Sunday, September 13, 2020

Ten Good Reasons to Forgive

(Twenty-Fourth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 13, 2020 at St. Mary's Church, Carolina, and St. James Chapel, Charlestown, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Sirach 27:30-28:9; Psalm 103:1-12; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fourth Sunday 2020]

About a year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bishop Kenneth Angell of the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont (and formerly of the Diocese of Providence), wrote the following lines in a magazine article:

The Lord says that we have to love him first and foremost.  But we have to love our brothers and sisters as well, including the people who committed this terrible act.  Acts of terrorism are evil, but we have to love those who committed this evil—and that is hard to do.  I suppose I’ve preached that my entire priesthood.  And I’ve tried to live it, but when it comes to something like this, it’s difficult.Yet we know that this is what the Lord wants of us: We have to forgive those that perpetrated this terrible violence against our country.  We have to say, “Lord, they know not what they do, and so we forgive them.” 

Bishop Angell’s brother, David, and his sister-in-law, Lynn, were among those killed on American Airlines Flight 11 (one of the two planes that hit the World Trade Center)—which means he wrote these words about a situation that had affected his life on the personal level.  He was not just offering some pious advice for the rest of us to follow.

Peter said to Jesus in today’s Gospel text from Matthew 18, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive?  As many as seven times?”   Peter obviously thought he was being generous!

Jesus answered him, “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  (Which, in today’s terminology, means “as often as necessary!”) 

Forgiveness, unfortunately, is a much-misunderstood concept.  Some think that it means we must condone whatever evil was done to us; others think it means that we’re supposed to pretend that nothing bad ever happened in the first place; still others believe that if they forgive, they must automatically dispense with justice (thus, if we forgive a known terrorist who’s on the loose (like Osama bin Laden was for so many years), we should stop trying to find him and let him go free); and, finally, there are those who believe that forgiveness is always a “once-and-for-all” decision.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong!—although the people in the last group have it half-right: forgiveness is a decision!  It’s an act of the will, not an emotion!  And, in some cases, it must be a daily or even hourly decision: once is not enough!

But exactly why should we do it?  Why should we make this difficult choice to forgive one another?

Glad you asked.  Here are ten short reasons why.  (You may be able to think of others, but these are the ones that came to me in preparation for this homily)—

  1. We should forgive, because of how much we have been forgiven.  Many people have an unreal assessment of themselves: they think they’re God’s gift to the world, because they’re not like all those bad folks “out there.”  Consequently, they don’t have a true sense of how much God has forgiven them in their lives.  They take his mercy for granted.  Now that was precisely the problem with the unmerciful servant in today’s Gospel parable, was it not?  He had no sense of how much he had been forgiven; thus, he wasn’t ready to show any mercy to his fellow servant.

  2. We should forgive, because of how much the Lord WILL forgive us.  God is ready, willing, and able to forgive every sin—including the ones we haven’t even committed yet!

  3. We should forgive, because, if we don’t, we won’t be forgiven and we risk eternal damnation!  Aside from being sorry for our sins, this seems to be the one condition the Lord puts on our receiving his pardon.  In today’s first reading from Sirach, we were told that the Lord remembers the sins of the vengeful “in detail.”  And Jesus said, “If you do not forgive others, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you.”

  4. We should forgive, because Jesus did.  (He even went so far as to forgive his murderers!)  As Christians, we say we want to imitate Jesus, do we not?  Well, here’s a great opportunity to do that on a daily basis!

  5. We should forgive, because, if we don’t, “the torturers” will come.  In this parable it says that the unforgiving servant was turned over to “the torturers.”  I heard one commentator say that the modern day “torturers” are things like anger and depression and resentment.  I think there’s a lot of truth in that!  Unforgiveness ultimately makes us miserable.

  6. We should forgive, because our loved ones will have to bear the consequences of our unforgiveness.  It should be obvious: if we are filled with anger, resentment, bitterness, and the like, we will take it out on the people we love the most—our family, and our close friends.  It almost always happens that way.

  7. We should forgive, because it contributes to our own sanctification, and can bring other people to conversion.  When Charlie Osburn, the Catholic lay evangelist, forgave the man who had molested his children, the molester had a conversion, and returned to the Church and the sacraments before he died.  And, in the process, Charlie himself grew closer to the Lord and stronger in his faith.

  8. We should forgive, because it frees us to move on with our life.  Unforgiveness keeps us trapped in the past; it keeps us focused on the evil that happened to us “way back when.”—which can keep us from doing God’s will in the present moment and moving forward in life.

  9. We should forgive, because there can be negative physical consequences—as well as spiritual and emotional consequences—to unforgiveness.  Sirach says, “Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?”  I’ve known many people who have experienced physical healings after they’ve made the hard decision to forgive.  Their unforgiveness was making them sick—literally!
  10. And, finally, we should forgive others, because it’s very good practice for forgiving ourselves!  Some of us may have great difficulty forgiving ourselves for things we’ve done in the past—even after we’ve taken those matters to Confession!  Well, if we develop the habit of forgiving the sinners “out there” who hurt us every day, maybe it will become a little easier for us to forgive the sinner we see in the mirror every morning.

Those are my ten good reasons to forgive.  Of course, the real question is, “Are those ten reasons good enough for you?”  I pray that they are, and that they will motivate each of us to respond to God’s grace every day by forgiving others—even our worst enemies.