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Lenten Season Week 5: The Wisdom of Forgiveness

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  • Lenten Season Week 5: The Wisdom of Forgiveness

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Isaiah 43: 16-21; Philippians 3:8-14; Gospel of John 8:1-11

Preached by Msgr Philip Heng, SJ at Cathedral of Good Shepherd, Singapore on 7 April 2019

In today’s Gospel of St John that we just heard proclaimed, the scribes and Pharisees brought an adulteress to Jesus and said, “Master, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery, and Moses has ordered us in the Law to condemn women like this to death by stoning. 

Let us first note that the scribes’ and Pharisees’ intention of bringing the woman caught in adultery to Jesus was not so much to punish the adulteress, but to trap Jesus, for Jesus was a bigger enemy that they wish to destroy. 

At the time of Jesus, adultery was an offense punishable by death.  However, since the time the Romans had conquered Palestine in 63 BC, the Jews had lost the right to carry out death sentences.  This right was reserved to the Roman procurator.  And so, when the scribes and Pharisees brought the adulteress to Jesus to ask Him whether they should stone her as prescribed by the Laws of Moses, they were putting Jesus in a tight spot.

If Jesus were to obey the Mosaic Law to condemn the adulteress, He would then be accused for being a heartless person.  And He would lose His reputation for being a compassionate man, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.  But, if Jesus were to hold the view that the adulteress should be set free, then He would be accused of allowing the practice of adultery, that breaks up the family.

In Jesus’ wisdom, He responded by appealing to the personal level of the conscience.  And so Jesus asked, “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”  The Gospel then tells us that when the crowd who was on the verge of stoning the adulteress heard this, “they went away one by one, beginning with the eldest, until Jesus was left alone with the woman, who remained standing there.”

My sisters and brothers in Christ, in Jesus’ response, His concern was to save the sinner from being condemned for her sins, and more importantly to offer her an opportunity to repent for her sins.  Without condoning the sin, Jesus too wants to open up a new direction in her life, that is life-giving.  As such, when the crowd had left, Jesus said to the adulteress, “Go away, and don’t sin anymore.”  

If people were to harm our reputation through malicious gossips and even destroy our family through spreading evil against us, would we react with an anger that seeks vengeance?  Or if to your horror, you caught your spouse having an affair what would you do in your state of crisis?  In all of these and the many other painful suffering that we can experience in life, would we seek justice that is fuelled by anger, or would we ask for the grace to follow the wisdom of Jesus who condemns the sin and not the sinner?

My brothers and sisters in Christ, even as the scribes and Pharisees were out to trap and destroy Jesus, He did not even judge them; Jesus merely invited them to judge themselves by stating the truth, “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Jesus also did not judge the adulteress because His Mission is one of Mercy and Compassion, and thus a mission of Salvation, and not one of condemnation.

There is a story of David who was very successful in life, had a good family and is known for his generosity.  However, in all of David’s happiness, he had a dark secret of a sin that he had committed many years ago, that continue to haunt him with much anxiety and guilt, even after he had gone for Confession.  David had a close friend James who is very humble and spiritual genuinely, and has some gifts of visions, where God appears and speaks to him.

So, one day, with great courage and humility David approached James and confided this “dark secret sin” with him and asked him, “James, when you have your next vision, could you please ask God about this sin of mine, and ask Him what I should do about the guilt of my sin?”  James agreed, and remembered to ask God, about David’s sin.  When David next met James he asked him, “James did you ask God about my sin?”  James said, “Yes, I did, and I even told God all the details of what happen when you sinned, and I also added that you somehow still feel guilty about the sin, even after your many Confessions.”  So, David asked James, “then what did God say?”  James said, “God said, what sin?  I don’t remember any of David’s sins!”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of the sin that we have committed, insofar as we have repented with sincerity in our Confession and have asked for God’s forgiving love, be sure that in God’s Merciful Love, He has already forgiven our sins.  And so, if we are carrying the burden of guilt in our hearts, they are NOT from God and NOT from the Good Spirit.  They are emotional or spiritual desolations.

And, in such a situation, never feel the need to confess that sin again, as we may be exposing ourselves to developing scruples, where we feel we have not been forgiven when God has already forgiven us.  However, we could pray for the grace to let go of the memories and guilt of our past sins, and be healed by God, and not continue to harbour our guilt even though God has already forgiven us.

To forgive and to ask for forgiveness can also be complex emotionally.  As such, it may be good that we reflect on how we can manage “forgiveness” more clearly.  For this I would like to draw upon and where necessary, adapt my points from the insights of Celia Wolf-Devine, a retired philosophy professor.  Celia says, “Without forgiveness, the world quickly becomes hell. However, the truth about forgiveness is that it does not come naturally to us.  Indeed, in some crises of life, it sometimes seems humanly impossible.”

However, with God, nothing is impossible.  God’s Mercy can break into our deeply wounded heart and through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, His Son.  /And, wash away our sins and pour His grace into our hearts.  God’s Merciful grace can enable us to forgive as Jesus did.”  More specifically, Celia shares how we need to let go of our past hurts and woundedness, and focus on emulating Christ’s Mercy.  She suggests seven possible ways:

First, be careful about venting our anger.  Venting does not dissipate anger, but instead reinforces it.  We must focus on doing what can be done to right the situation.  This is because we cannot let anger be a motivation for revenge.

Second, do not keep going over past transgressions, failures and sins, as it will only feed the holding of grudges. Reliving the wrongs done to us simply keeps us entangled in bitterness.  Bitterness in our hearts, if we are not careful will fester and can easily distort us into becoming the sort of person from whom others would want to keep a distance from or even flee from.  Brooding over wrongs opens the door to all sorts of bad things.  Ask God for a spirit of gratitude; this is a good antidote to brooding on wrongs.

Third, don’t involve more people than necessary. It is okay to have a confidante; a very close friend whom we can trust and confide all our pains and anxieties.  However, we should not go around discussing our grievances with anybody who is willing to listen.  This just leads to the sin of gossip, which Pope Francis has warned the faithful against, saying, “The person who gossips is like a terrorist who throws a bomb and runs away.  With their tongue, they are destroying and not making peace.”

Fourth, let go of the pain. Be determined that you are going to choose to forgive your offender.  However, your emotions would in all probability resist and fight against this decision.  This is where prayer comes in.  Tell God, from the sincerity of your heart that you want to forgive, and beg God for the graces to become more like His Son, and change your heart toward the person who wronged you.  You may also want to consider expressing your forgiveness to your offender either speaking to him or through a letter.  But again, if this isn’t possible, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t expressed forgiveness.  Also, you need to consider forgiving more than once; and continue to nurture a forgiving heart towards the person who has hurt you; more so when the wound is very deep.

Fifth, don’t sweat on the small stuff. St. Thérèse of Lisieux makes this point eloquently in “Her Last Conversations,” saying, “What we choose to fight is so tiny. When we win, it’s with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small.”  In other words, when we become embroiled in trying to argue, explain and justify ourselves, we lose our peace of soul.  It is better let the matter drop in silence. Thérèse was never afraid to speak the truth forcefully when duty required it, but she learned to choose her battles wisely.

Sixth, act for the person’s good, even when we don’t feel like it. Don’t slam the door permanently on the person who had hurt you.  We must allow the person room to change while also acknowledging that ignoring bad behaviour does them little good.  Keep praying for reconciliation.  Pray for the one who hurt you, even though you may think that reconciliation is virtually impossible.  /For example, you don’t know where the person lives or the person may even have died.  But you can pray for the one who hurt you.  Ask God to reveal His Merciful Love on the person, and grant him the healing graces he or she needs.  In doing so, this will also help you to release the resentment that you may be harbouring in your heart.

Seventh, make forgiveness a ritual at bedtime. Going to bed angry at the ones we love only weakens our relationships by allowing the bitterness and anger to fester overnight. We should make it a habit to resolve the disputes with our families, before the end of each day.  In Eph 4:26-27, St. Paul says, “Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil”.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, as I conclude, let us first not forget that very often we ourselves are the cause of hurt and division in relationships and in our families.  Let us daily prayer for the graces of humility to be freed from our sin of pride that refuses to admit and accept and take ownership of our sinfulness.  A heart that is filled with pride will not allow God’s Healing grace to bring the needed peace in our hearts and home.

The scribes and the Pharisees, could not cast the stones of condemnation at the adulteress because they themselves were guilty of greater sins, and the greatest of which being, their evil desires and schemes to murder the Messiah who has come to offer mankind eternal Salvation.

Let us then pray that God will give us the wisdom of Jesus’ Merciful Love, and obey God our Father’s call of you and I, and indeed the whole of mankind, to forgive unconditionally as Jesus has shown and taught us.

  • Ref: Story adapted from: The Chain of Love, Essays for Daily Living; Joseph A.Galdon,S.J.; Cacho Hermanos,Inc; 1993; pp.73-78

Msgr Philip Heng, S.J.