In 2003 a neighboring parish invited me to conduct a retreat on a theme of my choice. After considerable prayer I decided to focus the entire retreat on forgiveness. One week prior to the retreat date the organizer called and gave me some advice on the things they like and the main thing was to be funny.
There is nothing funny about forgiveness and instead of laughter many tears were shed that day. I knew as I began preparing for that retreat how hard it is for us to forgive and how we hold our ground desiring the person who hurt us to come to us and beg for forgiveness. Let me remind you some of the things Jesus told us about forgiveness.
“…if you do not forgive others (their transgressions), then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Mt.6:15).
“…how many times must I forgive 70 times…no Peter 7 times 70 times” (Mt. 18:21-22).
“…forgive your brother from your heart” (Mt.18:35)
“…pray for those who persecute you” (Mt.5:44).
“…if you are presenting your offering at the altar and remember your brother has something against you leave your offering there and go first to be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your offering” (Mt.5:23-24).
If you want more I can certainly quote more passages but I believe you understand what God requires of you and me. We must forgive for it is a requirement of being a disciple and it is a requirement of being even a Sunday only Christian.
In today’s gospel we are told to go and seek to be reconciled with someone “who has sinned against you.” That makes it clear they were the offenders but we have the task to offer forgiveness and seek to be reconciled. In the fifth chapter of Matthew, we are told to go to our brother if they have something against us – in this case we are the offenders. Jesus is clearly telling us no matter who was the cause of the offence it is us the disciples who must go and forgiven them.
We must forgive as an act of obedience to God. Forgiveness is more about us and our relationship with God than it is about the other person. In fact, my experience after conducting this retreat in many other parishes is that when we do finally forgive from the heart something amazing happens. We are freed from anger, hurt, bitterness and our ability to love God increases.
In order to forgive we must understand that first step is an act of the will motivated by a desire to be the person God calls us to be. That first step is painful for us because we must set aside our anger, our desire for justice and our desire that the person we are forgiving come crawling to us acknowledging their sin and begging for forgiveness. In most cases, the person we are going to forgive will deny doing what we say they did or they deny being responsible for our feeling the way we feel.
In order to forgive we must understand it does not mean we have not been deeply wounded by their action. It does not mean we are wrong in our feeling the way we do. It does not mean we even have to have a relationship with that person. It does mean we say the words and leave retribution up to God. Yet, if you know anything about God at all you know he is always forgiving and does not expect anything in return but that the person comes to him. So in the end that passage where we are told to pray for our enemies is the next step in forgiveness.
When I conduct that retreat, at the end of the day I have with me hundreds of polished stones about ¾” in diameter. I ask the participants to take one for every person they need to forgive. They are then told that when they are motivated by their desire to be the person God calls them to be to say the words of forgiveness naming the person they are forgiving. Then after forgiving toss that stone into a lake, a stream or leave it someplace where forgiveness has significant meaning.
I had done this retreat twice in the diocese where I now serve. One person who four years after going through the retreat went on the St. James walk and told me she finally forgave four individuals. She said she left the four stones she took that day at various points along the walk. Another told me three years later that she has finally tossed the two of three stones away leaving the final one on the grave of her child killed by a drunk driver.
These and hundreds of other stories confirm to me the freeing power of forgiveness. Both the forgiveness we have received by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness we offer to others because by embracing our own forgiveness we are forgiven.
Today’s gospel is a reminder to us of our need to forgive our family members, that spouse who abandoned you, that person who abused you or your child, that friend who rejected you when you needed them most, that teacher who deliberately embarrassed you causing others to laugh at you.
So much hurt has been heaped on us and each week we say “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Yet, as we say those words there are people we need to forgive. We have to ask ourselves a question “when will we forgive as we say we forgive?”
Today we are told to go to them and seek to reconcile. What are you waiting for?