Following is a homily that Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., preached during a Mass he celebrated Sept. 17 in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold.
September 18, 2017
It doesn't take much effort to see that "forgiveness" is the theme that connects our first and third readings today. The Book of Sirach, often called "the Wisdom of Joshua Ben Sira," is a collection of Jewish ethical teachings written around 200 years BC. In today's passage the author encourages the notion of forgiveness in the face of anger and hate in the strongest terms. "If," Sirach says, "One does not have mercy toward another like himself, can he expect pardon for his own sins?" Makes sense, doesn't it? Seems reasonable.
The Gospel of Matthew makes a similar point, only by Jesus presenting the parable of someone who begs and receives forgiveness for himself first but, then, turns around and refuses it to another. Now that doesn't make sense, does it? Seems unreasonable, almost embarrassingly so.
The funny thing about forgiveness is this: when forgiveness makes sense and seems reasonable or, on the other hand, when forgiveness doesn't make sense and seems unreasonable, forgiveness is God's way with us and it's what he asks to be our way with one another.
I feel pretty sure that as the readings were read and as you hear these words of mine, some of us were squirming in our seats or even at this pulpit. Forgiveness can be easy. It can also be very difficult, very hard.
As Christians, we often pray as Jesus taught us: "forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us." I wonder if God the Father takes us literally, at our word? Forgive us AS we forgive others? I wonder how much forgiving would go on if God took us at our word?
Those who study such things report that the word "forgive" appears 42 times in the Old Testament and 33 times in the New Testament. Although we can add up a precise word count, the idea or concept of forgiving and forgiveness --- its meaning, its purpose, its consequences --- is much more frequently used. Something to think about as we seek to know what God is saying to us today, right now here at St. Robert Bellarmine parish on this, his feast day.
St. Robert Bellarmine was a scholar, a lawyer, a Jesuit, a Bishop, a Doctor of the Church. He was not content simply to take things at face value. He sought the deeper, more profound meaning of things. Let's follow his example and ask ourselves what is forgiveness.
Not too hard, really. Forgiveness first involves something to forgive, some wrongdoing: an offence, an insult, something that caused hurt or real pain; a sin against God or one another; something one has done or has failed failed to do, in thought or word or deed, through one's fault, through one's fault, through one's grievous fault. We all know when it's done to us, maybe less so when we do it to others. There it is. First point. Second point: now what are we, you, going to do about it?
Our first reading talks about people who hold on to wrong doing, anger or hate, vengeance or corruption. People hold on to the worst part of themselves, their darkness, like it is a treasure, made of gold. And where does that get them? Does it make life better, more satisfying, peaceful? We know the answer. My father or mother, brother or sister; my husband or wife or my children; my neighbor or friend or boss or coworker; my bishop or my priest. Does holding the hurt ever work, ever improve our life, ever feel good, ever bring peace of mind or heart? I don't think so.
As we forgive those who trespass against us ... 70 times 7 times! Forgiveness is the mercy that lets go, that moves on, that reconciles, that makes things right AGAIN, that brings peace ... even when there is no apology. Failing to forgive hurts us more than the one we fail to forgive.
When Jesus looked down from the cross at those who beat him, crucified him, left him to die, whom did he see? He saw those who stood there as well as those who betrayed him, who denied him, who ran away. And he saw you and me. "Father forgive them," he prayed, "For they do not know what they have done." Maybe it's time to make that prayer our own.
Forgiveness does not excuse what others do wrong. Forgiveness prevents it from destroying your heart. To heal a wound, you have to stop touching it. Forgiveness does not change the past ... it changes the future. Jesus taught us that we are worthy of God’s forgiveness. Jesus showed us that so are those who hurt us.
Forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us. "To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable (in others) because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you (C.S. Lewis, 'On Forgiveness' in 'The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses,' New York: Harper Collins, 1949, p. 182)."