Monday was September 11, a date that Americans consider one of the most significant in the nation’s history. It has become one of the epic historic events equivalent to the founding of the United States, the ending of the conflict between the North and the South, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the ending of World War II and the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. September 11, 2001 is a date that challenged both the freedom of a free people and the grace of forgiveness that Americans are told by our Lord Jesus Christ to offer, even to their enemies. But forgiveness is not an easy gift to give. Our readings for this Twenty-Fourth Sunday concern forgiving our offenders and being reconciled with them.
It was the Rabbinic teaching that a man must forgive his brother three times. The Biblical proof for this was taken from the first and second chapters of Amos where we find a series of condemnations on the various nations for three transgressions (Am.1:3, 6, 9; Am.1:11, 13; Am.2:1, 4, 6). From this it was deduced that God's forgiveness extends to three offenses, and that He visits the sinner with punishment at the fourth. Also, seven was a holy number to Jewish people, symbolizing perfection, fullness, abundance, rest, and completion. Peter expected to be warmly commended. But Jesus’ answer was that the Christian must forgive “seventy times seven times.” In other words, there is no reckonable limit to forgiveness.
A certain married couple had many sharp disagreements. Yet somehow the wife always stayed calm and collected. One day her husband commented on his wife’s restraint. “When I get mad at you,” he said, “you never fight back. How do you control your anger?”
The wife said: “I work it off by cleaning the toilet.”
The husband asked: “How does that help?”
She said: “I use your toothbrush!”
We must forgive in order to be forgiven. Jesus explains this after teaching the prayer, Our Father, saying=, "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Mt 6:14-15). The same theme is reflected in the first reading from Sirach today. James offers this warning in different words: "For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy" (Jas 2:13). This means that Divine and human forgiveness go hand in hand.
Francis of Assisi’s prayer is: “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.” Our failure to offer pardon means that we have forgotten God’s goodness or have not fully appreciated the unconditional forgiveness we have received from Him.
Forgiveness involves more than absolution of guilt. It involves the reconciliation of our past and the healing of our brokenness. It involves intentional work to heal and be reconciled with another.
Forgiveness does not mean condoning evil. Neither in God nor in the Christian community, do forgiveness and reconciliation mean the indefinite tolerance of evil and unjust behavior. The king was perfectly ready to forgive the senior official. But how could reconciliation take place when the official later behaved in such an abominable way to a brother? God and the Church can forgive the repentant sinner, but they cannot condone un-repented behavior that is a source of real evil and suffering. God cannot be reconciled with the sinner who chooses to stay in sin, nor can the Christian community fully incorporate a member who refuses reconciliation and the healing of the behaviors that offend against truth and love. With God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, forgiveness is easily available to the individual Christian, but along with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we must seek a mutual healing of wounds and a real change of mind and evil behavior.
We need to forgive the person who has wronged us before the hatred eats away at our ability to forgive. It will not be easy, but God is there to help us. We can do this by offering that individual to God, not sitting in judgment on him or her, but by simply saying, “Help so-and-so and me to mend our relationship.” Whatever the hurt, pain, disappointment, fear or anger that we may be feeling, we need to say, “God, I give this over to You. I can’t take care of it, but I know that You can. What would You have me to do?” And then listen. This isn’t merely being passive – or passing the buck to God. In fact it’s just the opposite. This kind of prayer and this kind of listening has to give birth to action, but it’s action that realistically acknowledges God’s Lordship, and trusts that, through God’s power, we can do all things, even the impossible . . . like forgiving. When we withhold forgiveness, we remain the victim. When we offer forgiveness, we are doing it also for our own well-being. Forgiveness allows us to move beyond the pain, the resentment, and the anger. We always have a choice: to forgive or not to forgive. When we forgive we make the choice that heals.
Let’s say with full awareness the Lords’ prayer: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.