24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Peter, in today’s gospel, asks Jesus: “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him?” And Peter proposes his own answer: “As many as seven times?” Jesus replies, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”
Allow me to emphasize four things about unforgiveness and forgiveness.
First: A failure to forgive imprisons us in our past. As long as we refuse to forgive an offender, an offense committed against us, we are shackled to the past. Unforgiveness keeps that pain alive; it keeps that sore open; it never lets that wound heal.
If we insist on remembering the offense and never forgiving it, then we allow the person to go on offending us the rest of our life and it is our fault, not theirs. Unforgiveness definitely robs us of the joy of living. On the other hand, forgiveness opens the door and lets the prisoner out. It sets us free from our past.
Second: Unforgiveness produces bitterness – it makes us bitter persons. The longer we remember the offense, the more data we accumulate on it. The more recited memory we have for it, the more it occupies our thinking. And the more it occupies our thinking, the more it basically shapes our persons. Bitterness is not just a sin; it is an infection. It infects our whole life.
And bitterness can be directly traced to the failure to forgive. It makes us caustic and sarcastic, condemning and self-righteous. It creates a nasty disposition in us, harassed by hurtful memories. It gives us malignant thoughts about others and a distorted view of life. Anger begins to rage in us and it can easily get out of control.
Third: Unforgiveness gives Satan an open door – it invites the demons in. Where we have unresolved anger, where we have unresolved bitterness, where we have an unforgiving spirit, we have given place to the devil. St. Paul warns us, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil.” Indeed, the devil moves in to an unforgiving heart, to an unforgiving life.
Fourth: Unforgiveness hinders our fellowship with God. The Lord Jesus keeps on telling us that when we forgive those who sin against us, our heavenly Father will forgive us too. When we do not forgive, we will not also be forgiven. According to St. Augustine, the Our Father or The Lord’s Prayer contains the “terrifying petition” of asking God “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Are you not terrified that God will only forgive you if you forgive those who sin against you?
The Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt, once said, “Forgiveness is the only power which can stop the stream of painful memories.” We forgive when we are able to release all our hurts from our minds and hearts.
Dr. Archibald Hart gives this striking definition of forgiveness: “Forgiveness is giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me.” I also like what James Merritt said: “Forgiveness is both an attitude and an action.” “The attitude frees the forgiver, and the action frees the forgiven.” The point is, if you are going to forgive someone, you must commit to doing these three things: 1. Commit that you will not use it against them in the future. 2. Commit that you will not talk to others about them. 3. Commit that you will not dwell on it yourself. Forgiveness experienced will become forgiveness expressed.
There was this prayer found on a scrap of paper on the body of one of the victims of the Holocaust – the genocide committed by the Nazis. It is a profound and beautiful prayer of forgiveness. Note that it was prayed by someone who was about to be executed – somehow echoing the words of the crucified, dying Christ: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Let us use this as our own prayer: O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have borne, thanks to this suffering – our fellowship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits which we have borne be their reward and their forgiveness. Amen.