24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, September 17th, 2017

It is much harder to believe than not to believe.  These words, by Flannery O’Connor, were addressed to Louise Abbot who, at the time, was gripped in a crisis of faith.  I’d like to adapt them to read:  It is much harder to forgive than not to forgive. 

In the gospel this 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jesus addresses the notion of forgiveness and how it must be put into practice ‘”seventy-seven times” meaning, without giving up.  A practice carried out from the heart; easier said than done.   

In her book, “Pastrix”, Nadia Bolz-Weber recalls an interfaith prayer service on the anniversary of 9/11.  During the service, they were asked to write “prayers and laments” on brightly colored paper which they would hang, like make-shift prayer flags, from twine strung between two oak trees; there “in the cool September sunlight”.   One of them—a cheerful, yellow square—caught her eye, and read:  I can’t forgive this.  Can you?  Nadia understood the sentiment perfectly, and reflects:

I find forgiveness to be one of the trickier elements of the Christian faith since it can feel like forgiving something is the same as saying, it’s OK.  (p.145)

Christian forgiveness does not involve letting people—or any of us—off the hook.  Nor does it mean getting away with murder.  That is not the point.  After the Resurrection, what happens to those sin-sick disciples?  They’re given a second chance as Jesus breathes and releases within them the soul of his teaching and what rolled back that stone:  the power of forgiveness.  Forgiveness keeps alive the hope   that my brokenness is not the final word; that sin no longer defines us.  When we carry out this work of forgiveness we follow Christ most radically.  We practice resurrection.

We live in an unforgiving world.  We brood over hurts, sometimes for a lifetime.  We grip our resentments.  Without thinking, we retaliate and ‘got to war’ with those who offend us.  We may find ourselves annoyed by the recent bluster and rhetoric over the launching of warheads; tit for tat.     Yet, does it not sound familiar when we honestly look within our own hearts?  

There isn’t time or the space to grapple with a tendency very much alive inside our fallen nature; this urge to strike back rather than turn the other cheek.  What comes to mind are words Thomas Merton penned when grappling with the question of war.  He said:

There is only one winner in war.  The winner is not justice, not liberty, not Christian truth.  The winner is war itself.

Holding on to resentments and hurts, what good does that do us?  All it does is stunt spiritual growth and make life toxic.  It only disfigures us.  Look at the face of someone unwilling to forgive.  Sometimes I need to forgive for my own sake and peace of mind.  Life’s too short, really.  In the gospel parable, the servant forgiven first refuses to forgive his fellow servant who owes a much smaller amount.  Choked with rage, he’s unwilling to see himself in the other.  And that’s the trick.  All of us are guilty; all of us sinners.  When we’re willing to see that, then compassion takes hold.  The resistance has the chance to roll away.  Then, forgiveness stands a chance; this work of grace that happens when we learn to see life and each other “from the heart.”     It is harder to forgive than not to forgive: to turn the other cheek rather than strike back.  It’s a narrow path, this way to deeper life.  Yet, it’s the way we grow beyond the warring nature of sin that’s been going on since Cain killed Abel.  Will we ever learn to practice resurrection and so release within life the budding nature of hope?

Father Tim Clark, Pastor


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