24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
ANGER is just one letter short of DANGER. There is a Latin proverb that says: “He who restrains his anger overcomes his greatest enemy.”
The very first sentence of today’s first reading says, “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” Sirach seems to be holding a mirror up to us – to see ourselves in this statement. He is aware how we hold on to grudges and ill feelings, anger and hatred, resentment and bitterness. Though we know how destructive these things are, yet we hang on to them – we hug them tight.
There are people who have been offended, hurt or harmed many years or even decades ago, yet, they are still holding or hanging to grudges and resentments – they have not moved on. In my years in the priestly ministry, I have come to know that this is particularly or especially true within families. The people closest to us, the people dearest to us, are often against whom we hold grudges the longest.
If this is happening in the inter-personal level, how much more in the national level and in the geo-political level. Wrath and anger, animosity and hostility, bitterness and unforgiveness…these hateful things, as Sirach calls them, are prevalent in our culture and destroying our society.
What is anger? St. Thomas Aquinas has this definition: “Anger is a passion for revenge that goes beyond the control of reason.” We know that there is a kind of “justified anger” – which is a passion to set things right. A good example of this is the ‘angry’ Jesus cleansing the Temple, overturning the tables of the money-changers. That is legitimate anger. Sirach is not talking about that. What he is referring to is something like this: You hurt me, I will hurt you too! You offended me, I will retaliate! I will get back at you!” It is not a passion to set things right, to reestablish justice. Rather, it is a desire to punish and harm you – to take revenge that goes beyond the control of reason.
What is the antidote to anger? How do we stop hugging tight our resentment? Jesus gives us the antidote: forgiveness. This is central to the preaching of the Lord. “How often must I forgive my brother?” “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Jesus underlies the importance of forgiveness by giving a parable about a forgiven servant who does not in turn forgive his debtor. Jesus concludes the parable with the main lesson, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” Why does Jesus say “from his heart”? He knows human nature very well: it is not easy to forgive.
Why is not easy to forgive? Because one of the hardest things in life is to let go of old hurts, old grudges, old resentments – precisely because we prefer holding on, hanging on to them. “I cannot forget what you have done against me and I cannot forgive you for that…One day you will have to pay for it!” Holding people’s faults against them creates impenetrable wall.
But listen to St. Paul: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” “And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” This message calls us to let go of old hurts in the name of God. It is the message our world most needs to hear.
Henri Nouwen has this to say about forgiveness: To forgive another person from the heart is an act of liberation. We set that person free from the negative bonds that exists between us. We say, “I no longer hold your offense against you.” But there is more. We also free ourselves from the burden of being the “offended one.” As long as we do not forgive those who have wounded us, we carry them with us or, worse, pull them as a heavy load. The great temptation is to cling in anger to our enemies and then define ourselves as being offended and wounded by them. Forgiveness, therefore, liberates not only the other but also ourselves. It is the way to the freedom of the children of God.
It is said, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly.” The sad truth is that we all love poorly, and we hurt one another often. That is why we need to forgive and be forgiven every day. Constant forgiving is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.