Finding Forgiveness Through the Magnificence of Mercy – A Homily for the 24th Sunday of the Year
The Gospel this Sunday draws us into a remarkably sensitive area of the faith, that of forgiving others who may have harmed us. There are many who been authentically hurt and others who fear that in offering forgiveness they will become vulnerable to further harm. Forgiveness is something we experience as a very personal call; in some cases, it may be the most challenging thing we are ever asked to do.
I have titled this Homily carefully; if we read the parable closely we will come to understand that mercy and forgiveness are not something we do out of our own flesh. Rather, they are capacities we must find within ourselves. As the remarkable reality of God’s incredible mercy for us dawns upon us, our hearts are moved. Suddenly we don’t hate anyone and forgiveness flows from our broken, humbled hearts. This is a gift that the Lord offers us.
Let’s look at this Gospel in four movements.
I. THE PRESENTATION OF THE PROBLEM – The text says, Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”
Peter’s question seems to presuppose that there needs to be a limit to forgiveness, that it is unrealistic to expect human beings to forgive without limit. Many would likely agree with Peter and might not even propose to be as generous as forgiving seven times. Jesus answers by speaking in a Jewish way, telling Peter that we cannot set limits on mercy or forgiveness, but must forgive without limit.
This of course raises many questions. Some people like to use extreme examples to illustrate that they think such a principle absurd or impractical: Do you mean to say that a wife should welcome back her physically abusive husband as long as he says he’s sorry? Should a business welcome back an embezzler and put him in charge of the cash register as long as he says he’s sorry? Should I let my alcoholic uncle stay with us and disturb my children as long as he says he’s sorry and swears he won’t do it again?
On some level these questions imply that forgiveness is to be fully equated with pretending that something never happened, or that it obligates me to maintain an unchanged relationship and let “bygones be bygones.” We are not always able to live in peace and have relaxed boundaries with people who have shown themselves to be untrustworthy in a consistent or fundamental way. Forgiveness does not obligate us to put ourselves or others at unreasonable risk or to set the sinner up for another fall.
But even though we may have to erect necessary and proper boundaries with those who have sinned against us, we are still summoned to forgive them. What does forgiveness mean in situations like this?
In effect, forgiveness is letting go of the need to change the past. Forgiving does not necessarily mean simply returning to the status quo ante, but it does mean letting go of resentments, bitterness, hatefulness, desires for revenge, and the need to lash out at someone for what he did or did not do. Forgiving means setting down ball and chain of hatred and anger we so often carry about. It means learning to love those who have harmed us and understanding the struggles that may have contributed to their harmful behavior. Forgiving can even mean being happy for the health and welfare of those who have hurt us and praying for their continued well being. Ultimately, forgiveness is freeing; a crushing weight is removed when we receive this gift from God.
How are we to receive this gift? The Lord gives an important insight for us to grasp in the verses ahead.
II. THE POVERTY THAT IS PROFOUND – The text says, That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
The Lord’s parable begins by describing a man who owes a huge amount. The Greek text says he owed ten thousand talents (μυρίων ταλάντων). Scripture scholars love to debate exactly how much this would be in modern currency, but for our purposes, it is a Jewish way of saying that this fellow owes a great deal of money and it’s going to take more than working a little overtime or taking on a part-time job. This is a debt that is completely beyond his ability to pay. The situation is hopeless; the man is so profoundly poor that he is completely incapable of ever making a dent in what he owes.
This man is each one of us; this is our state before God. We have a debt of sin so high and so heavy that we can never hope to be rid of it on our own. I don’t care how many spiritual pushups we do, how many novenas, chaplets, and rosaries we say, how often we go to Mass, how many pilgrimages we undertake, or how much we give to the poor. We can’t even make a noticeable dent what we owe.
People like to make light of sin today, saying such inane things as, “I’m basically a good person” or “At least I’m not as bad as that prostitute over there.” So you’ve got $500 in your pocket and she’s only got $50. Big deal; the debt owed is three trillion dollars. None of us can even come close to paying it off. Without Christ paying the difference, we’re finished; off to jail; off to Hell. We have all committed the infinite offense of saying no to a God who is infinitely holy. You and I just don’t have the resources to turn back the debt.
You may think I’m belaboring the point, but we really have to get this through our thick skulls. We are in real trouble without Christ. The more we can grasp our profound poverty and understand that without Jesus Hell is our destination, the more we can appreciate the gift of what He has done for us. Let this sink in: We are in big trouble; our situation is grave. An old song says, “In times like these, you need a savior.”
III. THE PITY THAT IS PERSONAL – The text says, Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.
Look at that! Don’t miss this! The whole debt is paid. Complete and dramatic mercy! Notice how personal the mercy is. The text uses intensifiers: the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. This man is you. God has done this for you—you.
If we miss this point, nothing else makes sense. We have got to let it get through to us what God has done for us. If we do, it will equip us to show mercy.
One day it will finally dawn on us that the Son of God died for us. When it does, our stone hearts will break and love will pour in. With broken, humbled hearts, we will find it hard to hate anyone. In our gratitude we will gladly forgive those who have hurt us, even those who still hate us. With the new heart that the Lord can give us, we will forgive gladly, joyfully, and consistently out of gratitude and humility.
But we have to understand this. We have to know our poverty and recognize our inability to save ourselves. Then we have to know and experience that Jesus paid it all, that He saved us wholly and freely. If this will break through for us, we will forgive and love others.
If we do not understand this and we refuse to let the Holy Spirit to minister this gift to us, some pretty awful things will happen.
IV. THE PITILESSNESS THAT IS PERILOUS – The text then relates a tragic story: When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized one of his fellow servants and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.
Apparently this wicked servant never got in touch with his true poverty and refused to experience the gift that he himself had received. As a result, his heart remained unbroken; it remained hard; it was stone. Having experienced no mercy (though mercy had been extended to him) he was willfully ill-equipped to show mercy to others. Callously unaware of the unbelievable gift he had been given, he remained unchanged. In so doing and being, he was unfit for the Kingdom of God, which can only be entered by gladly receiving mercy.
Yet many Christians are like this. They go through their life unaware and unappreciative of either their need for mercy or even the fact that incredible mercy has been extended to them. Unaware, they are ungrateful. Ungrateful, their hearts are unbroken; no light or love has been able to enter. Hurt by others they respond by hurting back, holding grudges, or growing arrogant and unkind. They lack compassion for or understanding of others and consider themselves superior to those whom they view as worse sinners than they are. They think that forgiveness is either a sign of weakness or something that only foolish people offer. They don’t get angry; they get even.
It all begins with a person who doesn’t understand the gravity of his condition or the depth of his poverty. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked (Rev 3:17). Refusing to see their poverty they do not appreciate their gift; so the terrible cycle ensues.
Scripture warns in many places of our need to experience and show mercy:
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matt 6:14).
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matt 5:7).
For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you (Matt 7:2).
Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37).
This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart (Matt 18:35).
For judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. But mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:13)
The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance, for He remembers their sin in detail. Forgive your neighbor’s injustice, then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Can anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord? Can anyone refuse mercy to another like himself and then seek pardon for his own sins? Remember your last days, set enmity aside. Remember death and cease from sin. Think of the Commandments, hate not your neighbor, remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults (Sirach 27:30).
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to need a lot of mercy on the day of judgement. In texts like these, he Lord teaches that we can have an influence on the standard of judgment He will use. Do you want to find mercy? Then receive it now from Him and show it to others. Otherwise you will be judged with strict justice. I promise you; you don’t want that! If strict justice is the measure, we will surely go to Hell. We just owe too much to think we can make it without mercy.
This is a tough Gospel, but a freeing one. Certainly some of us find it hard to forgive. Some have been deeply hurt. In the end, forgiveness is a gift that we must receive from God. It is a work of God in us. We should, we must ask for it. Even if we feel hurt, we must seek the gift; it will bless us and prepare us to receive more mercy. Listen carefully to the warnings. If we cling to our anger and refuse the freeing gift of forgiveness, we become unfit for the kingdom of Heaven. No matter how deep our hurts we cannot justify our anger and refusal to forgive. God has just been too good to us. If that will dawn on us, our hearts will break with joy and be filled with love; and forgiveness will surely come with a new heart.
Living the Lessons of Love – A Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter
In the Gospel for today’s Mass, Jesus gives us three lessons on love meant to prepare us for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They also go a long way in describing the normal Christian life.
Too many Christians see the Faith more as a set of rules to keep than as a love that transforms—if we accept it. Let’s take a look at the revolutionary life of love and grace that the Lord is offering us in three stages: the power of love, the person of love, and the proof of love.
1. The Power of Love – “If you love me, you will keep my commandments … Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.”
We must be very careful how we hear this, for it is possible to think that the Lord is saying, in effect, “If you love me, prove it by keeping my commandments.” This understanding reduces the Christian faith to a moral maxim: do good, avoid evil, and thus prove that you love God. Loving God, then, becomes a human achievement.
Understanding this text from the standpoint of grace, however, yields a different—and I would argue, more proper—understanding. Loving God is not a human work; it is the gift of God. The text should be read to say, in effect, “If you love me, then by this love I have given you, you will keep my commandments.” Thus, the keeping of the commandments is the fruit of the love, not the cause of it. Love comes first. When love is received and experienced, we begin, by the power of that love, to keep the commandments. Love is the power by which we keep the commandments.
It is possible to keep the commandments to some extent out of fear and by the power of the flesh, but obedience based on fear tends not to last and brings with it many resentments. Further, attempting to keep the commandments through our own power brings not only exhaustion and frustration, but also the prideful delusion that somehow we have placed God in our debt because we obey.
It is far better to keep the commandments by the grace of God’s love at work within us. Consider the following qualities of love:
A. Love is extravagant – The flesh is minimalist and asks, “Do I really have to do this?” Love, however, is extravagant and wants to do more than the minimum. Consider a young man who loves a young woman. It is unlikely that he would say, “Your birthday is coming soon and I must engage in the wearisome tradition of buying you a gift. So, what is the cheapest and quickest gift I can get you?” Of course he would not say this! Love does not ask questions like this. Love is extravagant; it goes beyond the minimal requirements and even lavishes gifts on the beloved, eagerly. Love has the power to overrule the selfishness of the flesh. No young man would say to his beloved, “What is the least amount of time I must spend with you?” Love doesn’t talk or think like this. Love wants to spend time with the beloved. Love has the power to transform our desires from our own selfish ends, toward the beloved.
While these examples might seem obvious, it is apparently not so obvious to many Christians, who say they love God but then ask such things as, “Do I have to go to church?” “Do I have to pray, and if so, how often and for how long? “Do I have to go to confession, and if so, how frequently? “What’s the least amount I can put in the collection plate or give to the poor in order to be in compliance?” Asking for guidelines may not be wrong, but too often the question amounts to a version of “What’s the least I can do?” or “What’s the bare minimum?”
Love is extravagant and excited to do and to give, to please the beloved. Love is its own answer, its own power.
B. Love Expands – When we really love someone we also learn to love whom and what he or she loves.
During high school, I dated a girl who liked square dancing. At first I thought it was hokey, but since she liked it, I started to like it. Over time, I even came to enjoy it a great deal. Love expanded my horizons.
I have lived, served, and loved in the Black community for most of my priesthood. In those years, I have come to love and respect gospel music and the spirituals. I have also come to respect and learn from the Black experience of spirituality, and have done extensive study on the history of the African-American experience. This is all because I love the people I serve. When you love people, you begin to love and appreciate what they do. Love expands our horizons.
What if we really begin to love God? The more His love takes root in us, the more we love the things and the people He loves. We begin to have God’s priorities. We start to love justice, mercy, chastity, and all the people He loves—even our enemies. Love expands our hearts.
The saints say, “If God wants it, I want it. If God doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.” Too many Christians say, “How come I can’t have it? It’s not so bad. Besides, everyone else is doing it.” Love does not speak this way.
As God’s love grows in us it has the power to change our hearts, minds, desires, and vision. The more we love God, the more we love His commands and share the vision He offers for our lives. Love expands our hearts and minds.
C. Love excites – Imagine again a young man who loves a young woman. Now suppose she asks him to drive her to work one day because her car is in the shop. He does this gladly and sees it as an opportunity to be with her and to help her. He is excited to do so and is glad that she asked. This is true even if he has to go miles out of his way. Love stirs us to fulfill the wishes and desires of the beloved.
In the first Letter of John we read, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Yes, love lightens every load. As we grow in love for God, we are excited to please Him. We keep His commandments, not because we have to, but because we want to. Even if His commandments involve significant changes, we do it with the same kind of gladness that fills a young man who drives miles out of his way to take his beloved to work. Love excites in us a desire to keep God’s law, to fulfill His wishes for us.
2.The Person of Love – “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you.”
In this text, Jesus tells us that the power to change us is not an impersonal power like “The Force” in Star Wars. Rather, what changes us is not a “what” at all but a “who.” The Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, living in us as in a temple, will change us and stir us to love. He who is Love will love God in us. Love is not our work; it is the work of God. “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:10). God the Holy Spirit enables us to love God the Father and God the Son, and this love is the power in us that equips, empowers, and enables us to keep God’s law. He, the Holy Spirit, is the one who enables us to love extravagantly and in a way that expands and excites.
The Lord says that He, the Holy Spirit, remains in us. Are you aware of His presence? Too often our minds and hearts are dulled and distracted by the world and we are unaware of the power of love available to us. The Holy Spirit of Jesus and the Father is gentle and awaits the open doors we provide (cf Rev 3:20). As we open them, a power from His Person becomes more and more available to us and we see our lives being transformed. We keep the commandments; we become more loving, confident, joyful, chaste, forgiving, merciful, and holy. I am a witness! Are you?
3.The Proof of God’s Love – “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.”
The key phrases here are “You will live” and “You will realize,” for the Lord says that He will not leave us as orphans, that He will come to us and remain with us.
How do you know that these are more than just slogans? Simply put, you and I know this because of the new life we are receiving, which causes us to realize that Jesus lives, is in the Father, and is in us.
To “know” in the Bible is more than intellectual knowing. To “know” in the Bible is to “have intimate and personal experience of the thing or person known.” I know Jesus is alive and in me through His Holy Spirit because I am experiencing my life changing. I am seeing sins put to death and graces coming alive! I am a new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). This is what Jesus means when He says, “You will realize that I am in the Father and in you.” To “realize” means to experience something as real.
I am proof of God’s love and its power to transform, my life is proof! In the laboratory of my own life I have tested God’s word and His promises, and I can report to you that they are true. I have come to experience as real (i.e., “realized”) that Jesus lives, that through His Holy Spirit I have a power available to me to keep the commandments and to embrace the new life, the new creation they both describe and offer to me.
I am a witness; are you?
Why Jesus Will Surely Act in This Time
Fr. Nnamdi Moneme OMV is a Roman Catholic Priest of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary currently on missionary assignment in the Philippines. He serves in the Congregations' Retreat Ministry and in the House of Formation for novices and theologians in Antipolo, Philippines. He blogs:
Sr. Henrietta Alokha, a religious sister of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart (SSH) and the administrator of a Girls College in the city of Lagos, Nigeria, lost her life on March 15, 2020 in a ghastly fire from a gas explosion that consumed her school building. She had rushed into the burning building to rescue her students trapped inside the inferno. She managed to save them but the building collapsed on her before she could escape.
Why did she risk her life to save her students? Where they all good students, who had excellent grades, kept the rules, and respected her? Probably not. She willingly risked her life for them because she had a deep sense of their belonging to her as their administrator.
Archbishop Martins of Lagos had this to say about the late sister, “She paid the supreme price of her offer to ensure the safety of over three hundred students under her responsibility.” We willingly act and take risks out of this sense of belonging.
Jesus resolutely determined to risk His life and go into Judea again just to raise Lazarus from the dead. The disciples tried to dissuade Him from taking this risk based on their past experience, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” They too decided to risk their lives too in following Him when they could not dissuade Him, “Let us also go to die with Him.”
Why did Jesus take this risk and go back to a region of proven hostility towards Him? He did so because Lazarus belonged to Him as a friend. Jesus will not abandon those who belonged to Him because He is the only shepherd who “leaves the ninety-nine to search for the single lost sheep.”(Mt 18:12)
The dead man’s sisters believe that Jesus could act to save the life of their brother from death, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Jesus invites them to also believe that, because Lazarus belonged to Him, He would act even in the death of Lazarus to raise Him from the dead, “Your brother will rise.”
Jesus’ declaration, “I am the resurrection and the life,” is an assurance that He will surely act in the life and in the death of those who belong to Him. We belong to Him and He will surely act to bring life from death, good from evil, light from darkness, victory from defeat, etc. In short, He will act that evil never triumphs over good ultimately in our lives. He proved this by raising Lazarus from the dead, “Lazarus, come out! The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound.”
Our personal struggles in life and our own sinfulness can make us forget that we belong radically to Jesus through baptism. The Christians in Rome were experiencing that strong pull of sin and temptation that made them begin to doubt the power of the baptism that they had received. St. Paul reminds them that the Holy Spirit that they received in baptism assures them that they belong to Jesus now, “Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him.”
By possessing this Spirit of Jesus and belonging to Him, we are also guaranteed that Jesus will surely act both in our lives and even after our deaths. He will surely act in our earthly life so that “our spirits can be alive because of righteousness.” He will also certainly act at our death to raise us up, “If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through His Spirit dwelling in you.”
The Covid-19 virus has clearly dominated the headlines in the last few weeks. In the midst of all the scary news about the latest death toll, the number of new infections, the projected deaths, there is also a debate over whether God is using this virus to punish us for our sins.
Some say that God is punishing the world for the liturgical abuses and sexual and financial scandals in the Church. For sure, our actions do have grave consequences and God can use these consequences to call us back to Him. But what about the words of the psalmist, “If you O Lord should mark our iniquity, who can stand?” Can we stand if God holds us strictly accountable for every single sin we commit? I don’t think so. Why then do we try to separate the justice of God from His mercy in all His actions?
Then Pope Francis opined that we have the virus because nature is “throwing a fit so that we will take care of nature.” This left me aghast and wondering if nature had now become sovereign, able to act as it pleases, to the extent that it can now punish us for environmental pollution and our ignoring its demands for care. Isn’t God the only sovereign being who acts through all of creation? Doesn’t the divine will have a limitless rule over all things, even over nature and human suffering, even to the extent that “not even a single bird falls to the ground without the Father willing it?”(Mt 10:29) It is a deadly illusion to attribute any sort of sovereignty to any creature, even nature itself.
In the midst of all these depressing information fest and confusing theologizing, we easily forget the truth of our belonging to God from our baptism and His assurance to act during our lives and even at our death to raise us up. Most importantly, we forget that God wants to act and He wants to act through us; He needs our free cooperation. Remember that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead by His own power, but He chose to use human hands to move the stone first and untie the Lazarus after being raised from the dead, “Take away the stone…Untie him and let him go.” By our actions, we create the necessary conditions for God to act in our world through us.
Psalm 130 gives us four concrete actions that we can do to dispose us to see God’s actions in these times:
First, humble prayer from the depths of our hearts, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, hear my voice.” This is time for prayer more than anything else, imploring mercy for all in our world, saints and sinners alike. Rather than apportion blame on one group of persons or on nature itself, we must realize that we all are sick to certain degrees and so we must embrace the ministry of intercession for all the world just like the sisters of Lazarus, “Lord, him whom you love is sick.”
Second, sincere repentance from our sins, “If you O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?” This is the time of divine mercy and God inviting us to personal conversion and return to God. It is time to turn away from our selfishness and to begin to seek and do the will of God in all things. God acts in our world through us to the extent that we do His will in words and actions. We have been pretty much standing idle and quiet while over 60 million babies have been killed through abortion. Who knows, God may have already sent us many years ago the person who would discover and develop a cure for this virus but the particular person was among those tragically offered on the altar of abortion while we turned the blind eye and deaf ear in utter selfishness.
Third, this is the time for complete and radical trust in God alone, “I trust in the Lord; my soul trusts in His word.” Most of the remedies we have taken in response to this virus have not reflected our trust in God at all: closed Churches, masses cancelled, the faithful denied the sacraments, etc. We need to take appropriate precautions but our trust in God must be visible in the precautions that we choose to take in response to this virus. Our responses must give allowance for God to act in and through us, even if we have to embrace risks in doing so for the sake of our brothers and sisters.
Lastly, after we have done all that we should do, we must learn to wait on the Lord to act and fulfill His purpose in our lives and in our world, “More than sentinels wait for the dawn, let Israel wait for the Lord.” Jesus had an unfathomable purpose in waiting for Lazarus to die – He intended to raise him from the dead. But Lazarus also had to wait for four days to be raised from the dead! We must be patient and wait for the Lord because we know we belong to Him and He will surely act in life and in death to fulfill His purpose for us. How many sins, suicides, depressions, addictions, etc. abound in our times because we have not learned to wait on the Lord to act in our lives?
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us live our lives today with the deep sense of our baptismal consecration by which we belong to God as His children. We must imitate Mother Mary in her complete belonging to God. We must also do His will and so allow Him to act through us like Mary did, “Be it done to me according to your word.” When we belong to Him and put no obstacles to His actions in our live, Jesus will surely act in our lives and even in death. We need neither fear death nor suffering in this time of Covid-19 because He will surely act so that goodness ultimately prevail over evil. He will surely act, no matter the risk or the consequences, not because we are good or virtuous, but simply because we belong to Him.
Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!
I found this on the Catholic Exchange and thought it was worth sharing.