Sunday, January 22, 2012

Will It Be ‘Forgiveness and Freedom’ or ‘Unforgiveness and the Torturers’?

(Third Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on January 23, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Jonah 3: 1-10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday 2012]

I heard a story recently about a Catholic school teacher who wanted to teach her students a lesson about forgiveness.  So she asked them to bring two items to class one day: the first was a large, sturdy plastic bag; the second was a sack of potatoes from the local grocery store.  And for every person they could think of whom they refused to forgive, they were instructed to take one potato out of the sack, write the person’s name on it, and then place it in the plastic bag.

Well, unfortunately some students ended up with plastic bags that contained several potatoes.  I say “unfortunately,” because the teacher then told them that they would have to carry their potatoes around with them for a whole week!  She said, “You have to take them everywhere you go, and keep the bag over your shoulder whenever possible.  You have to take them with you when you go to visit your friends, when you do your chores, when you play, and when you eat.  You even have to put them beside you in bed when you sleep.”

Well, as you might imagine, those young people learned a very important lesson about forgiveness—by first learning a very important lesson about the consequences of unforgiveness!

Carrying around a bag of potatoes all week made those students miserable—which is exactly what unforgiveness does to us when we allow it to enter our hearts and take root there.  In addition to being a sin (and potentially a very serious one!), refusing to forgive other people drags us down mentally and emotionally.  As many of you will recall, Jesus made this point in Matthew 18, when he told a parable about a man who was forgiven a huge debt by his master, but who then refused to forgive the debt of a fellow servant, who owed him a much smaller amount of money.  When the master found out what his unforgiving servant had done, the Bible says he “handed him over to the torturers until he paid back what he owed.”  I once heard a preacher mention this text in a sermon, and he commented on it by saying, “Do you know what ‘the torturers’ are?  The torturers are: depression, anxiety, confusion, anger and the like.  These are the things that literally torture us when we refuse to forgive other people in our lives.”

One man who would certainly agree with this is the prophet—or, more properly, the reluctant prophet—Jonah.  We heard a short excerpt from his story in today’s first reading.  Your assignment for the week, by the way, is to open your Bible sometime during the next 7 days and read the rest of the Book of Jonah.  Read it from beginning to end.

“But, Fr. Ray, I don’t have time to do that.”

Oh yes, you do!  The Book of Jonah is one of the shortest books in the entire Bible!  It’s less than 3 pages long in most versions of Sacred Scripture—and that includes the introduction!

So don’t tell me you don’t have time.

The verses we heard this morning occur in the middle of the book.  Here the Lord commands Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and preach a message of repentance.  And Jonah goes—which he did NOT do at the beginning of the book when God called him the first time!  In fact, after the initial call he received Jonah got on the very first ship that he could find that was headed in the OPPOSITE DIRECTION, away from Nineveh!

Why, you ask?

Because Jonah hated the Ninevites, that’s why!  Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, which, at the time, was Israel’s arch-enemy.  Jonah knew the Lord was not only just; he knew the Lord was also forgiving and merciful.  And he had a sneaking suspicion that if he went to the Ninevites and told them to repent—and they did—then God would not allow their city to be destroyed.

But Jonah wanted the place destroyed!  He wanted to see the city of Nineveh go up in flames!  He wanted to see it “fry” like Sodom and Gomorrah had many years earlier!

So he ran away (actually, he sailed away—on a ship that was headed west toward Tarshish).

God said, “Not so fast, Jonah!” and he threw the ship into a terrible storm.  Jonah was tossed overboard in the middle of it and swallowed by a gigantic fish (which is sometimes referred to as a whale).

After spending 3 days and 3 nights inside this whale’s belly, God commanded the creature to spew Jonah up onto the shore—which is where today’s first reading picks up the story.

The Lord said, “Ok Jonah, let’s try this one more time.  Go to the people of Nineveh and tell them that unless they repent within 40 days their entire city will be destroyed.”

Now, to his credit, Jonah did learn his lesson.  He learned that it was probably not a good idea to disobey God a second time!  So, as we heard a few moments ago, he went to Nineveh—albeit begrudgingly—and he delivered the message the Lord told him to deliver.

And, almost immediately, the whole place repented—which, of course, was precisely what Jonah did NOT want to happen!

At that point, he allowed the ‘torturers’—the torturers that Jesus talked about in Matthew 18—to enter his heart full force, in particular anger and depression.

He whined; he pouted; he sulked; he told God that he had a “right” to be angry (I’m not sure where that right came from, but Jonah insisted that he had it).

And it got so bad that he eventually prayed for death!  He said, “I can’t deal with this anymore, Lord, so please take my life.”

He had the choice between forgiveness and freedom on the one hand, and unforgiveness and torture on the other; and, sadly, he chose the latter.

In fact, Jonah was more concerned about a dead plant (which died while he was sulking under it one day) than he was about the thousands of people in Nineveh, all of whom would have died had they not repented.

The Lord said (and here I quote): “[Jonah], you are concerned over [this] plant which cost you no labor and which you did not raise; it came up in one night and in one night it perished.  And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle?”

Now that, my brothers and sisters, is where the story ends.  What I just read to you are the final words of the Book of Jonah.

Which leaves inquiring minds like mine to wonder: What happened?  Did Jonah eventually change?  Did he allow God’s words to soften his heart?  Did he finally forgive the Ninevites and free himself from his anger and depression?

Or did he stubbornly cling to his unforgiveness and allow the torturers to continue to kill him, slowly, from the inside out?

We don’t know.  The Holy Spirit, through the inspired author of this book of Scripture, hasn’t told us—which is not a mistake or a coincidence.

The Book of Jonah ends the way it does, I believe, because God doesn’t want us to focus on Jonah’s situation all those centuries ago; he wants each of us to focus on our situation right now!  He wants us to read this short and very entertaining story, and then reflect on how we’re currently responding to the people who hurt us at work or at school or in some other location—or even within our own families.

You see, whether we realize it or not, the choice Jonah faced all those years ago is the same one we face whenever someone offends us now: forgiveness and freedom or unforgiveness and the torturers.

Let’s pray at this Mass that making the right choice—the choice to forgive—will always be a lot easier for us than it was for poor, old Jonah.