Cycle (A) 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sir. 27:30-28:7; Rom. 14:7-9; Mt. 18:21-35

On December 27, 1983, in Rome's Rebibbia prison, two men shook hands. A victim and a would be assassin. That is the historical moments that Pope John Paul II spent with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca. On May 13, 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca shot Pope John Paul II, as the pope rode in an open car across St. Peter's Square. Four bullets from the gun of Ali Agca pierced into the stomach and arms of the pope.

The Pope in white robes, capsized backward on his seat, stricken. Emergency surgery saves him. When he left hospital he visited Ali Agca. It was a startling drama of forgiveness and reconciliation. A greater act of forgiveness than this was seen only once in history. 2000 years ago a victim, hanging on the cross on three nails, prayed for his assassins, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus taught his disciples the noble lessons of forgiveness; and he showed this on the cross.

In the Bible there are many personalities who can be projected as the epitome of forgiveness. Jacob deceived his father and received his blessings disguising as Esau. To escape from the anger of Esau Jacob fled to Laban. When he heard that his brother Esau was looking for him he was scared. When they finally met, Esau ran to Jacob and hugged him and kissed him and showed forgiveness and mercy. (Genesis 33) Joseph’s brothers became jealous and eventually sold him into slavery. When Joseph revealed himself, they were shocked to know he was alive. They even feared for years that he would seek retribution. But he comforted them, and spoke to them kindly.” (Genesis 50:19-21). Knowing that Saul wanted to Kill David, he fled for his life. He later had the opportunity to Kill Saul, but he spared his life, because he had a forgiving heart. Stephen was stoned to death when he preached a courageous sermon in which he condemned the unbelief of the Jews. When he was dying he asked God to forgive those who were putting him to death.

It was the Rabbinic teaching that a man must forgive his brother three times. Peter thought that he was going very far when he asked whether it was enough if he forgives seven times. But Jesus’ answer was that the Christian must forgive seventy times seven. That means, our forgiveness should not be just once or twice, but ongoing forgiveness; day after day, week after week, years after years, this should be done without counting.

Jesus told the story of the servant who was forgiven a great debt. He went out and dealt mercilessly with a fellow servant who owed him a debt that was an infinitesimal fraction of what he himself had owed. A.R.S Kennedy drew this vivid picture to contrast the debts. Suppose they were to be paid in coins, the 100 denarii debt could be carried in one pocket.  The ten thousand talent debt would take to carry it an army of about 8600 carriers, each carrying a sack of coins. The point is that nothing men can do to us can any way compare with what we have done to God; and if God has forgiven us the debt we owe to him, we must forgive our fellow-men the debts they owe to us.

The whole history of salvation is the account of man’s ingratitude and God’s forgiveness. God created man and set in Paradise, but man disobeyed God and was cast out of Paradise. The first two brothers occupied the earth, and out of jealousy one assassinated the other. The chosen people were brought out of the land of Egypt, but they raised their voice against God. His people were given a nation, but they turned to idolatry. Prophets were sent to call them back, but they persecuted and killed the prophets. At last God sent his own Son, but he was crucified. In spite of all these heinous crimes, God extends his boundless forgiveness.

Today the ingratitude of man continues with greater intensity. Man raises hands against his brother. Individuals fight against individuals, clans fight against clans, communities fight against communities, religious groups fight against religious groups, nations fight against nations. The stone that was raised against Abel by Cain has now transformed itself into machine guns and missiles. The same idolatry that was seen among the chosen people still continues, but only the idols are different. God’s voice raised, but it is silenced by systems. Still God extends his boundless forgiveness. Since God forgives us so much, we are bound to extend our forgiveness to our brothers and sisters who sin against us. But it one of the hardest things to practice. We live in a society which glorifies revenge.

Hitler exhibited strong hatred towards Jews right from childhood. He could never forgive them. He killed millions of Jews. The American Army could not forgive The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Their revenge turned Hiroshima and Nagasaki into waste lands.  The late French president Charles DeGaulle never forgave Jean Bastien-Thiry and he was allowed to be shot for masterminding the bombing of the Petit Clamart. In contemporary history we can see a number of examples where men in power refuse to forgive. In our personal life too, we find it very difficult to forgive others; and we cherish revenge. We can never forget the sarcastic look of our colleague; we cannot ignore the humiliating words of our superior; we cannot overlook the angry words of our friend; we cannot pardon the uncharitable remark of a relative; we cannot forget the rude behaviour of our neighbour. Most of us have been victims at one time or another in our lives. We may have been victims of mental abuse such as rudeness. We may have been victims of ongoing psychological abuse. We may have been victims of physical abuse. As victims, we may say in our hearts. But when a person seeks revenge rather than healing, he is committing spiritual suicide. Some victims cannot find it in their hearts to forgive. Jesus said: "I do not condemn you, go, and sin no more." [Jn. 8:11] It is the right approach, the true Christian approach.Never does the human soul appear so strong as when it foregoes revenge and dares to forgive an injury,” says Edwin Hubbel Chapin.
Desire for revenge does more harm to the person who contemplates revenge, than his victim. Roger Chillingworth is a character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” He was a man deficient in human warmth. His twisted, stooped, deformed shoulders mirror his distorted soul. From what the reader is told of his early years with Hester, he was a difficult husband. When he returned after a two-year absence he discovered his wife’s adultery. He decided to keep his identity a secret from the townspeople so he could sniff out the man who led Hester astray. Ultimately, Chillingworth represents true evil. He is interested in revenge, not justice, and he seeks the deliberate destruction of others rather than a redress of wrongs. His desire to hurt others stands in contrast to Hester and Dimmesdale’s sin, which had love, not hatred, as its intent. Chillingworth’s evil intentions twisted his own soul. He changed from a kindly old man into a devil. When he lost the objects of his revenge, he had no choice but to die. He that studieth revenge keepeth his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.” Wrote John Milton.
"Forgiveness happens inside the person doing the forgiving. It heals our pain and resentment before it does anything for the person we forgive; they might never know about it."(Lewis Smedes, author of The Art of Forgiving, Morrings, 1996). So to forgive someone perfectly is by completely forgetting the offenses that were committed by the person. “In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.” Wrote Francis Bacon.

"Being unable to forgive is the greatest obstacle to holiness!" Many are unable to proceed with their sanctification because they cannot find it in their hearts to forgive. Man has no right to seek vengeance.  “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. To God belongs the right of vengeance and rewarding; the unrighteous soul will fall in due time for the day of disaster is approaching and it will quickly arrive. [Deut. 32:35]. Still, Jesus’ message was to forgive, and Jesus could forgive those who murdered Him [Lk. 23:33-4]. Hence, it should not be difficult for us to forgive. Our act of forgiveness can make the world a better place to live in.

When we hear the teaching of Jesus, “forgive seventy times seven, we conclude that it is an utopian idea. It can only be taught but not practiced. But in every age and in every generation, there are thousands of human souls that do it literally. We see them; we talk to them; we live with them; but we do not recognize them. A mother cannot but forgive her child, whatever it does. The child might disobey the mother; the child might hurt the mother; the child might show ingratitude to mother; but nothing stops the mother from forgiving her child, hour after hour, day after day, week after week and  year after year. The mother’s life is a long story of forgiveness to her children. What enables the mother to forgive her children seventy times seven or even seven hundred times seven is her love for them. Martin Luther King taughtMan must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”  That is the sum total of Jesus’ message, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Let us begin to practise the virtue of forgiveness in little measures, in the family, in the public places, in the work place, and in the place of worship. A constant and conscious attempt to practice the virtue of forgiveness will help us to master it and forgive any offense against us.