Struggling to Forgive
September 15, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Sirach 27:30-28:7) Reading II (Romans 14:7-9)
Gospel (St. Matthew 18:21-35)
In the first reading today from the Book of Sirach, we are told that we must forgive the injustices of our neighbors before we come to pray. And when we forgive, our prayers will be heard, Sirach says. The Lord goes even further than that. He tells us in the Gospel reading that we have to forgive from the heart, just as the king did who was settling accounts with his officials. When the one servant begged him for mercy, he wrote off the entire debt. And when a fellow servant begged mercy from the same servant who had been forgiven, he refused; he required that his fellow servant pay back the full debt that he owed and had him thrown in prison until it was done. When the master heard about this, he called back the same servant and then threw him in prison because of his lack of charity, his lack of forgiveness toward his fellow servant. Then the Lord at the end says, "Unless you forgive your brother from your heart, your Father in Heaven will treat you in exactly the same way."
Now, again, these are not the kinds of words we want to hear. The forgiveness of sin is something that is very difficult for many people to be able to accept. It is a struggle for people. Even though they have been to Confession and they know they have received absolution for their sins, they still walk away thinking that their sins are there. And so it is a struggle for us just to be able to accept the mercy of God, then it is a second struggle for us to act with the kind of mercy that has been shown to us. But that is precisely what is required of each one of us.
We read in the first reading about Sirach asking the question: "How can somebody come to the Lord and ask forgiveness, and then refuse to forgive in turn?" But just as difficult as it is for many people to accept God's forgiveness, it seems equally difficult, if not even more so, for these same people (or for others) to forgive. It is a very common thing when people come in, whether to Confession or to talk with a priest, and they are just seething with anger. Oftentimes, it is about something that may have happened a year or five or ten or even twenty or thirty years earlier. Their anger is eating them up on the inside. And when the counsel is given, "You need to forgive this person," the answer shoots back out of the mouth almost sooner than the advice is given, "I can't do that." "You have to forgive." And they come back with all kinds of excuses. "No, Father, if this had been done to you, you would not be able to forgive. You donít understand. What this person did to me was so bad!" (Or whatever it may be - all the rationalizations that we have for not forgiving.)
Then we need to go back to the Gospel and ask ourselves, "Did the Lord tell us it was okay to not forgive under any circumstance?" The answer is "no". The Lord told us that we must forgive. And it is not just a little brushing aside of the thing; He said in the Gospel, "You must forgive from your heart." Now if you just think about this for a moment, since we are pretty proficient at being angry and holding grudges, we need to ask ourselves, "What good does it do?" Just think about an individual in your life toward whom you have held a grudge, toward whom you have been angry. Maybe there is somebody you are holding a grudge with even now. What is that doing to that person? You are so angry at this person that you are carrying around all of this darkness and all of this anger and the heaviness and the burden that goes along with it. What is that doing to that other person? Under normal circumstances, not a thing. What is it doing to you? It is eating you up on the inside. Some people get so angry and carry around so much that they start getting ulcers and heart problems. That's really worth not forgiving, isn't it? What good does it do? If somebody has done an injustice to you, what good does it do to hold onto it? None. Absolutely no good at all. So if you are hanging onto the anger to try to get even or to hurt the other person, it is not hurting them. You are the only one being hurt by the anger if you are holding onto it.
When we talk about forgiveness, we need to be very clear because I have found that this is a problem where a lot of people get stuck. They think that to forgive means to say it was okay for the person to do whatever it is they did. That is not what forgiveness means. God will never say that it was okay for you to sin - never. Yet at the same time, if you come before the Lord and beg forgiveness from Him, in His mercy He is going to forgive. That does not mean it was okay for you to go out and do what you did. So for us, when we are faced with the challenge of having to forgive somebody, it is not suggesting in any way that it was okay for the person to treat you in an unjust manner or for the person to do whatever it is that individual did wrongly; but what it is saying is simply, "I am not going to drag around all of this anger and all of this hatred and all of this heaviness and all of this darkness. I'm not going to drag it around anymore. It's crushing me and I need to let it go." That is all it is saying.
But it also, however, implies that the way we treat the other person must be with charity. If we are going to forgive them from the heart, it is not just a matter of self-therapy. "Since this is eating me up, I should get rid of it so that it's not causing me trouble anymore. Yet, if I see this person I'm going to let them have it!" That is not forgiveness. We need to have our hearts turned with charity. Remember, even in the worst case scenario, Our Lord told us we are to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. So it is not an option for us to see if we can let go of some of the psychological pain while continuing to hold a grudge and just wait for an opportunity to get even if it should pop up somewhere along the line. We won't actively seek it out, but if it comes our way we're going to seize the day. We cannot do that. To forgive means we need to let it go. It does not mean it was okay, but it means we need to let it go.
In the second reading, Saint Paul told us that Jesus is the Lord of the living, as well as the dead. He is the Lord of the living, and He is the One who has given us the command that we have to forgive. If we are holding the grudges, if we are holding the anger, if we are nursing the wounds within, we are choosing death. The Lord is the Lord even of the dead - but we are like the living-dead if we are holding onto these things. If we want the life that the Lord is offering to us, that requires that we have to get rid of all of the works of death: the anger, the hatred, the revenge, the grudge, and all of these things. Those are works of death. They pull us down; they move us the wrong direction. They get us confused; we are not going to be able to think straight if we are holding onto all of these things. And they do absolutely no good at all for you or for the other person - or, for that matter, all the people around you who have to hear the same story rehearsed dozens and dozens of times about how horrible this person is and what they did. What good is it? Choose life. Choose the Lord of the living, the Lord who, from the Cross, prayed for the people who did this to Him. He prayed, "Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do."
We, of course, are very quick to respond, "Well, that person knew exactly what he was doing! So that is unlike the people who crucified the Lord because [that person] knew!" But in comparison to what we did to Jesus, what has that person done to us? A mere fraction of what we ourselves have owed to God. The Lord, in His mercy, has forgiven us when we have asked Him, and He requires - not suggests - that when we have been forgiven that we will treat our fellow servants the way the Master has treated us, which is to forgive them the way we expect God to forgive us. Remember that on the Day of Judgment, the things we have confessed and have been forgiven are gone; on the Day of Judgment, we will not hear about them. When God forgives, they are gone! It's over; it's done. And that is exactly what He requires of us, that we forgive from our heart, that it is done - it's finished, it's over, put it behind you. The Lord told us that anyone who puts his hand to the plow but keeps looking back is not worthy of the kingdom of Heaven. Why do we want to be stuck in the past in some hurt that happened back there when we have a whole world open to us if we would look forward? Why look at the injustice that another human person has done to us when we can look at the mercy of God? Why be filled with anger and hatred and revenge when we can be filled with charity and joy and peace if we look at God? Why look at the creature when we can look at the Creator?
There is no excuse - absolutely no excuse - that we have to refuse forgiveness. We need to practice that charity. This is part and parcel of what it is to be a Christian. It is what Our Lord has done for us, and it is what He requires that we would do for others in turn, to treat others as He has treated us - not as they have treated us. We take our cue from Jesus Christ. He is the One whom we profess to follow, and if He has demonstrated His love and His mercy to us, He in turn asks that we would do the same for others. That is the challenge He places before us today. So I will challenge you as well to look into your hearts and ask the simple question, "With whom am I angry? Toward whom am I holding a grudge?" and then pray for that person. Look at Jesus right here in the tabernacle, look at the crucifix and say, "Jesus, I forgive so-and-so (whatever the person's name is)." If the hurt is so deep that you have difficulty doing that then at least look at Jesus and say, "Lord, I beg of You the grace to be able to forgive so-and-so, to let go of this thing and put it behind me."
Now, I should also warn you that when we are dealing with issues of forgiveness, the deeper the hurt goes, the more difficult it is to forgive. And it is something you may have to do on a number of occasions. In other words, today you may be able to forgive that person to the fullness of your ability, but as you grow in the spiritual life you may find that the roots of the anger go a little deeper than where you are at today. You may find yourself thinking, "But I already forgave that person; where is this anger coming from?" Then you need to forgive at a deeper level. You may go a little deeper and find that there is still more there, and you have to forgive at that level. But forgive to the best of your ability. Forgive from the heart and let it go. That is what Our Lord is asking. Out of charity for these individuals, look at Jesus, look at what He has done for you, and pray for them, forgive them, and do for them what Jesus Christ has done for you.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.