Forgiving For Our Sake
September 11, 2005
Matthew 18: 21-35
A married couple was going through a rough time. In the process, they both said and did things that hurt one another deeply. But with patience and commitment, they worked things out, and began moving forward together. But not completely. One day the wife complained, “Why is it that you keep bringing up my past mistakes? I thought that you had forgiven and forgotten.” “I have forgiven and forgotten,” said the husband, “but I don’t want you to forget that I have forgiven and forgotten.”
When someone hurts us, it is very difficult to forgive and to forget. This is what makes today’s gospel so challenging. Jesus is relentless in his insistence that we do not forgive people once, or seven times, but seventy times seven times. And what are we to make of that strange violent verse that ends the gospel, where Jesus assures us that our heavenly Father will hand us over to the torturers unless we forgive our brothers and our sisters from our hearts? What is that about? Whatever happened to a compassionate and understanding God?
As strange as it may seem, that violent verse at the end of the gospel is the key to understanding the parable itself. For it is not telling us what God will do, but in fact what will happen to us if we do not forgive. If we refuse to forgive, we will live in torment, unless we change our minds. For the simple human truth is this: when we have been injured deeply, we can never recover until we forgive.
Now we should be clear on what forgiveness is and what it is not. Forgiveness is not pretending that everything is fine. It is not making an excuse for the person who offended us. It is certainly not putting ourselves back into the same situation where we can be hurt again. (In fact, in some cases, the best decision is to break off contact with the person who has hurt us.) But what forgiveness is, is realizing that we cannot change the past and refusing to let what we cannot change control us. Because if we refuse to forgive, if we choose to feed our hurt, that hurt can grow and deepen and compound with anger and hatred. That hurt will rule our lives and hold us captive.
This is an old truth. Centuries before the birth of Christ, the Greek play, Medea was written. In this drama Medea kills her own children to exact revenge on her husband, who committed adultery. When her husband asks her, how could she kill her own flesh and blood just to spite him, Medea calmly answers, “Because I hate you more than I love them.” Feeding a hurt creates a monster, a monster that can destroy us. The only way to slay that monster is forgiveness.
This is an important truth to remember this weekend, as we celebrate the anniversary of 9/ll. In the next few days we will remember the tragedy of that event, the heroism of those who tried to save others, and the grief of the families that lost loved ones. But even in the immensity of that tragedy, we as Christians are still called to forgive. Forgiveness does not mean that we make excuses for the evil that was done. It certainly does not mean that we relax our vigilance to protect ourselves in the future. We are called to forgive the terrorists, not because they deserve it, but because we need it. For if we try to build a future based on hatred and revenge, we will became what we hate. Mahatma Gandhi, a man who knew much about humanity and world relations, once said, “If we base our relationships to one another on revenge, if we deal with one another based upon ‘an eye for an eye,’ soon the whole world will be blind.”
Jesus is not being cruel in today’s gospel. He is warning us about a hard truth. Feeding a hurt will destroy us. What happens in our life is not always fair; it is not always right. But if we want to be free, if we want to be at peace, if we want to live, we must forgive our brothers and sisters from our hearts.
September 11th and Forgiveness
September 11, 2011
Matthew 18: 21 – 35
You might not know that I do not choose the scripture readings that we read every week here at church. We follow a universal lectionary that assigns readings each weekend for Catholic churches throughout the world. The lectionary follows a cycle that repeats every three years. So whatever readings you might hear on a given Sunday have not been chosen with an eye to current events. They have simply come up in the great mechanism of the lectionary in a pre-set fashion.
So, how stunning is it that this weekend, as we celebrate the tenth anniversary of 9-11, the reading that has come up for us is this powerful reading from Matthew’s gospel where Jesus commands us to forgive those who have hurt us. Do you think God is trying to tell us something? And it would certainly be the voice of God, because I’ll tell you one thing for sure. As you participate in the many public events to commemorate 9-11 this weekend, the one word you will not hear is the word, “forgiveness.” You will hear about honoring the dead, about protecting our country, and about preserving the American way of life. All of which are very good things. But no one from the President on down will ever suggest that we should forgive those who attacked us ten years ago.
There is only one voice that tells us we should forgive. It is the voice of Jesus. And, this teaching of Jesus to forgive our enemies is perhaps his most difficult teaching. It is the one that goes most against our human inclination, the one that is most unpopular. That is why even politicians who wrap themselves in religion, who go to prayer breakfasts, who would never think giving a speech without ending “God bless America”—even those politicians will never cite these particular words of Jesus. They know that if they were to suggest that we forgive Al-Qaeda, it would be the end of their political careers.
But we are not gathered here this morning as politicians. We are gathered as disciples of Christ, trying to understand his teaching. So what sense can we make of this challenging command that we are to forgive those who have hurt us from our heart?
All of us carry hurt. 9-11 is a clear example of the way we were hurt as a country in a violent and unjust attack. But, we also carry hurt on a more personal level. It could be the hurt that comes from divorce. It could be the hurt that comes from a friend who betrayed us, from someone at school who made fun of us, from someone who ruined our reputation, or from someone at work who made false charges against us to further their own career. Whatever hurt we carry, Jesus commands us to forgive the person who has hurt us.
If we are going to follow that command, we have to be clear on what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not naiveté. When you forgive someone it does not mean you trust them. Al-Qaeda has hurt us in the past and is capable of hurting us in the future, so it makes perfect sense to take steps to prevent another attack. A friend who has betrayed us in the past or a family member who has manipulated us in the past has the ability to hurt us again. And so it might make sense that we withdraw from that relationship. Forgiveness is not naiveté. We have every right to protect ourselves.
What forgiveness is letting go of past hurts so that we can live. In this respect today’s parable tells us two important things about forgiveness. The first is this. If we are called to forgive, we will have more success if we focus our blessings than our hurt. This is what the slave in today’s gospel does not do. He has been forgiven a huge amount by his master. He has been tremendously blessed. And yet, when he runs into a fellow servant, all he can think about is what is owed to him. We should not follow that example. As we are called to forgive, the first thing we should do is to remember how fortunate we are, how many people love us and support us, how many opportunities we have. When we finally understand our blessings, we will probably find that they are so much greater than our hurt, just like the case of the man in the parable. If this is the case, we may also find the strength to let our hurt go.
The second thing that the parable teaches is probably even more important. At the end of the parable we are told that the man who could not forgive was handed over to the torturers. The parable is not saying that God will torture us, but it is reminding us that if we do not forgive we will be tortured. If we do not forgive, we will be miserable.
After all, Jesus commands us to forgive, not because the person who hurt us deserves it, but because we need it. We are called to forgive, not for the offender’s sake, but for our own sake. If we do not forgive, we suffer. We keep reliving the attack. We keep brooding over our pain. We keep strategizing about how to get even. We lose sleep because of our anger and our suffering. We fantasize about Islamic militarism. We fixate on imagining how those who hurt us will also suffer. Our life becomes consumed by our hurt. It is only by forgiving that we will find peace.
It is not easy to be a disciple of Jesus because He commands us to forgive our enemies. But, as we try to forgive we will be more successful if we count our blessings rather than licking our wounds. And, we should not wait too long to act, because as long as we do not forgive, we will suffer.
It’s forgiveness or the torturers. You choose.