24th Sunday of the Year (a) 2017
“How often must I forgive my brother”, asks the impulsive St Peter, “as often as seven times?” You can imagine had Jesus said, “yes seven times”, what Peter’s reaction would have been. No doubt he had someone in mind when he asked the question, and, couldn’t wait to let his brother have it! Probably that would mean a punch on the nose! However Jesus doesn’t say, “seven times” but seventy-seven times”. I can almost hear Peter from here shouting: “what! After all he has done to me!”
To forgive is one of the hardest things to do in life, especially when we have been hurt badly by someone we love; a spouse, a brother, sister, maybe even mother or father or friend. And because it is so hard to forgive we have many families that are divided; brother doesn’t speak to brother, or sister to sister, not to mention the in-laws. It all comes to a head at family gatherings, like weddings and funerals. I remember speaking to someone whose brother didn’t come to his daughter’s wedding. He told me that they’s falled out years ago, and hadn’t spoken to each other ever since. And when I asked him what led to this fall out, he couldn’t remember! Now I wish this applied to just this man’s family but it doesn’t. There are so many families living with division, good catholic families.
Division is a sin. We were not meant to be divided. To forgive is a grace; as Christians we are meant to forgive. Difficult as it is we must forgive. Do you remember the example of Pope John Paul II, now a saint, who visited in prison the man who shot him? Obviously that is an extreme example but he was showing us the way. It helps greatly if we can step back from our anger and look into ourselves; remember our own faults and failings. “Forgive your neighbour the hurt he does you, said the writer of Ecclesiates, and when you pray, your sins will be forgiven”. In one sentence, this is what today’s gospel is saying.
The key is to look at yourself, but don’t stop there, then pray. When I first entered religious life as a carmelite, in what is called the novitiate, I spent about five hours every day praying. Long prayers and then long periods of silence. And during those silences memories from my past would sometimes flood my mind,not always pleasant. I also realized for the first time just how selfish I had been. It had taken me 25 years to realize something that was probably obvious to others. It wasn’t easy to acknowledge but I had to; there was no denying it. I had managed to live all those years blissfully unaware of my selfishness. Yet I would have been quick to spot this in my siblings then resentful if they got away with it. I still struggle with selfishness but at least now I am aware of it. And being aware of it helps me to forgive others their selfishness and other sins.
Self-awareness is the secret to forgiving others. The better you know yourself the better aware you’ll be of your sinfulness. Didn’t Pope Francis answer the newspaper reporter, who asked him “who are you”, by saying “I am a sinner”. He meant it; it wasn’t false humility. We are all sinners. Sin is something we have to live with and struggle to overcome on a daily basis. And in our stuggles there will be inevitably failure. So, if we are to forgive others the offenses they commit against us, it will greatly help to remember our own sinfulness.
However, some people will say that they can never forgive someone. I know people who have told me this. As I said as the beginning, it is hard to forgive, and sometimes is seems impossible but that is when you pray. Do not expect to forgive on your own; no, you will need help; God’s help. Pray for the gift to forgive, especially where there has been long term division in the family, and God will answer your prayer. We are all sinners; we all need to be forgiven.