You may remember these two simple ideas from a year and a half ago about forgiveness: A seminary professor once told us about a woman whose husband committed adultery. She went for counselling, shared her story and pain, but the healing only started when the doctor lovingly asked her, “Are you going to stay angry forever?”
[Watch Fr. Justin’s homily delivery here.]
Second, a priest once shared that every time we refuse to forgive, we’re the ones who hurt ourselves. Whatever harm people did to us is in the past, but every time we refuse to forgive, we hurt ourselves again.
The First Reading from the Book of Sirach says, “Anger and wrath, these… are abominations, yet a sinner holds on to them” (27:30). That’s how many of us are: We think a lot about what others have done to us and sometimes our hurt and anger consume us. But the reading continues: “Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord?” (28:3). That’s what God the Father wants for us today: healing.
We’re going to focus on an attitude that will facilitate forgiveness and therefore healing, and it’s remembering our own sins. This is part of what the Gospel presents: Jesus gives a parable about a man who owes a king an exorbitant amount and which he could never possibly pay. The king forgives him, but then this man won’t forgive his fellow slave a lesser amount. The lesson to which Jesus draws our attention is that God forgives us our sins and so we must forgive others.
I’m a sensitive person and have a natural temperament that makes it hard for me to forgive; I remember almost all the pain that people cause me. But every time I remember my greatest sins, this gives me the proper perspective to view people’s sins against me!
I’ve divided my life into three phases of sins: I think about the stupid, sinful things I did as a teenager after my conversion because that’s when I started to know better what was clearly right and wrong; then I think about the sinful things I did when I was in the seminary; worst of all, I think about my sins during my priesthood. I wrote these sins down as a spiritual exercise, and it was extremely embarrassing.
Now, when I think of other people’s sins against me, I think of my sins and my perspective changes significantly. When I’m hurt, I always ask myself, “How could they do that? Why do they keep on doing that? They know better.” Now I realize that they’re weak, just as I am; they keep on committing the same sins, just as I did; they do it even though they know better, just as I knew better.
It’s true that some sins are objectively more damaging than others. For example, our spouse cheated on us, but we’ve never cheated on them. However, our perspective needs to be complete: We need to know how wrong their sins are, but also need to be aware of our own sinfulness, in order to forgive and be as fair as possible. Keep in mind these four truths:
1) We may not have committed horrible sins like others, but we’ve still had a similar attitude towards sin as they did. Remember two weeks ago Christopher West’s insight? He overheard a date rape and realized that, while he had never done anything that bad, he had still used women sexually. Our sins may not have been as bad, but by remembering them, we realize that we have had the same attitude of violating our conscience and disregarding the good of other people.
2) Haven’t we all committed sins where we absolutely knew better? If we knew better, why did we still do them? These two questions will help us understand why people have done evil towards us.
3) Someone once asked St. Francis of Assisi how he could call himself the greatest sinner. He answered, “If God had bestowed on the greatest sinner the favours he has done me, he would have been more grateful than I am; and if he had left me to myself, I should have committed greater wickedness than all other sinners”. Think about all the graces you’ve been given and how many you’ve wasted. The only reason you haven’t committed greater sins is because of God’s grace.
4) The point of Jesus’ parable today is that none of us can pay back God the Father for our sins, yet He still forgives us. And we’re able to release our neighbour of their debt to us. None of us deserves God’s mercy and yet He offers it. Shouldn’t we also offer mercy to others?
When we pray the Our Father, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” “Our petition for forgiveness will not be heard unless we have first met a strict requirement” (CCC 2838). Jesus draws out the lesson today that if we don’t forgive other people what they’ve done to us, God the Father will not forgive us. It’s a matter of justice.
If we’re suffering from hurt, anger, or wrath at what people have done to us, I’d like to ask you to try this exercise when you’re ready: Write down on paper or on your phone your worst sins in life, especially the ones where you knew better, which are the most embarrassing, which you’ve cried about and wouldn’t tell anyone except in Confession.
Remember, forgiveness does not mean reconciliation. Forgiveness is when we release people from their sins against us. Reconciliation is when our relationship is restored. All of us have loved ones who have hurt us, but, deep down, we still love them and wish that they’d love us. If we ask God for an opportunity to rebuild that relationship, He’ll give it to us. But it starts with forgiveness.
Nor does forgiving mean being a doormat to future abuse, or that we overlook justice. In the video we’re going to share, notice how the people who committed heinous sins are forgiven but still have to be punished for their crimes.
However, this four-minute video (watch from 21:53 to 26:17) is primarily about Divine Mercy, which means God’s mercy. It’s about a woman from Rwanda named Immaculée Ilibagiza. She talks about anger in our hearts, and how she found freedom when she followed Jesus’ command to have mercy on others, as He had mercy on her.