Homily for the 24th Sunday of the Year

24th Sunday of the Year A

16/17 September 2023

In the Book of Sirach in the first reading, we are reminded that anger and resentment can weigh heavily on our hearts. The words of the Scripture tell us, “Wrath and anger are abominations things, and the sinful man possesses them” (Sirach 27:30). Possess? Other translations say “hugs them tight” – the sense of holding onto these things jealously. This begs the questions: Why would we want to possess, hug and hold onto such awful things? How often do we hold on to grudges and anger, allowing them to fester and consume our inner peace? We know the answer to this is “all too often!”.

But the reading also offers us a way out of this destructive cycle: forgiveness. “Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?” (Sirach 28:3). The answer is clear—forgiveness is the path to healing and reconciliation. When we hold onto anger and resentment, we close ourself and our hearts off to the object of that anger, but also to all other people, and to God. When we forgive, we release the heavy burden of anger and resentment and open our hearts not just to give love but also to receive it, and, importantly, to God’s love, grace, and mercy.

None of us is without some resentment, anger or hurt onto which we hold and for which we find it difficult to forgive. But forgiveness is a difficult thing for us all. It is much easier said than done, especially when our language is littered with unhelpful cliches such as “forgive and forget”. We cannot extract a memory, and to make this the image of forgiveness means it always seems impossible and we feel we haven’t progressed at all along the path of forgiveness if we can still remember the wrong. Yet when we pray the Our Father every day, in private and at Mass, we say “forgive us our trespasses AS WE forgive those who trespass against us”! The language, the demand, the divine insistence on forgiveness is very sobering and a huge challenge, and Our Lord places these words in our moths in the Our Father that we place this condition on our own forgiveness.

Many events, both personally and corporately, through injustice and evil change the world we live in or the way we live and perceive things. People, situations, governments, communities.  And we are legitimately angry about these things. Legitimately “angry”. St Thomas Aquinas says that anger is “the legitimate response to injustice”. Legitimate anger is about a passion to set things right – to bring things back into a right relationship with one another. Therefore in that sense, we realise that to speak about God’s “anger” (as the Old Testament does) is also legitimate. Not to say that God has mood swings, but rather that he has a steady, steadfast passion to set things right, and to bring His creation back into a right relationship with Him as the Creator. Legitimate anger leads to the prosecuting of criminals, the changing of laws, the establishment of codes of conduct and ethical standards. It leads to conversion and maturity, experience and wisdom, learning lessons and building one another up. It leads to constructive acts that build up peoples and the common good. And for God, His legitimate “anger” led to the Incarnation and the work of salvation that enables us to live in a right relationship again with God.

However, we also know that anger is one of the seven deadly sins, and St Thomas differentiates between legitimate anger and the deadly sin of anger. He says that the deadly sin of anger is the exaggerated and irrational desire for vengeance. In other words, when anger becomes untethered to love. And what is love? Love is the willing of the good for the other. Therefore, no matter how legitimate, anger must always remain tethered to love, the desire of the good for the other, the conversion of the other, the desire to help and heal them, including and especially those who committed some injustice. Anger must always remain in the service of love, disciplined by love.

This distinction reminds us that forgiveness has nothing to do with wilful ignorance, or forgetting injustice, or burying one’s head in the sand. In fact forgiveness assumes a frank and realistic knowledge of the wrongs and evil committed. It actually assumes legitimate anger, else there would be nothing to forgive.

But, forgiveness is irreconcilable with any desire for vengeance. And here we must note that vengeance does not only mean physical violence or explicit acts of hatred, but also subtle and covert ways we exact vengeance and break others part – gossip, reputational damage, passive aggression, ridicule, silent treatment and stonewalling, etc. These are all more ordinary modes of vengeance that inflict emotional, psychological and reputational wounds on the other, not just physical ones. We gladly and rather enthusiastically cling to the wrongs of others. We remember them and replay them because the sins of others make us feel morally superior. We all do this. We have all heard ourselves say something like, “Remember what she did to me?”; “Remember what he said about me 5 years ago”; “Have you forgotten how unkind they were to us?”. We hug resentment, the resentment we need to affirm our own moral superiority! This is not the right attitude.

Rather, forgiveness is a choice which recognises a host of important realities that flow from the person of Christ. Just as Christ leaves his perfection and blessedness in heaven to enter into broken, sinful humanity in the Incarnation to redeem it (to set right the relationship between creature and Creator), we are called to enter into the brokenness of the situations of hurt and pain in our lives, into the brokenness of people’s lives. We are called not to abandon, break down, and condemn, but rather seek to reform, call to conversion, renew and redeem, and love. There is a significant courage required to do this. Turning the other cheek is not passivism, but rather not allowing the sins of others to cause us to sin  not responding to hate with hate, or pride with pride (sin with sin). We are called to imitate Our Lord by responding to hate with love, to scandal with charity, to pride with humility.

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, Peter approaches Jesus with a question about forgiveness. He asks, “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? As many as seven times?” To which Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” This response from Jesus is not an arbitrary number, but rather a call to limitless forgiveness. It is an invitation to break free from the chains of anger and resentment and to embrace a spirit of forgiveness that mirrors God’s boundless mercy toward us (as described and celebrated in today’s Psalm). The parable that Jesus tells in the Gospel illustrates this beautifully. A servant who had been forgiven an enormous debt by his master fails to extend the same mercy to a fellow servant who owes him a much smaller amount. (Matthew 18:32-33).

In the Our Father, Jesus makes our forgiveness by God conditional on our forgiveness of others. Now, in this Gospel, Jesus tethers our forgiveness of others to our experience of being forgiven: we have been forgiven much, so must we forgive others. This linkage of the two directions of forgiveness is emphasised by Our Lord because He knows that we cannot give what we have not first received – sometimes forgiving very great wrongs seems impossible by human efforts. So our ability to forgive is not only human, but supernatural. It is made possible by our experience of the tremendous love and grace of God, and the grace we receive in the Sacraments – especially our experience of being forgiven over and over again in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is in this context particularly that we experience both the legitimate anger of God, calling us to conversion and a purpose of amendment, as well as the infinite and boundless mercy of God, the Lord who is “compassion and love, slow to anger and rich in mercy”.

And, as people, more than likely each in need of somebody else’s forgiveness, and hopefully having had the experience of being forgiven by a friend, family member, our fellow man, we can root our human experience in our history as well, knowing the freedom and peace that such forgiveness brings, and loving, even our enemy, enough to want to give that to them in turn.

To summarise, we can reflect that forgiveness is rooted in:

  • Our humility, knowing that we, too, are in need of forgiveness from God and from our fellow man
  • Our experience of forgiveness (both from our fellow man and from God, especially the Sacramental forgives we receive in confession)
  • A conscious and active choice to love: to will and seek the good of the other (acts that are constructive and build up), as opposed to a choice (or inertia) toward vengeance (acts that tear apart, break down, destroy).
  • The knowledge that our human choice and acts are elevated by grace, that our movement toward forgiveness is not only natural, but also supernatural, from the grace we receive in prayer, the Word of God, and the Sacraments.

As we approach the Eucharistic today, let us seek God’s grace to release any anger and resentment from our hearts and to be instruments of His peace and reconciliation in our families, communities, and the world. Let us recall the moments of forgiveness that we have received, from God and from our fellow man, and embrace forgiveness as a healing balm for our souls and a testament to the love of our merciful Father. May the words of our Lord Jesus Christ resonate in our hearts: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). Amen.