaning of being Christian.

Letting go of anger, forgiving and being reconciled is the hallmark of the Christian. Jesus made a point of this over and over again in his discourses and parables. In response to Peter's question: "Lord, how often must I forgive, seven times?" Jesus answered: "No, seventy-times seven times!" Today's parable indicates clearly that our unlimited forgiveness towards others must be motivated by God's unlimited mercy toward us. That's why He instructed us to pray: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

This is a tough phrase to digest when every instinct in our nature cries out for vengeance at the sight of hatred and injustice.

Yet this is precisely the time that we must turn to the Lord and admit our own weakness and vulnerability; it is now when we must cry out to Him to give us the strength to die to ourselves and to be heroic enough to forgive - fully and forever.

We may well respond by saying that we can forgive, but we cannot forget. The hurt lingers; the wound heals so slowly, if at all. I think Jesus knows how we think and feel. He is patient. In our struggle to let go and forgive, He will nurture His loving spirit within us. And whenever our anger rises up again, He will gently remind us that God has forgiven us our faults, and our pride, and our selfishness - again and again and again. He never grows weary; neither must we.

Understanding this enables us to grow in our faith and in our relationships with one another. It requires change. We move from one stage of our journey to another only by letting go of the past and letting go of our prejudices. This is indeed risky business. Many Catholics grew up believing that if they just followed the established norms and the status quo all would be well. Jesus goes much deeper than that. He challenges us to go out of our way to forgive: no matter how large the debt, no matter how often the transgression, no matter how terribly we have been hurt. We must dig deeply into our souls and forgive… no matter what.

There can be no compromise when it comes to the message of Christ. If we buy into it only half-heartedly, we will ultimately lose it. If we pick and choose who we will forgive - and how often - we end up betraying the entire message of the Gospel. If we are faithful only when it is easy to be, we run the risk of denying Him under pressure. With Jesus, it's all or nothing - His invitation to follow Him is one that requires both courage and generosity.  It requires the ability to accept forgiveness, and to give absolution.

It is precisely the challenge of forgiveness that keeps us fresh, alert, open, joy-filled and hope-full. It is this that allows us to see clearly, and to understand that a faith which does nothing, that gives nothing, that costs nothing, that suffers nothing, that forgives nothing, is worth nothing.



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