A woman wrote, “I boarded the car at my station and, seeing an empty seat, walked toward it. Just as I was about to sit down, another woman, coming from another door, knocked me flying in the struggle for the seat. I turned on the now-seated woman in a rage. I called her an ‘animal and other things I later regretted. The whole episode left me in turmoil of anger at the woman and guilt at my own loss of composure. But what can I do when someone acts like this? How can I keep myself in the spirit of love and harmony when everywhere I go I run into this kind of behaviour? What is wrong with the world anyway? I know what Jesus said about turning the other cheek and loving your enemies and praying for your persecutors, but my willingness to forgive and forget is wearing thin. The bitter taste of revenge is getting sweeter and sweeter. Does forgiveness really exist?”
Anger, wrath, hatred, revenge are common human experiences. We are more familiar with these negative feelings than the teaching on forgiveness that Jesus expects from us in the Gospel reading today.
Today is the 16th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. This day brings back our sad memories of the terrorism attack. On this day of the year 2001, nineteen members of the terrorist group al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial passenger jet airliners. The hijackers intentionally crashed two of the airliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing everyone on board. Both buildings collapsed before our eyes, claiming nearly 3,000 lives. The hijackers crashed a third airliner into the Pentagon in Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. The fourth plane crashed into a field near Shanksville in rural Pennsylvania. There were no survivors from any of the flights. Many of us were glued to our television screens and saw the collapse of the World Trade Center as it happened. It is a sight many of us will never forget. These terrorists intentionally attacked and wanted to destroy our nation. Even today, they continue to plot terrorism attack on our soil to destroy us. No doubt, September 11th is a difficult day for our country.
It is either coincidental or providential that the readings for this Sunday challenge us to practice forgiveness. Followers of Jesus are not allowed to hold wrath and anger against others. Christians are not allowed to carry out revenge. The book of Sirach asserts that anyone nourishes anger against another cannot expect healing from the Lord. It is necessary to set aside our anger in order to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. In the Gospel, Jesus tells Peter that there is no limit to forgiveness. ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Peter must have thought he was being overly generous in proposing to forgive someone as many as seven times. Maybe he expected Jesus to reply that just two or three times was more than enough. But Jesus is not interested in limits when it comes to forgiveness. He counters Peter with a tabulation of his own: 70 times seven. That comes to 490! This means we should not bother to keep track of so many instances of forgiveness. That is the point Jesus wants to make. There is no limit in forgiveness. We believe in God, and God expects us to forgive others. Forgiving originates in God. Forgiving is a divine act. Jesus explains this in the parable.
The parable about the merciless servant clarifies this point and adds a further insight: You and I owe so much to God’s boundless mercy that we should never even think of withholding forgiveness from others. Jesus is a master storyteller. He begins with a very detailed story about a servant who was deeply in debt but was released from paying anything by his gracious master. The compassion of the master is overwhelming. And, we assume the servant must feel the deepest gratitude for the mercy that was extended to him. We think he must have spent the rest of his life imitating the master and his benevolence. But, it is not so. The second scene is very much like the first except that this time it is the servant who has the chance to display mercy. Surprisingly, he is not merciful at all, even though the amount of money involved cannot even compare with the debt he once owed. As we listen to the many details of the first story, we can feel the indignation building up inside of us. How can the unforgiving servant be so blind as not to see the parallels with his own story? And, that is precisely what Jesus wants us to remember when it comes to us forgiving someone else. “My heavenly Father will treat you in exactly the same way unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”
Sue Norton lives in Arkansas City, Kansas. She received terrible news during a phone call from her brother in January 1990. Her much beloved, Daddy, Richard Denny and his wife Virginia were found murdered in their home. Sue’s Daddy was shot to death in his isolated Oklahoma farmhouse. The crime netted the killer $17.00 and an old truck.
Sue says she felt "numb". She couldn’t understand why someone would want to hurt people who were old and poor. The loss of her Daddy just broke her heart. Sue sat through the trial of Robert Knighton (B.K.). She was confused about how she should feel. She says that everyone in the courtroom was consumed with hate. They all expected her to feel the same way. But she couldn’t hate the way they did because she says, "it didn’t feel good."
The last night of the trial she knew there must be another way. She couldn’t eat or sleep that night and prayed to God to help her. When morning came, she had this thought. "Sue, you don’t have to hate B.K., you could forgive him".
The next day, while the jury was out for deliberation, Sue got permission to visit B.K. through the bars of his holding cell. She relates, "I was really frightened. This was my first experience in a jail. B.K. was big and tall; he was shackled and had cold steely eyes." At first B.K. refused to look at Sue. She asked him to turn around and he answered, "Why would anyone want to talk to me after what I have done?" Sue replied, "I don’t know what to say to you. But I want you to know that I don’t hate you. My grandmother always taught me not to use the word hate. She taught me that we are here to love one another. If you are guilty, I forgive you."
B.K. thought Sue was just playing games. He couldn’t understand how she could forgive him for such a terrible crime. Sue says, "I didn’t think of him as killer, I thought of him as a human being."
People thought that Sue had lost her mind. Friends would step to the other side of the road to avoid her. But Sue says, "There is no way to heal and get over the trauma without forgiveness. You must forgive and forget and get on with your life. That is what Jesus would do."
B.K. resides on death row in Oklahoma. Sue often writes to him and visits occasionally. She feels that B.K. should never leave prison, but she does not want him executed. She has become friends with B.K. and because of her love and friendship he has become a devout Christian. Sue states that some good has come out of her Daddy’s death.
Forgiveness is a Process. There is no time frame. Each person will work through the process at his/her own pace. There is no magical saying or act that will produce instant results.
Students at a forgiveness workshop were asked to list words under the heading What Is Forgiveness? Here is a sampling of the words that came up:
Faith, unconditional love, guilt free, sinless, letting go, love, intention, willingness, choice, liberation, healing, trusting, fearless, release of guilt, grace, blooming of a seed, personal evolution, compassion, release of pain, turning it over, etc.
These same students listed the following words under The Shadow Side of Forgiveness:
Loss, despair, anger, distrust, hurt, revenge, betrayal, stuck in the past, frustration, grief, attack, defense, projection, attachment to results, spite, regret, hate, judgment, jealousy, no faith, control, shame, shattered dreams, etc.1
1. Withholding forgiveness hurts the other person.
The truth is: Withholding forgiveness hurts yourself.
2. Forgiveness is a passive endeavour.
The truth is: Forgiveness is a very active endeavour, where you can ultimately reach out in love and compassion to the other person.
3. Forgiveness lets people off the hook, so they aren't accountable to their actions.
The truth is: Forgiveness and accountability are not the same topic. You can have both. Forgive another by offering empathy and unity; yet still uphold the process of accountability within the social structure.
4. Forgiving someone tells that person that whatever he or she did was acceptable with you.
The truth is: Accepting their actions and accepting their true nature underneath it all are two very different things. You can make that clear.
5. Forgiveness is for the other person.
The truth is: Forgiving another is an act we do for ourselves, to free ourselves from the pain or bitterness.
6. When you are forgiving, you are "pardoning" someone's bad behaviour.
The truth is: There is no "pardoning," just a clearer perception on who that other person truly is, and what they can still provide to your life, to a community and to a society.
7. Forgiveness is done by saying the words "I forgive you."
The truth is: Forgiveness resides not only in words but also in thought, feeling and action.
8. Forgiving another person doesn't do any good really.
The truth is: It not only uplifts you AND that person in ways unseen, but it brings that much more light to a world in need.
9. Forgiveness is only for religious people.
The truth is: It's for all of us walking the planet.
10. It's too hard to forgive.
The truth is: It can be hard, but not too hard, not when you have the right support and perspective.