Forgiveness and Mercy

24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.
Sirach 27:30-28:7 – Romans14:7-9 – Matthew 18:21:35.

Today’s readings draw our attention to the interconnected themes of forgiveness and mercy. Our Lord Jesus Christ emphasised that the practical demonstration of mercy and forgiveness is a non-negotiable obligation upon His followers. In the circumstances of everyday life, forgiveness is more often talked about than put into practice, because it goes against human nature, is difficult and demanding, and takes a lot out of us. Within families, trivial incidents get blown out of proportion, become major flash-points and lead to rifts. Among neighbours, incidents involving children playing, animals straying or rights-of-way can cause unholy conflicts and ill-feeling. In any community, division brought about by thoughtless words, selfish actions or jealousy inevitably provokes clashes between individuals. Among nations with a history of animosity towards each other, some prefer to nurse old wounds and stoke hostilities rather than reach out the hand of reconciliation. It’s the way of the world. Christians are called to be in this world but not of this world, which is currently the domain of the Prince of Lies.

Interestingly, the Lord calls us today to see reasons why we have to forgive. Jesus, both in the prayer He taught us and on the cross of Calvary, repeated His great call for forgiveness. Every part of His life, teaching and prayer was meant to win limitless forgiveness and mercy for all. Do you know that your capacity to forgive is the measure of the depth of your Christian commitment? It most certainly is! The 2nd reading reminded us that everything we do exerts some influence upon others, and that our life as Christians should mirror Christ’s. The interconnectedness of things makes it clear that ultimately we will receive what we dish out. When you forgive, it makes it possible for you yourself to be forgiven. The forgiveness that we offer others makes it possible for us to receive God’s forgiveness and to pray meaningfully: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” St Francis of Assisi declared that: “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned”. Our failure to offer pardon to others means that we have forgotten God’s goodness towards us, or at least that we have not fully appreciated the unconditional forgiveness we have received from Him.

A realistic solution: Despite being aware of the consequences of unforgiveness, both now and in eternity, as human beings we can all acknowledge those times when we have felt so hurt by someone that we have felt unable to forgive, and we have withheld our forgiveness from them. How can we handle this problem from now on? What do we do when we ‘feel’ we can’t forgive someone, when Our Lord commands us to put mind over matter and forgive them anyway? How do we remove the emotional and spiritual block that chokes our efforts to forgive? How do we carry out Jesus’ instruction to forgive? How can we prompt ourselves to heed the warning of Jesus that if we refuse to forgive others, we cannot expect forgiveness from God for ourselves (Mt 6:15)? The 1st reading drew our attention to a helpful way forward: to reflect on death. Death is the great leveller. The prospect of physical death puts all human affairs into the correct perspective. As you walk the long gravelly paths of a cemetery, the concept of forgiveness takes on a new dimension. You might well see the graves of  neighbours, who were with us not so long ago and who for their lifetimes remained resolutely and unrepentantly hostile towards each other over certain issues; now they are buried but a short distance from one another. There is no need for a barrier between them now. When you focus on the fleetingness of this temporal earthly life over against the reality of eternal life, you can’t help but let go of all your grudges and forgive quickly before it is too late.

Have you experienced heart-breaking or emotionally crippling events and episodes caused by people around you? Have you experienced the pain of betrayal by someone close to you? When you’ve been hurt, have you felt vindictive, wanting to exercise retributive justice? It’s not your call. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord’ (Deut 32:35) and ‘do not avenge yourselves, beloved’ (Rom 12:19). To understate the case massively, forgiveness is not easy – but that is what the Lord wants from you, from all of us. He has commanded His followers to love even our enemies and to pray for them (Mt 5:44). In the face of spite and insult, we are called to show forgiveness, to develop the ability to overlook faults, and to keep on loving. We have to remind ourselves how much God has forgiven us. In the Gospel reading, the king forgave the wicked servant an eye-watering amount of debt and wiped the slate clean; in the Kingdom of heaven, forgiveness is limitless (Mt 18:23ff). It is up to us as Christians to emulate that while we are on earth. The least we can do is to extend a hand of forgiveness to those who have offended us. We have to see them not as enemies but as flawed human beings like ourselves, who might be hurting as we are but who cannot deal effectively with that hurt. That perspective can go a long way towards helping us to amend our attitude towards such people. It was Jesus’ attitude on the cross when He asked His Father to forgive His executioners (Lk 23:34).

Lord, help us to follow Your example by forgiving those who hurt us and by showing them mercy. Amen. God bless you.