“The Gift of Forgiveness”
A Homily for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
By Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros
The Gift of Forgiveness
(Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – Matthew 18:23-35)
1. Blessed are the merciful
Forgiveness is the expression of mercy, and Jesus has blessed the merciful: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt. 5:7). Mercy is one of the eight Beatitudes in which Jesus summarized the true righteousness and clarified the way to the Kingdom of God: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of God” (Mt. 5:20). To enter the Kingdom of God one needs to be like God. That is why Jesus, after having spoken of the love of the enemies, concluded: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). This same sentence is expressed in the Gospel according to St. Luke in the following way: “Be merciful even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). If you can forgive like God, and be merciful like God, you can reach the perfection of God.
Mercy is one of the eight Beatitudes, and it is also one of the seven sentences of the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. The conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer is also suggestive: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive them their trespasses, neither will your father forgive your trespasses” (Mt. 6:14-15).
2. To forgive from our heart
It is the same conclusion we read at the end of this parable: “That is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart” (Mt. 18:35).
Notice how Jesus not only asks us to be merciful and to forgive, but also to forgive from our heart. What if God forgave us the way we at times forgive? We say, for example: “Well, I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget”. What if God said that to us? We say; “I’ll forgive, but I’ll have nothing more to do with you”. What if God said that to us? We say: “Very well, I’ll overlook it this time, but if this happens once more – just once more – it’s the end”. What if God said that to us? Fortunately for us He does not. He forgives us because he loves us from His heart.
3. How often must we to forgive?
The parable of the unmerciful servant is a response to a question Peter asked Jesus: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and forgive him? Seven times? Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Mt. 18:21-22). That’s four hundred and ninety times! In other words, forgiveness is not an act. It is an attitude – an attitude that is born of the fact that we Christians, who have been forgiven a debt we could never pay, are to go out into the world, armed with the spirit of forgiveness: to heal the hurts, right the wrongs, and change society by the spirit of forgiveness. Jesus came to change the world. We are called to continue his work: we start by changing our own minds, by having the mind of Jesus. And if we change our minds, we can achieve what Jesus asked us to do.
This is a work of every day. In St. Luke we read the same recommendation: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent’, you must forgive him” (Luke 1: 3-4).
4. What is religion?
What is religion? Why do we need to have a religion? What Jesus came to teach us, and what new did he teach us? Religion is to be related to God; and the aim of this relation is not to ask God to fulfill our desires, but to reach the fullness of our humanity. And the only way to reach the fullness of our humanity is to be like God, because we were created on the image and likeness of God. Jesus came to restore this image and likeness that were perverted by sin. That is the core of his teaching: God is a loving Father, God is Love, and we are called to be like our Father, by loving without limit and forgiving without limit. The love of God is like the ocean, you can see its beginnings but not its end. As there is no limit to the love of God to us, and no limit to the forgiveness of God to us, so it must be in our relations to each other. In this way religion does not change God’s mind or God’s purpose, but changes our minds and the purpose of our life. Jesus is the new Adam, the new man, who lived this perfect image of God. Before washing the disciples’ feet, we read in the Gospel of St. John that Jesus “had always loved those who were his own in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was” (John 13:1). During the last supper, he said to his disciples: “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
And on the cross, he forgave those who crucified him and asked his heavenly Father to forgive them: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
5. Forgiveness is a gift from God
Forgiveness is a gift from God. And a gift is not a gift unless it is accepted. Forgiveness begins with our being forgiven first, and our accepting God’s forgiveness.
If we are full of hared, God cannot fill us, because even God cannot fill which is already full. That is why we need to repent: to allow God to empty us of hatred. Then he can fill us with Himself, with His Love and forgiveness to enable us to forgive others.
By forgiving us our sins God gave us his peace. Let us not loose this peace by filling our hearts with bitterness to others.
We have received from the Holy Spirit the gift of forgiveness. Let us share this gift with others. St. Paul said to he Ephesians: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice. Instead be kind and tenderhearted to one another, forgiving one another, as God has forgiven you in Christ” (4:30-31).
6. The benefit of forgiveness
St. John Chrysostom, commenting this parable, said: “Let us not think when we forgive others that we are doing a good turn or bestowing a great favor to them. It is we ourselves, after all, who reap the benefit of our good deed, and accord great gain to ourselves from the action… Consequently, I beseech you, let us keep this in mind, and no longer bear to hold a grudge against those who have done us injury or otherwise wronged us in some way, nor be badly disposed against them; instead, let us consider of how much kindness and confidence for us with the Lord they prove to be instruments, and before all else the fact that reconciliation with those who injure us turns out to be a discharge of our sins. Thus let us show all enthusiasm and effort, and out of consideration of the gain accruing from this, let us display as much care of those who injure us as if they were really our benefactors” (Homily 27 on Genesis).