FREEDOM IN FORGIVENESS
When a drunk driver took the life of his wife, his son, his daughter and his unborn child, he decided to do the hardest thing of all, forgive. Could you let go? Would you?
We all know we should forgive, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do so, especially when a person has wronged you in the worst possible way. The following two people were placed in the most awful of situations and faced with the choice to forgive, or not to forgive. Incredible as it seems, in each instance, they forgave.
- Perugini, an Italian painter of the Middle Ages, stopped going for confession because he felt that people stayed sway from the sacrament hoping to confess just before they died as a kind of ticket to heaven. Perugini considered it sacrilegious to go to confession if, out of fear, he were seeking to save his skin. Not knowing his inner disposition, his wife inquired whether he was not afraid of dying unconfessed. Perugini replied, “Darling, my job is to paint and I have excelled as a painter. God’s profession is to forgive and if God is as good at his job as I’ve been at mine, I’ve no reason to be afraid!” Francis Gonsalves in ‘Sunday Seeds for daily Deeds’
- An Iranian woman Samereh Alinejad had told the The Associated Press that “retribution had been her only thought” after her teenage son was murdered. But in a dramatic turn at the gallows, literally moments before the killer was to be executed, Alinejad made a last-minute decision to pardon the man. She is now considered a hero.
Sirach is one of the few books of the Old Testament where there is no question about the identity of the author. This book was written by one man: Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sira, who signed his name to the book.
The book has two names: Ecclesiasticus (which means “church book”), and the book of ben Sira (or more simply, Sirach) after the author whose grandfather seemed to enjoy more prominence,
Born and raised in Jerusalem, Sirach was a highly respected scribe and teacher, a man of culture and means, who traveled much in his life; possibly as a diplomatic emissary to foreign courts. In later years he ran a school in Jerusalem, imparting to youth his deep knowledge and love of the Scriptures as well as the practical wisdom he had acquired empirically.
Scholars agree that the book was written in 195-169 B.C., most probably about 180. It is the only book in the Bible with a forward, written by the author’s grandson, which although not considered inspired writing, is always included. This forward contains the first explicit mention of the Hebrew Bible’s three-fold division of scriptures (Law, Prophets, Writings). The third division is described somewhat vaguely, indicating that it has not as yet been fully delineated.
Sirach’s book is essentially an apology for Judaism. Written to defend the religious and cultural heritage of Judaism against the challenge of Hellenism, Sirach sought to demonstrate to his fellow Jews in Palestine and the dispersion, and also to well-meaning pagans, that true wisdom resides in Israel.
Sirach is one of the seven deuterocanonical books; it did not fit into the theology of the Pharisaic part of Judaism, which is responsible for fixing the Jewish canon. The book was generally well received in Judaism as is evident from its use in Jewish worship and literature. Its rejection from the Jewish canon may have been partly because of its recent date, but the chief reason is probably that it was associated with Sadducean literature. Sirach was no Sadducee, but the tone of the work with its preoccupation with cult, the lack of any appreciation for the afterlife, and minimal messianism put it in a class with later Sadducean tenets.
The Church, however, has always regarded the book as canonical. Not only is its influence seen in the New Testament, but its canonicity is more frequently attested by the Church Fathers than many protocanonical books.
In our First Reading today we are told that deceit and dishonesty will lead one only to isolation. The wise man will not seek vengeance when wronged (see Matthew 6:12; 18:23-25), but will be faithful to mercy, as the Lord.
Today we end our study of Paul’s letter to the Romans. We end this study with a reminder of what Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross means for us. None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.
The liberating act of Christ, freeing human beings from bondage to law, sin, and death, has enabled us to live for God (Romans 6:10-11; Galatians 2:19). This implies the service of God in all things; it is also the basis of a Christian’s social obligations.
“This means that we are not free. We have a master who wants us to live and not die, and to whom life and death matter more than they do to us. … For if we die, we do not die to ourselves alone but to our master as well. By death, Paul means apostasy from the faith.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 391), Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans 25]
For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
FORGIVENESS OF WRONGS done against us is something that many of us Christians find extremely difficult. We probably think Peter is extremely generous in suggesting that he should forgive his brother as many as seven times. Yet Jesus pushes it even further by saying, “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy times seven.” In practice, this means an infinite number of times. It seems hopelessly idealistic and impractical. Yet, further reflection may help us realise that there is really no alternative for the Christian and the truly human person than to forgive – indefinitely.
The words of Jesus turn upside down the boast of Lamech in the book of Genesis. Lamech was the father of Noah, the man who built the ark and saved the human race and all the animals from the Flood.
Lamech said to his wives:
‘Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, hearken to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.’ (Genesis 4:23-24)
A bankrupt approach
This is the philosophy behind such groupings as triad societies, Mafia-type organisations, terrorism around the globe, to mention but a few. It is clearly an approach which does nothing except produce death, pain, grief and the seeds for more of the same. It is a way we see portrayed night after night on our television screens and which our young people devour in the comic books they read and the computer games they play.
But the words of Jesus also seem in conflict with the passage we had last Sunday about the “brother” in the Christian community who does wrong and refuses to reform. If he persists in his wrongdoing, he is not to be forgiven indefinitely. On the contrary, he is to be excluded from the community’s life. How are we to bring together this advice and Jesus’ urging to forgive “seventy times seven”?
First, let us look at the parable which follows Jesus’ words. It is a parable about a senior official who has incurred a debt of 10,000 ‘talents’. One talent was already a very large amount of money. It is difficult to make a meaningful comparison in today’s currency but let us say, that, roughly, a talent was worth US$1,000. To say the servant owed 10,000 talents is to use the number in the way the Chinese and Japanese wish “10,000 years”, in other words, ‘without limit’. Jesus is saying this official owed a sky-high debt which he could never have any hope of paying back.
Yet this same official comes down heavily on a much lower official who owed him 100 denarii. A denarius was the equivalent of one day’s work for a labourer. Compared to what the senior official owed, 100 denarii was nothing. Yet, the lower official gets no mercy and is tossed, together with his whole family, into a debtor’s prison until the debt is paid (presumably by relatives or colleagues). When the king hears about this, the senior official himself gets thrown into prison. Given the amount of his debt, it is unlikely he would ever get out.
Both the words of Jesus and the parable linked with them throw us back to the Lord’s Prayer as it is presented in the Sermon on the Mount. In the ‘Our Father’ which we recite together in every Eucharist, we say: “Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us.” Further commenting on these words, Matthew has Jesus say, “If you forgive others the wrongs they have done to you, your Father in heaven will also forgive you. But, if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs you have done.” (Matthew 6: 12,14-15).
There are two very clear messages from both the parable and the words from the Sermon on the Mount:
– The first is that we dare not hold back forgiveness from those God forgives. And we know, from the Gospel, God’s attitude towards wrongdoers and his penchant for forgiveness.
– But the second message is that the divine patience is not infinite. God, as Jesus tells us to do, is ready to forgive infintely. And, when it comes to the forgiveness of our own sins, we take this for granted. (Imagine if God were to say, “In your lifetime I will give you just five chances to repent and, after that you’ve had it.”) At the same time, there is a limit to the extent of God’s forgiveness in the sense that it is conditional. That condition is determined first, by our readiness to respond to his forgiveness through our repentance and conversion, and second, by our willingness to imitate him in practising forgiveness of those we feel have offended or hurt us.
Strange as it may seem, the all-powerful God cannot fully forgive the person to whom pardon is offered but who refuses it. Because ultimately, the problem is not just one of ‘forgiveness’ but also of ‘reconciliation’. And where there is no reconciliation or at least hope of reconciliation there cannot be forgiveness in the full sense.
God cannot just say a million times over to the sinner, “I forgive you.” Forgiveness on our part is not just to say, “I know you did something terrible but, because I am a practising Christian, I forgive you.” You may feel very good about talking in that way but it has not really solved the problem or healed the wound. My responsibility is not over by saying, “I forgive”, if the other person has not changed their attitude towards me in any way. One-sided forgiving can be a source of real smugness, “How good I am!” and further hurt, “I forgave but he/she continued to hate/hurt me!” At the same time, even with the best will in the world I cannot force another person to be reconciled with me. Ultimately, reconciliation is a personal decision on each side.
Forgiving in the full Christian sense is a form of loving and caring. The problem is that people’s actions towards us are seen as attacks on our vulnerability, our self-esteem. We become completely obsessed by what is happening to us and do not take time to reflect on what is behind the other person’s behaviour.
A hating or angry person is nearly always a person who is more hurting to his- or herself than the object of the hatred or anger. But because on my part there is no effort to understand what is happening to the other person, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing can never really get off the ground.
In the psychology school of Neuro-Linguistic Programming there is a saying, “People make the best choices available to them.” Sad to say, many have very poor choices available to them for one reason or another. People normally do not hate or hurt out of genuine malice for the most part. It can make a big difference to me and to them to try to understand why people act towards me in the way they do.
I may even come to be aware that I am partly responsible for their reactions. I can well ask myself, “What is it in me that makes this person act like this?” When I approach a mutual problem in this way, forgiveness and reconciliation become so much easier. I am going to feel much less hurt much more of the time. I am going to reach out in compassion to the hurts and weaknesses of others.
Sin and the sinner
A person who is fully secure in the knowledge of being totally loved by God and of their own lovableness is not going to find forgiveness and reconciliation too difficult. Forgiving 77 times will not only seem not idealistic but simply the only reasonable thing to do. At the same time, like God and like the Christian community, forgiveness and reconciliation does not mean indefinite tolerance of evil and unjust behaviour. The king was perfectly ready to forgive the senior official but how could reconciliation take place when he behaved in such an abominable way to a brother? We can be ready to forgive the sinner indefinitely but we must fight against sin without counting the cost.
God and the Church can forgive the repentant sinner but they cannot condone unrepented behaviour 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 healing of behaviour that offends against truth and love. It takes two to tango and also to effect a reconciliation.
With God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and with the individual Christian, forgiveness is infinitely available but only where a mutual healing of wounds is sought, only where there is a desire to have that change of mind and behaviour which puts an end to the sinful way.
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.