Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 13)

Sam Hine published an article called “God’s Cop: A Tribute to Steven McDonald: Friend, Hero, Saint.” He recounted the story of Steven McDonald. He was a 29-year-old New York City police officer, married for eight months, when he was on patrol in Central Park on July 12, 1986. He approached three youths to question them about a bicycle theft that had been reported. One of the youths, a 15-year-old, pulled a gun out and shot Steven three times. He was hit in the head, neck and arm.

As a result he was left paralyzed from the neck down. His paralysis would be life-long. Six months later Steven was in the news again when, at his son Connor’s baptism, he publicly forgave his assailant.

The article, published a few months after Steven’s death, goes on to recount the various ways Steven witnessed to the power of forgiveness and the need to reconcile. His assailant apologized by phone a few years later and the two planned to give talks together but he was killed in a motorcycle accident three days after being released from prison in 1995.

Steven gave talks to schools, churches, civic groups even traveling to Northern Ireland to speak about the Good Friday accords and about the forgiveness needed between Catholics and Protestants; and to the Middle East with regard to the Israelis and Palestinians.

Shortly before his death two years ago, Steven explained his action:

“Looking back, pondering on my life since that time, it’s clear to me that God was in charge. All he wanted was the opportunity to use me. He just needed my yes, and that was made possible by prayer. It’s that simple, really. Through the family and friends that God put in my life, and their prayers, God spoke to me and said, “Will you love this boy who shot you?” And the best way that I could love him was to forgive him. Left to my own abilities, I don’t think I would have done it. … And I know that I would have died a long time ago had I not listened to God, said yes to God, followed the example of his Son, and loved and forgiven.”

Steven McDonald gave a powerful witness to mercy. Mercy and forgiveness is a theme running through the readings for the liturgy this Sunday. It is actually a theme that runs through every liturgy. God’s love is endless, so is his mercy.

There’s an old saying, “no sin is greater than God’s love.” We see that in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. In the Scriptures, death is seen as the destination of sin; sin leads to death. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead manifests his victory not only over death but sin. Mercy triumphs.

Jesus invites us to life and to share the divine life he gives us with others and each other. Mercy and forgiveness are an integral part of this life.

So when Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? Seven times?,” the Lord replies: “Not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Jesus is using a figurative expression for an infinite number. The message is always forgive. Never hold a grudge.

Anger, resentment, bitterness, hate, irritation, rage, antipathy, aversion are attributes that can easily build up in a person who refuses to forgive. What happens with these? They destroy. They destroy the relationship of the person with another but also within one’s self. Courage is needed to forgive especially if the offense is large or long-standing.

Jesus continues to speak of mercy by using the parable of the unforgiving servant. The story engages us. We are immediately uplifted when the servant first receives mercy from his master. Something inside of us can relate to that because we all know the need for forgiveness. We know the power of healing that it brings. It brings peace, relief, hope, reconciliation, concord and freedom.

We are swiftly turned to outrage when we hear of the forgiven servant’s merciless treatment of one of his servants. “How could he do that?,” we might think. “It doesn’t make sense. What kind of person is he?” Finally, we are relieved that some sort of justice is found when the Master encounters the servant.

The point that Jesus is making as he engages us is that mercy is woven into the fabric of life. Our relationship with God is one in which we have been forgiven so we too must live lives of mercy. If we refuse, it is like a tear in the fabric or a loose thread that is being pulled away — the longer it is pulled the greater the tear.

Perhaps the parable also gives us an insight on how to strengthen our ability to forgive. Here I’m thinking of thanksgiving. Notice in the story, when the king forgives the servant his huge debt, after he pleads for mercy, he does not offer thanks. No mention of it at all. The servant failed to recognize the gift.

The magnitude of the gift is seen in the beginning of the parable when the king, in his role as judge, pronounced the sentence for the servant’s failure to repay the debt: “his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property.” The sentence is just and would settle the account. Mercy has saved the servant’s life but he does not appreciate it. He is not grateful.

Steven McDonald, in the story mentioned above, could offer mercy because he was fortified by his own appreciation of the mercy that was shown him in Christ Jesus. Jesus clearly teaches that mercy is needed and essential. He teaches us not only to forgive, but to recognize that the desire, ability and courage to forgive flows from the recognition, acknowledgement and appreciation that we have been forgiven ourselves.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.