(24th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 11 September, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich R.I.)
The great English poet and mystic William Blake wrote a powerful poem called A Poison Tree. In that poem he describes how he was angry with a friend but was able to express that anger and both of them were soon reconciled.
But he was angry with an enemy and chose instead to say nothing. The poem goes on to describe how he nurtured that anger, he savored it and watered it with his tears, and so it began to grow like a fresh young tree (but nonetheless, a poison tree). Eventually it bore a bright new apple, and he describes how his enemy wanted that apple, so when it was dark he came into the garden and stole it.
The last two lines of that poem are quite bitter. Blake writes:
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
It should come as no surprise that our bitterness, our unforgiveness, almost always ends in death: death of a friendship, death of a relationship, the loss of some part of ourselves. And there is never the satisfaction we longed for. Blake finds his foe stretched out beneath the Poison Tree, but we know that the bitterness and the anger live on; they will not end there.
Unforgiveness doesn’t always have to be as dramatic as William Blake describes it. Sometimes it can take the form of a comment or a reminder of some failure of the past. We accept someone’s apology easy enough, but every so often we remind them of what they have done to us, just so they know that we know the score.
Or maybe we don’t say anything to that person at all. Instead we tell everyone else about what they said to us, or what they did. We want everyone to know that we have been wronged. But does that help us, or make us feel better at all?
Unforgiveness is a tremendous challenge, because sooner or later we will all experience the pain of being let down. Whether it be a friend, our spouse, the people we work with, maybe even someone in the Church—often when we do not expect it, we get burned. How hard it can be to let go. How hard it can be to forgive.
The parable Jesus tells us this morning holds the key to the challenge of forgiveness. He relates that disturbing tale of the unforgiving servant. After having been forgiven for so very much, he finds himself unable to let a fellow servant off for a much smaller amount.
The root of the problem could be described as selective memory loss. He forgets, or chooses to forget, that the king “let him go and forgave him the loan” (Mathew 18:27) he could never have repaid. That’s the problem.
He should have been overwhelmed with joy. He should have gone all throughout the kingdom, saying: “Listen to this. I owed the king everything, and he forgave me.” He should have dwelt on that forgiveness, cherished it. Then he never would have mistreated his fellow servant.
That’s what God wants for us when it comes to forgiveness. It is the opposite of William Blake’s Poison Tree. Instead of dwelling on our hurts, or on those who have harmed us—as real and as painful as that is—we dwell on God, instead. We think about His mercy, His forgiveness. We think about all the times we have hurt others, or God, and remember how quick God is to forgive us, and the price He paid for that forgiveness.
We do not dwell on the wood of the Poison Tree. We remember, instead, the wood of the cross, where God paid the debt we owed and gave us His forgiveness. That is where we find the power to forgive others. It cannot come from us; we would never be able to do it. In the end, forgiveness comes from God.
Just a few years after the Second World War, a woman named Corrie ten Boom began traveling around the world, telling the message of God’s forgiveness. She had spent years in the concentration camp called Ravensbruck, where the rest of her family had died. Her message was that God forgives—even the horrors of the Holocaust—God forgives.
She had just finished that talk in a small Church outside of Munich when she saw a man approaching from the back of the room. Her blood ran cold as she recognized him. He had been one of the SS guards at Ravensbruck, and one of the cruelest. He had no idea who she was.
“A fine message,” he said. “How good it is to know that, as you say, our sins are forgiven by God. You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk. I was a guard there. But since that time, I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from you, as well.”
He held out his hand to her, and at that very moment she thought of her sister, who had died in that place. She says, “I stood there—I whose sins had again and again needed to be forgiven—and could not forgive.”
But she knew the power of forgiveness; she had spoken of it so many times. She knew that forgiveness was above all an act of the will, and that she didn’t need to feel like forgiving someone in order to actually do so. Suddenly she began to pray: Jesus, help me. I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You do the rest.
And as she shook the hand of that former SS guard, she began to feel a love for him that could only come from God. She said later that she had never known God’s love as intensely as she did that day.
Who are the people in our lives that we have been denying forgiveness? Who are the ones that have hurt us or been unkind, the ones that we need to forgive today? God offers to each of us the power of forgiveness, a gift from the cross, which has the power to change our lives. Let us take that fruit from His hands today, and leave the Poison Tree behind.