Sunday, February 18 (O.S., February 5), 2017: Cheesefare Sunday; Sunday of Forgiveness Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise of Bliss; Apodosis of the Meeting of the Lord. Holy Martyr Agatha (251). Martyr Theodoula, and Martyrs Helladius, Macarius, Boethos, and Evagrius (304). St. Theodosius, Archbishop of Chernihiv (1696).
Ss. Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Forgiveness is the Christian tradition’s response to not only the petty annoyances of everyday life and the conflicts that corrode our relationships with family members, friends, and colleagues. It is also our response to systemic social injustice and the naked manifestations of evil.
In the Gospel, our Lord calls us to forgive all from to the most innocuous to the most horrific of harms. If I don’t understand this, if I don’t understand that I must always be ready to forgive and to counsel forgiveness, I’ve missed the point not simply of today’s Gospel reading but of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The world will often scoff at the Christian’s call to forgive. This happens not because forgiveness is seen as hard–though it is often so hard as to require heroic virtue from us–but because forgiveness undercuts the sinful heart’s desire to “lord it over” others (Matthew 20:25, NKJV).
This temptation to exercise power isn’t limited to “the rulers of the Gentiles.” It is a common human failing. This why in His response to the bickering of the Apostles over who is the greatest among them, Jesus says “whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28, NKJV).
And yet we need to be careful. We need to understand what forgiveness is and, maybe more importantly, what it isn’t.
When I forgive someone, I lay aside, I give up, my desire to punish them for an offense. To the unforgiving heart, it doesn’t matter if the offense was great or small, real or imagined, intentional or inadvertent. What matters to the unforgiving heart is that someone–indeed, anyone–suffers. To the unforgiving heart, someone must be punished.
Not punishing those who harm us isn’t the same as saying the offense didn’t happen or that it didn’t matter. Nor does forgiveness rule out restitution.
No, what forgiveness does is create a space, it creates the opportunity, for the offender to repent, for restitution to be made and for the reconciliation of those who are estranged.
Sadly, we have all of us had the experience someone who is always willing to remind us of our shortcomings and failures. There are those who see in the failures of their neighbor an opportunity to shame the person, to use their neighbor’s weakness as a way “lording it over” the person.
When this happens, I’ll speak simply for myself here, I resist acknowledging my fault. The more the other person tries to shame me, the less willing I am to examine myself and so to repentant.
This isn’t simply because I am a sinner, though I am, but because shame cripples us.
To forgive then means more than not punishing someone; it also means refusing to shame the person who has harmed me. I do this so that he or she is free to undertake the hard and necessary work of self-examination.
As I said a moment ago, forgiveness is the first step toward reconciliation. These are, however, very different actions. While I am always free to forgive, reconciliation requires the cooperation of the other person.
Even assuming a mutual willingness to reconcile, circumstances may prevent this from happening. Once lost, trust in an intimate relationship can be hard to re-establish. Or maybe the harm caused is not simply personal but social–I wound not only my neighbor’s heart and so our relationship but his reputation. This is why gossip is so deadly. It can destroy a person’s place in the community.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we prepare to begin the Great Fast and our journey to greet the Risen Lord Jesus, we are commanded by that same Lord to forgive. While last week we told to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to visit the lonely, sick and imprisoned, today we are told to do only one thing. To forgive.
Let us repent the desire to “lord it over” others.
Let us repent of our fantasies of revenge.
Let us repent of our desire to punish or humiliate those who have harmed or offended us.
Let us, in a word, forgive.
Forgive me a sinner!