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What Does It Mean To Forgive?

Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Times

Cycle A Given at St. Jude, September 17, 2023

By Deacon Ken Steponaitis

When one of my sons was about 6 years old, he did something that was not a big deal for a six-year-old but was something that if we didn’t deal with swiftly and very directly, could have led to something worse if he grew up not thinking it was a big deal. We did impose consequences for his actions, and they were consequences that he really didn’t like. So much so, I could sense that my son felt, whatever life he had, had ended for good. And admittedly, the consequences were rather harsh, at least for a 6-year-old. If I remember correctly, he could not watch tv or play with toys for 2 weeks, or something like that. We told him all he could do was homework, eat, sleep, and read books. To end our conversation, before we sent him off to his room, I told him, “I know this is difficult and I know you don’t like these consequences. I told him, “Son, what you did really hurt us and we are disappointed in you, but I also want you to know we still love you and we want what is best for you.”

And for a fleeting moment I thought to myself, for once, I think I dealt with this situation well, I never yelled at him or talked with him in a disrespectful manner. I was patting myself on the back. And after telling my son, I loved him and wanted what was best for him, he looked me square in the eyes and with all he could muster, he yelled out in a screaming voice as loud as he could … “NO YOU DON’T!” and stomped off to his room.

I think my son understands now I was trying to do what was best for him but at the time his reaction is not unlike, so often, our reaction to how God loves us. I think we Christians know the love and forgiveness of God, but we have not yet really internalized and trusted in that love and forgiveness.

For my son to yell out, NO YOU DON’T love me is so like the way we think about God’s forgives. NO, YOU DON’T forgive me. Or, no you can’t forgive me, or no, you can’t forgive him … what he did or what I did was just so bad. How could you forgive me, or how could you forgive him. What’s more, how can you, God, ask me to forgive like you supposedly do? Maybe the issue is, we don’t have faith enough in God to believe that God does forgive and love the way Jesus is asking us to forgive and love and so we can’t see ourselves loving and forgiving as God does. I would even say, we don’t necessarily know what forgiveness is.

My son could not possibly understand that the consequences we imposed, were imposed out of love. Parents want their sons and daughters to flourish and to understand that doing something wrong is a kind of spiritual dying. That wanting and doing what is right is a kind of spiritual thriving. And doing what is right brings peace and joy. The very things we all long for. And when we spiritually thrive, we are in a disposition of wanting to pass on that goodness to others. Which not only brings about more peace and joy to our lives, but it also extends that peace and joy to others.

Our first reading, from the book of Sirach, also known as the Wisdom of Ben Sira. Is a book where Ben Sira passed on his wisdom to his community. And what we read today is a teaching on forgiveness.

What exactly is forgiveness? The reading tells us more about what forgiveness is not. It is not holding on to anger or hateful things.

I don’t know why we humans have this sense, but our sense of justice is more like, if anyone does something against us, they deserve every bad thing they get. But clearly that is not God’s idea of justice. What Ben Sira understood is whenever we hold grudges and anger and hateful things against another, it kills us spiritually and emotionally. It moves us away from what God wants so much for us, mainly, peace and joy in our lives. And how can we expect healing from the Lord when we are doing the very thing that moves us away from the Lord.

We’ve all heard God is love, but God is also peace and joy. To be angry and bitter is in effect turning away from God … turning away from love, peace, and joy.

And regardless of conventional wisdom, forgiveness is not forgetting. You cannot forget any horrific thing someone does against you so don’t expect you will. In fact, I think it takes remembering, to forgive. I’ll explain shortly.

Also, forgiveness is not somehow thinking our relationship will go back to the way it was before the incident. For example, the first time a child lies to their parents, at that moment, now the parent’s relationship with the child has changed. Now the parent deals with the child from the perspective of trying to convince the child that lying makes things worse for them and the people around them. Forever the relationship changed.

And forgiveness is not a one-time thing. Not just for multiple incidences are we called to forgive, but we also must re-forgive for the same incident because often we can find ourselves falling back into a state of anger and bitterness, even for the same incident.

And by the way, forgiveness is not necessarily something we can muster on our own. Often it takes a power that only God can give.

So, what is forgiveness? My former pastor, Msgr. Don Fischer used a play on words to describe forgiveness. He said, “forgiveness is for giving life.” Or another way to say this is, being in a state of forgiveness is wanting life for the person who wronged you. Wanting the person, you despise in this moment to be with you in heaven for eternity! Because that is exactly what Jesus wants for us. He wants eternal life for us, not death in our sin.

Bishop Barron quotes Thomas Aquinas often, saying, “love is willing the good of the other as other.” In other words, if we truly love as the commandments ask us to, love is desiring to see the other person thrive and live the most fruitful, peaceful, and joyful life they can. This definition of love is synonymous with forgiveness. To hold grudges, and anger against someone, to want retribution is exactly the opposite of desiring the good of the other. It is desiring not life, but a kind of death. To not forgive brings about, in our own lives, a kind of death.

We cannot do this forgiving thing on our own. We cannot move ourselves to want life for a person who has truly wronged us without turning to God who is forgiveness itself. It takes a trust in God that says something like this … “Father, I want to forgive, but right now I don’t feel forgiveness in my heart. Give me what I need to soften my heart and to truly want life for the person who wronged me.”

Forgiveness is a kind of two-way proposition. It is not only beneficial for you to forgive, which by the way brings about life within you, it also potentially brings about life to the person who wronged you. This passing on of what God has given us is what we call the divine economy. Unlike our earthly economy which gives back to us only what we put into it, the divine economy hands over what is good and right even if we don’t deserve it. God’s Justice is not about giving us what we deserve. God’s justice is about giving what is necessary so the we can thrive. Forgiveness is about wanting life for those we forgive.

When Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant in our Gospel, today, Jesus was describing what happens when we don’t forgive.

And I don’t know how I can convince you of this, but please don’t misinterpret this parable. The parable is not about God’s vengeance on us if we refuse to forgive. It’s more like a parent who loves their child so much that they want their child to have life, even if it means the parent must impose some undesirable consequence. I had to give my son consequences to emphasize and reinforce the negativity that comes from doing wrong. The parable describes the result of us not seeking to forgive; not wanting life for those who wronged us. It causes a kind of death, a kind of turning away from love. And turning away from love is tantamount to turning away from God and turning away from God is the very definition of mortal sin. When we are in a state of mortal sin, nothing can convince us of God’s forgiveness and love. We cannot be convinced that God wants nothing more than for us than for us to be with Him in eternity. The net result of not forgiving is just as the parable describes; it is a kind of wickedness that permeates us and tortures us.

My six-year-old son couldn’t bring himself to understand we truly did love him and forgave him because his heart was not open to the possibility that consequences are ways of moving people from what is evil and wicked to what is truly good. His concept of love and forgiveness was a kind of forgetting, just letting the incident go away as if nothing happened. But remember forgiveness is not about forgetting. Forgiveness is about wanting to give life and the way parents can give life to their children is to properly discipline them, out of love and forgiveness, in the way God allows difficult things to occur in our lives so we can turn those difficult things into learning experiences that move us to perfect love and forgiveness and back to life.

But remember, to be able to forgive the unforgiveable person requires us to recognize it takes the power that only God can provide. We must trust in his crazy love for us, and trust in His unfathomable forgiveness. If we can internalize that kind of love and forgiveness, there will be a compulsion within us to pass it on.

And by the way don’t fear being in an unforgiving disposition. God forgives that too. So long as our hearts are open to wanting to forgive, so long as our prayers seek God to move in the right direction, we too can forgive, not just seven times, but seventy times seven times, always and perfectly.

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