Friday, September 16, 2011

How often must I forgive?

History is replete with turning points. For the Moslem Turks of the Ottoman empire, the most decisive turning point came in 1683. The heretofore conquering Islamic armies of the Sultan were met, held, and thrown back at the gates of Vienna, Austria. The leader Poland’s Christian army, John Sobieki, sent a letter of victory to Pope Innocent XI in which he wrote, similar to Julius Caesar, “I came, I saw, God conquered.”

Historians would note that the Ottoman empire never recovered from that defeat. From then on, the world stage was set. It was nearly assured that Western Christian powers would dominate the world stage, forever undermining Moslem domination through Europe. For Eastern historians, and especially more enthusiastic religious devotees, the moment was remembered as a humiliation for Islam, and a prelude to more humiliations later on. The date was September 11, 1683.

If anyone had doubts about the Battle of Vienna, those were erased at the Battle of Zenta. The Moslems had made a last ditch effort to destroy Christian civilization in the old Byzantine empire. Fourteen years later to the day, on September 11, 1697, Prince Eugene of Savoy killed 20,000 Turks, seized the Ottoman treasury, and took captive 10 of the Sultan’s wives. By treaty, the Ottomans were forced to cede Croatia, Hungary, Transylvania, and Slavonia to Austria.

Unrest in this part of the world later blossomed into “the Great War,” or World War I. A number of territories in Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East changed hands through the war. And following that conflict, it was on September 11, 1922 the British mandate came into force in Palestine over and against unrelenting opposition from Arabs, who declared it a day of mourning. In 1998, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared the 11th of September as an annual International Day of Peace, dedicated “to strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among nations and peoples.”

And in 2001, on a cool Tuesday morning, the 11th of September, the United States became part of a conflict she did not begin and, very likely, will not see finished. It is, perhaps, fitting that on this day of national remembrance we dedicate a memorial in New York city which is essentially two giant holes in the ground—decorated scars on our collective memory.

In today’s Gospel, Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother who sins against me?” I suspect he was at least partly looking for permission to give up. Jesus wants us to understand today that it is part of his plan that the Church be a place of healing and forgiveness and mercy.

What is forgiveness? Most of us probably think of it incorrectly. So often another person does something wrong and says, “I’m sorry.” And then we respond by saying, “That’s alright. It was nothing. Don’t worry about it. No problem. It couldn’t be helped.” But that’s not forgiveness—it’s called being polite.

Forgiveness requires an acknowledgement that a true wrong has been committed. An apology is a self-accusation of guilt, and often a request for mercy. Forgiveness is when the injured party shows the guilty mercy. Mercy means giving someone better that what they deserve. In terms of forgiveness, it means forgoing our rightful claims of vengeance. Forgiveness means to surrender my right to hurt you for hurting me. But there are many things that disrupt this process.

Forgiveness is very often an extremely difficult thing to do. The more grievous the sin, the more difficult it is to forgive. There is something to be said for the analogy of forgiving debts—the more expensive the amount to be forgiven, the higher the personal sacrifice on the part of the injured party.

What gets in the way of forgiveness? It can be a general reluctance to forgive or to be merciful—a hardness of heart. It can be our sense of injustice—that they’d be getting away with it. It can be our pride, or simply a natural competitive spirit—it would feel like the other person won if you backed down.

Jesus shows us today how the unwillingness to be merciful ourselves keeps us from enjoying the mercy of our heavenly Father. You must forgive to be forgiven. You must be a healer to be healed yourself. In the book of Sirach in the Old Testament, we read, “Anger and wrath, these are abominations, and the sinful man will posses them. He that takes vengeance will suffer vengeance from the Lord,and he will firmly establish his sins. Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.”

Also, St. Paul warned us today to be careful how we judge others. “Each of us shall give an account of himself to God.” And Jesus gave us the parable of a king who forgave the debt of a wicked servant. The servant was wicked because he did not forgive another person his debt as the first servant had himself been forgiven by the king. As it must be, he got caught, and he was no longer shown mercy. Jesus uses this to show how we should forgive others as God our King forgave us.

Jesus said, “The master delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all of his debt. So also my heavenly father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Jesus said virtually the same thing when commenting on the prayer he taught the disciples, which we now call the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus said, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive other their trespasses, your heavenly Father will not forgive you.”

Mercy is available to us in abundance, but it is the merciful who find mercy. If we do not forgive others, we should not expect forgiveness for ourselves. We should rather expect that God, like this earthly king, will throw us like this servant into a kind of “debtor’s prison.”

What is the debtor’s prison for paying the debt of sin? The prison is hell—a chamber of horrors, cut off forever from God’s goodness and mercy. As hard as one may try, no one can ever work off the debt of sin. There, in hell, a sinner remains trapped, imprisoned, doomed—held by the chains of his own sin, because he has refused the only key that can undue his shackles—the key of God’s mercy.

Peter said, “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother who sins against me?” Jesus tells him to keep on forgiving—there should be mercy without end. Why? because that’s how God is treating us—with mercy after mercy.

Patient, repeated forgiveness is a part of Jesus’ plan for his Church. As often as someone would turn to us to say, “I’m sorry, please forgive me,” we should be willing to show the same mercy that he wants to shower upon us—the mercy that we see time and time again at the cross.

Today is a day of remembrance. Let us recall our national wounds and our own wounds. Let us never forget what others have done to us. Let us remember so that we will never hold it against them. Let us never forget what they have done so that we shall never lose an opportunity to show mercy to others as God has shown mercy to us.

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