The theme of today’s Gospel is on “Forgiveness.” This is not an easy topic to preach on as it is sensitive and complex. For those of us who have suffered much and have been hurt deeply, “forgiveness” would seem to be a virtue that is beyond our human comprehension and is virtually impossible to live out.
On many occasions, over the past twenty years as a priest, when someone comes to see me and unburden their deep hurts and pain like for example, if the person were to say that her spouse has constantly been unfaithful to her in the many years of their married life, and continue to do so without any sense of remorse or desire to change for the better . . . what can I say to them?
My brothers and sisters in Christ, “forgiveness” is a human experience that is beyond logic . . . that is why I am lost for words when people in pain pour out their deep hurts to me, their pains are real and deep and it is not so easy for me to say, “You must forgive as Jesus forgives” even though this is true. As their priest I am fully aware that the pains and crises in life are real and can never be brushed aside simplistically . . . often they are very complex and we do not know where to begin . . . as a priest we can only listen with compassion and at the very least not be judgmental on any person – whether it is the person who is causing the crisis or the victim of the crisis.
What then can we learn from Jesus’ teaching and life? In today’s Gospel, Jesus forgave the woman who came to him because she was repentant. Even as she was a public sinner, insofar as she was repentant, Jesus forgave her of all her sins. When Peter the Apostle 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;” (Mt 18:21-22) which is all the time.
We all know that Jesus was not simply preaching the Gospel without living it. When He was hanging on the Cross, as He was about to die He looks down on all His persecutors: the Chief Priests, the Scribes and Pharisees, the Roman soldiers and the crowd who all each had a part to condemn Him to death, He gathered the remaining strength that was within Him and prayed, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:33-34).
Laurens van der Post a prisoner of the Second World War who survived a massacre (together with other prisoners) in South Africa in his diary shared, “One of the hardest things in this prison life is the strain caused by being continually in the power of people who are only half-sane (he was referring to his captors. Yet, we prayed so that all bitterness could be taken from us and we could start the life for our people again without hatred. We knew out of our own suffering that life cannot begin for the better except by us all forgiving one another. For if one does not forgive, one does not understand; and if one does not understand, one begins to be afraid; and if one is afraid, one also beings to hate; and if one hates, one cannot love. And no new beginningon earth is possible without love, particularly in a world where men increasingly not only do not know how to love,but cannot even recognise it when it comes searching for them. The first step towards this love then must be forgiveness.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, even as Jesus forgave all those who crucified Him and even as Laurens van der Post and his prisoners of the camp forgave their persecutors, it is still not so easy to tell people who are hurting deeply to forgive because their pains are very deep, real and complex. It is easier to tell the person who is hurting to file for divorce or to charge the person who has deeply hurt you in court. However, we all know that the solution to pains and trials in life cannot to run away from them.
There is always the bigger picture . . . If divorce is the solution to marital relationships, then what about the children? If legal proceedings are the path we pursue, are we saying that the person who has caused us harm should not be given any further chances to repent? Jesus in today’s Gospel and Jesus hanging on the Cross forgiving His persecutors proclaims a Good News that is built on hope that people can change for the better; that people will one day change for the better . . . in God’s time and ways.
We are all very familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son in St Luke’s Gospel, where the loving father, which symbolises God our Loving Father’s unconditional love for all of us who are sinners forgives His sinful son, even before he repents. . . Likewise, Our Loving Father in Heaven has already forgiven all of us in His Heart; He simply waits with deep Love for our return each time we sin and turn away from His Love. And so, when the son repents and returns home, the Father immediately reinstates the dignity of his sonship by putting a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet and cloak on his shoulder and then slaughters the fatten calf and throws a grand feast to celebrate His son’s return.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, this is how much God loves us. And so, if we are the cause of hurts and pain to others through whatever sins we may have committed or through whatever good and compassion that we have failed to show, then we are called today to return to God and allow Him to forgive us . . . for He is simply waiting with open arms to welcome us back . . . like the young son in the Parable or like the woman sinner in today’s Gospel.
But, if we are the victim of the deep hurts that others have caused us, then like Jesus and Laurens van der Post and companions, we too are called to find a place in our hearts to forgive them.
This is surely humanly speaking not easy, but let us not forget that in Luke’s Gospel 6:27 Jesus asks us, like Him, to “love our enemies” . . . and in verse 36-37 He adds, “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourself; do not condemn and you will not be condemned.” And, in Matthew’s Gospel, 6:14-15 He teaches, “Yes, if you forgive others their failings,your heavenly Father will forgive you yours; but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either.”
To forgive is never easy and in many cases humanly impossible. While this is the reality of our human relationships, we also know that if we beg God to give us the strength we need to forgive, He will surely not fail us. What is the other options do we have if we do not wish to forgive?
Lauren van der Post, tells us that unless we pray for the bitterness in our hearts to be taken away and unless we begin to forgive one another, we will end up hating one another . . . and to this I would add, we will end up destroying each other, ourselves and eventually, our relationship with God. And, if we are to destroy our relationship with God, it would be the saddest and the most tragic day of our earthly life, because to lose our sense and love for God is to have lost the deepest meaning of our lives.
To conclude, let us remind ourselves, that when Jesus forgave the sinful woman in today’s Gospel He was able to emphatise with her and saw that she too was lost and suffering in her own way. So, instead of condemning her and rejecting her for her sinfulness, Jesus forgave her . . . and in doing so, affirmed that there is goodness in her heart and that one day this goodness will grow and blossom in God’s ways.
If we read the lives of saints, like St Augustine of Hippo, St Ignatius of Loyola and many others, they were once great sinners before their conversion. So, regardless of how much we have hurt others and have sinned . . . regardless of how deeply someone may have hurt us, let us allow God’s forgiving and Compassionate Love to heal the wounds of our hearts and restore the peace of our homes today and in the coming days of our lives. This is surely God’s Will for us. Do we want this?
Fr Philip Heng,S.J.
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