You’ve probably heard of some remarkable stories of people forgiving someone. One that sticks out in my mind is the reaction of the Amish community to the family of the man who killed ten of their children in the school house shooting in 2006. Another might be the story of Eric Lomax, a P.O.W. during World War II who eventually forgave his tormentor jailer. Or Stephen MacDonald, an NYPD officer who was assailed and shot three times in Central Park, when at his son’s baptism publicly forgave the youth who shot him. Jesus, who is mercy personified, is the greatest witness.
Remember, as He was dying on the cross, He prays: “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” Powerful witnesses to mercy. Living in an imperfect world among imperfect beings, and being imperfect ourselves, the need for forgiveness is regular and repeated.
The Scriptures for today’s liturgy urge us to practice mercy. The first reading from Sirach uses particularly strong language to describe the feelings and attitudes of one who refuses to forgive. Words associated with this person are: “wrath,” “vengeance,” “anger,” “enmity,” and “hate.” Another interesting insight comes in the description – “he remembers their sins.” The person won’t let go. It’s almost like a disease. The author, speaking for the Lord, urges mercy. So much so that he rebukes the one who will not forgive. At one point he raises the rhetorical question: “Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD?”
Jesus takes the same approach in today’s gospel passage. The topic comes up when Peter asks Jesus: “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus gives the familiar reply “not seven but seventy-seven.” (formerly translated as “seven times seven”) Jesus is using play on “seven,” the meaning is “always.” Always forgive. Even repeat offenses.
If you’re thinking, “this is difficult,” you’re right. It is. Jesus then uses a story to illustrate his teaching. The parable is engaging. We recognize the plight of the servant who needs his debts forgiven and concerned for him. We rejoice when we hear his master forgives the debt. Then every thing is turned upside down when that servant refused mercy toward someone who owed him a fraction of what he himself had been forgiven. The story has different messages. Clearly forgiveness is important. God is represented by the master who forgives the debt. He is the God of mercy. He forgives perfectly. The servant does not necessarily correspond to a particular human being but, in a certain sense, to every human being. This in the sense that every human being is in need of and a recipient of God’s mercy.
One of the clever ways of Jesus telling this story is that we can relate to that. We know of God’s love and mercy. The sudden change may prompt us to ask: have I ever acted like that? Have I ever refused to forgive? Am I holding a grudge? Have I shown the mercy that has been afforded me? Hard questions but important ones – because, difficult as it is in certain situations, mercy is necessary. We who have been forgiven need to forgive. We pray for divine assistance all the time in this regard “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Psalm 103 reminds us verse after verse of God’s merciful love. What a wonderful prayer when we need to be reminded of His mercy, to thank Him for His mercy and to find help in being merciful.
Bless the LORD, O my soul;
and all my being, bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.
He pardons all your iniquities,
heals all your ills.
He redeems your life from destruction,
crowns you with kindness and compassion.
He will not always chide,
nor does he keep his wrath forever.
Not according to our sins does he deal with us,
nor does he requite us according to our crimes.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he put our transgressions from us.
Some people look for practical steps or aids to grow in mercy or to forgive a particularly troubling offense. Two years ago there was an article from the Harvard Medical School which addressed this issue (cf. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/the-power-of-forgiveness).
The author identifies two aspects of forgiving: decisional and emotional. “Decisional forgiveness involves a conscious choice to replace ill will with good will.” This is the easier of the two. “Emotional forgiveness” is the movement away from negative feelings so that one “no longer dwell[s] on the wrongdoing.” The author makes the case for forgiveness from the point of view of how forgiveness actually benefits the forgiver as well as the forgiven. He writes: “Observational studies, and even some randomized trials, suggest that forgiveness is associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and hostility; reduced substance abuse; higher self-esteem; and greater life satisfaction.”
When addressing the practical steps in building the ability to forgive, he first suggests getting into the habit of forgiving on a regular basis, the small things that call for mercy on a regular basis (for example, in certain driving situations). Then the author describes the REACH method. Briefly:
Recall the offense in an objective way
Empathize – try to understand the offenders mindset, where where they coming from when they committed the offense
Altruistic Gift – remember the times you offended and were forgiven
Commit – be determined to forgive
Hold – remember your mercy when bad feelings creep in at a future time
The full description can be found on the website referenced above.
God who is love is the God of mercy. Created in His image and likeness we are given the ability to love and to forgive. Jesus lived the life of love and the life of mercy completely. His self-offering on the cross is an offering of love and an offering of mercy. His resurrection is the victory of love over indifference; of mercy over vengeance and of life over death. He shares that victory with us and asks us to share it with others by forgiving as we have been forgiven.
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.
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