Sunday, Sept. 13, is the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Mass readings: Sirach 27:30-28:7; Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12; Romans 14:7-9; and Matthew 18:21-35.
Praying the Lord’s Prayer and meaning it can be quite a challenge. Why? Because we ask the Lord to forgive us as we forgive others. If we hold onto grudges and withhold mercy, we are asking God to withhold mercy from us.
As a teacher, I have many times taught students of all ages about forgiving not seven times, but 77 times, or as often as needed. The biggest stumbling block to believing that such radical and repeated forgiveness is possible is often mistaking the emotion of love and the feeling of forgiveness for the will to love and forgive.
Emotions arise spontaneously, so if someone harms us, we typically feel fear, anger or sadness toward the person. What can transform our feelings of tension into a choice for forgiveness is found in a simple phrase found in today’s Gospel in which the master is “moved with compassion” (Matthew 18:27).
To experience compassion is to allow oneself to suffer with another. In Sirach, a clue is given as to how to open ourselves to this compassion. The author asks, “Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself?” (Sirach 28:4). How can we be swift to condemn and slow to forgive the weakness and failure in another when we ourselves fail so often?
The God-given gifts of our minds and wills are truly remarkable. When we think about how difficult our own struggles are to love our neighbors, we can understand more readily that others struggle as we do. Even when we feel negatively about another person, we can choose to want the person’s good, to pray for the person, and to return no evil for evil.
This does not mean that we must choose to be in the presence of people who harm us. Sometimes love will require that we distance ourselves. Forgiveness is not foolishness, but it is refusing to let pain become ill-will and harm toward another.
Many people involved in ministries of healing, both spiritual and physical, write about the harm done when one refuses to forgive. Carrying burdens of resentment and bitterness does more harm to the one who carries them than to the offender.
God, who as today’s Psalm reminds us, is “kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion” (Psalm 103:8), calls us to forgive, and he gives us the grace to do so. When we cannot find the strength to will the good of another, we can ask Jesus to give us his strength. As St. Paul writes, “For this is why Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (Romans 14:9). When we echo the very words that Jesus prayed as he underwent crucifixion, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), we pass from the death of the spirit of vengeance to the life of the Spirit of mercy.
When we desire and receive the grace to forgive, we are freed from the heavy burdens of unforgiveness. Even better, we open ourselves to the mercy of our heavenly Father. In Sirach, we are assured, “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven” (Sirach 28:2). When we forgive from the heart, we, too, shall be forgiven, not just seven times, but 77 times.
Sister Mary Madeline Todd is a Dominican Sister of the St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville.
She received her doctorate in sacred theology from the Angelicum in Rome and currently teaches religion and philosophy at Mount de Sales Academy in Baltimore.