For the folks at Gesu Parish in Miami, FL.
“Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive?”
It’s hard not to see some providence in the fact that Peter’s question falls on the tenth anniversary of the tragic attacks on the World Trade Center. And in this context, Jesus’ uncompromising response becomes especially provocative—“Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Though many since 9/11 have attacked Christianity on the grounds that religion fosters violence and hate; today’s Gospel, ironically, exposes the faith to the exact opposite charge—that it is too longsuffering and too impractical for the “real world.”
The exact opposite is, of course, true. In today’s Gospel, Jesus insists that that we respond to sin with endless forgiveness, because it is the only realistic response. In order see how this is true, however, we must talk about 1) what forgiveness isn’t and 2) and how prayer makes forgiveness possible.
1) What forgiveness isn’t is pretty will summed up in the old rule: “Hate the sin; love the sinner.” This rule implies that forgiveness isn’t simply ignoring sin or “making believe” all is right with the world. Quite the opposite: it supposes that wrongdoing and injustice are real, and that we have a duty to oppose them. Jesus emphasized this duty to “hate” sin in last week’s Gospel when He left instructions on fraternal correction. Even though we love the wayward brother, we still attempt to set him straight.
This rule of thumb also allows us to mark out two kinds of anger—one good and the other bad. The good kind of anger hates sin; it mobilizes itself against injustice and wrongdoing. Such anger represents a God-given desire to eliminate injustice wherever we see it. In fact, this is the kind of anger that Scripture attributes to God as a figure of his absolute opposition to sin and evil.
The bad kind of anger is on display in our first reading. The Book of Sirach describes the “vengeful” man, “the sinner” who “hugs … tight” his anger, the person who “nourishes” wrath in his heart. The description implies that anger becomes sinful when it a) aims at personal revenge (that is, seeks evil for another) and b) is deliberately nourished in the heart. We can recognize this bad anger because it tends to consume us. It enters our fantasy life. We find ourselves plotting our revenge, rehearsing that frosty gesture, preparing that devastating comeback. Basically, we begin to rejoice inwardly in the prospect of another’s misfortune.
In this respect, we might also think here think of the riotous celebrations that followed the announcement of Bin Laden’s death. Were these embodying the happiness of justice restored, or of revenge satisfied?
2) But this distinction alone does not resolve every difficulty. What if we find ourselves–almost against our will–“hugging tight” that anger? Anger at our abusive or manipulative parent … anger at our ex-husband or –wife … anger at God after the loss of a loved one? What if we can’t let go?
The solution that Jesus proposes in today’s Gospel is no quick fix. Jesus simply invites us to take on His own perspective, to enter gradually into the “real world.” And for Christ, the most basic feature of the “real world” is the goodness of his Father. Accordingly, the most outstanding fact of our lives should be the “huge amount” that we all owe the Father for our very existence and for our redemption. When we are habitually conscious God’s goodness, when we regularly feel the weight of everything He has given and forgiven us, the wrong that our brother had done against us comes to appear a “much smaller amount.”
This perspective can only become habitual for us through fervent prayer. For the sake of example, I know a man who discovered that his coworkers were lying about him behind his back to cover up their own mistakes. He felt betrayed. He grew angry. He began to notice that violent and vengeful thoughts were disturbing his prayer time in the morning. He even began to develop headaches. Being a prayerful man, he decided to ask the Lord to show him how to deal with his anger. When he did so, he received an image: he saw himself striking Jesus, Jesus on the Cross. Jesus, for his part, was patiently asking, “Why do you want to strike me?” As soon as Christ reminded him of all that He had forgiven him, the man’s perspective shifted; the quality of his anger began to change. He continued to fight the injustice present in his workplace, but he received the grace to separate the sinners from the sin. A certain peace returned to his life.
“Hate the sin; love the sinner.” Such a rule turns out to be the realistic response to sin and injustice. For only in this way do we renounce our claim to vengeance—both personally and nationally—without abandoning our claim to truth and justice. Yet putting this rule into practice depends on the experience of having been forgiven by Him to whom we owe everything. Hence, the more a culture loses contact with this experience, the more it separates itself from wellspring of forgiveness, and the more it makes itself unfit for the “real world.”