Have you ever held a grudge? C’mon, who among us hasn’t? When we have been wronged, our first instinct is usually to get angry. Our second instinct then is to hold onto our anger, because we somehow feel justified in doing so. Forgiveness comes later, much later if we’ve been deeply hurt. Sometimes, forgiveness never comes. In contrast, “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion” (Ps 103). So, what is the price of holding onto anger, of failing to forgive? That is the subject of this week’s readings.
I’m better than you. As one of the wisdom books, Sirach can sometimes be a tough read. It resembles Proverbs in that its primary focus is moral guidance. Essentially, it is an instruction manual on how to be successful in life while remaining faithful to the traditions of the elders. It’s language can be pithy and blunt. “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD? If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?” (from Sir 27:30-28:7). The message in the first reading is hard to miss. Clinging to anger may feed our ego and give us a sense of moral superiority, but ultimately it undermines love by leaving us disconnected from the source of all love. The martyrs should be a source of inspiration to us in this regard. They who forgave their torturers did so not by their own power but rather by letting the mercy of God work through them.
No man is an island. Paul reminds the Romans in the second reading that we are not our own. “None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself” (Rom 14:7). Rather, we have been purchased by God with the blood of Christ. Building on the first reading, if we belong to God, there is a particular way to act, think, and live; forgiveness is an integral part of that life. Further, each of us will have to account for the manner in which we lived. Paul goes on to write, “Why then do you judge your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God. So [then] each of us shall give an account of himself [to God]” (from Rom 14:10-12). Recall the Our Father. If we hold judgment over forgiveness out of some twisted sense of justice, in the end do we really want God to forgive us our trespasses as we forgave those who trespassed against us? According to Bl. John Paul the Great, forgiveness is not the opposite of justice, but it is the opposite of resentment and revenge.
Time to settle up. Forgiveness may be the most difficult thing to do in life. Clearly, Peter struggled with it. The question he asks Jesus in the gospel reading presumes there must be some limit to it, especially when it repeatedly involves the same person and the same offense over and over again. However, when Jesus teaches with the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21), he isn’t just teaching Peter; he’s teaching you and me. If you’re anything like me, you probably find yourself confessing the same sins over and over again. What Jesus tells Peter he must do is exactly what God does with us. One of the points of the parable is to drive home precisely what forgiveness is and is not. Forgiveness has nothing to do with willful ignorance, wishing away evil. Rather it assumes frank and realistic knowledge of wrongs committed; think about how you confess sins (number and kind). Forgiveness is a choice, a loving act of the will at which we need to constantly work. Finally, forgiveness does not mean forgetting or erasing blame, but instead a willingness to allow God to work through us to draw the offender back into communion with Him. That is precisely what a priest does with us in the sacrament of reconciliation.