Sarah and James (not their real names) got married in their late twenties about ten years ago. This is a true story. They had a grand wedding and many remarked, “Wow! What a wonderful and perfect couple.” The bride is so beautiful, the groom is so handsome, both are well off and financially secure, and they look so happy.”
After six years of their marriage, they had their first child; just before the child was born, James had an accident and was seriously wounded and mentally affected in some ways. The family of James gave them the support they needed in every way, especially in the caring of their baby daughter. Two years later, Sarah packed up her belongings, took the money and car and left the home. She said is sick of everything and wanted to file for divorce. James tried to persuade her to stay, but she refused to budge.
James, on the other hand, till today says, “If Sarah is to return home, I will accept her.” In fact, James never talks bad about his wife to his daughter. And when James’ friend asks him how he is, he would simply answer, “Sarah left me because she is ashamed of me, but I am okay, God will take care of me.”
I am sure you have heard of similar stories and some even more tragic and sad - where couples file for divorce within one year of their marriage. We too have read of children taking up law suits against their parents, and some scheming to destroy other people’s reputation and the like. And perhaps, some of us here too are experiencing some very painful relationships of different degrees of seriousness.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, today’s Gospel challenges us to be responsible in our relationships whether they are relationships in our marriage, or within a family, or amongst relatives or friends or indeed to all peoples. Let us be clear of one thing: “Perfect and painless” relationships do not exist. However, in all our relationships, Our Lord in today’s Gospel, wants us, at all costs, to win over those who have wronged us.
This is precisely what James has been trying to do. He tries to win Sarah’s love back without condemning her. James could understand why Sarah was ashamed of him. So, he remained patient and ever forgiving towards her. James truly lives the Gospel values of Jesus teaching us, “to forgive seventy seven times; which is all the time.” Within James’ pain, he harbours no anger and no hatred against his estranged wife; he continues to live in the hope that one day, just one day, she might return; like the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
While many of us may marvel at how James is able to forgive his wife so unconditionally, many of us would also have to admit that such unconditional love and forgiveness is never easy. If we feel this way, then we are human; only robots do not have feelings. James and even Jesus would not deny that we are each vulnerable to being hurt by others. The more we love someone, the more we vulnerable we are to being hurt by the person.
There is nothing wrong about feeling hurt; God created us with a heart of flesh that feels pain and not a heart of stone that is cold and lifeless. James must have gone through sleepless and heart wrenching nights and days of coming to terms with learning to forgive Sarah for walking out on him and his little daughter. But, in the end, he found the strength to forgive. James knows very well that if he were to blame his wife, or others or God for his accident and his present condition, it would only make the already broken relationship with his wife worse.
James knows very well that he has to be the one who has to take the first and never ending painful steps towards reconciliation with his wife. It is only with such, Christ-like attitudes of unconditional love and willing forgiveness that the glimmer of hope is kept alive. James knows very well too that the moment he allows his pride to take over and rationalise and blame his wife for walking out, the glimmer of hope will be extinguished for good. And if this is the case, his suffering would be unbearable as he would find himself in the pit of darkness. When Jesus Himself hung on the Cross and as even as He was dying, He looked on His persecutors with compassion and prayed, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing?”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, you and I have to make a responsible choice to be responsible in all our relationships. Today’s Gospel is challenging each of us to ponder on whether or not we are causing hurt to others, or whether or not, we are forgiving enough those who have hurt us. Jesus wants us to be more like Him. James have shown us that this is possible if we only dare to draw strength from God to live through our pains and nurture the glimmers hope that are still alive in painful relationships.
We all know that the surest way to extinguish all hopes of reconciliation in any strained or broken relationships is our attitude of self-righteousness. If we are self-righteousness, we will never admit that we are wrong; we will always blame others for their wrongs.
Whether we are able to forgive as unconditionally as James or not depends not so much on how willing we are to forgive others, but on how deep our faith in God is. If we say we believe in God, but cannot follow the unconditional forgiveness that Jesus has shown us or the way James is forgiving his wife, then we are actually saying that we contented with living a superficial faith. Can a superficial faith or an immature relationship bring any true peace and happiness in our homes and hearts? Can our choice of not wanting to face the challenges of strained and broken relationships bring us any joy?
Today’s Gospel is from Matthew 18:15-18. These verses are sandwiched between verses 12 and 14 and 21 and 35. In verses 12 to 14, Jesus preached that “it give Him more joy to find the one sheep that has gone astray than the ninety nine that did not stray at all.”
Then in verses 21 and 35, Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times? Jesus answered, “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy seven times.”
Then, this passage is followed by the Parable of the Unforgiving debtor who was severely punished for not forgiving others of the small debt that they owed him, when his master forgave him of an infinitely greater debt. Likewise, we too should learn to forgive others more wholeheartedly as God has so often forgiven us of our faults and sinfulness so fully and so unconditionally.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, as I conclude and sum up this homily, I am aware that not all of us are having such dark and depressing relationships in lives. However, it is fair to say that all of us needs to be challenged by today’s Gospel to be more responsible in our relationships with others. Jesus in today’s Gospel is not expecting you and I to be perfect. He only wants us to learn how to forgive like Him. Jesus never said this was easy, for He Himself has suffered so much for us. Our Lord only wants us to persevere in our forgiving ways – both in forgiving those who have hurt us and being open to admitting that we have wrong others, and thus our need to seek reconciliation with others.
Like James, God is challenging us to try harder. We have to trust that God will give us all the graces we need to break the chain of hatred, and to diffuse the heat of anger and acrimony. How can this take place? It has to begin with us. It has to begin today. It has to begin now at this moment when Our Lord is saying to our each of our hurting hearts, “Allow me to heal you, Allow Me to strengthen you; allow Me to accompany you in your journey of reconciliation.”
Will we choose the path of Christ which promises peace and hope that demands unconditional forgiveness, as James and Jesus Himself has shown us? Or would we prefer the path of self-righteousness which can only lead us into a darkness that divides and destroys the hopes that Jesus wants to give all of us? Each of us have to make our responsible decision today as the Gospel of Matthew chapter 18 has clearly proclaimed that if we want to be followers of Christ, then we have to take up the challenges of Christ.
Fr Philip Heng, S.J.
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