Thursday, July 11, 2013

Forgiveness: Why? How?

(Thursday of the 14th Week in Ordinary Time; This homily was given on 11 July, 2013 at St. Francis de Sales Church, North Kingstown, R.I.  See Genesis 37-50)

One of the more beautiful and admirable attributes of the saints—but also one that can be a bit dangerous if we are not careful—is their remarkable willingness and even desire to forgive and make excuses for those who cause them harm. 

I say beautiful and admirable because it is an imitation of Jesus Christ who, as he experienced the agony of the cross, prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  However plain it seems to us that these persons knew precisely what they were doing, Christ challenges us in our perceptions and cautions us not to judge the intentions we can never fully know.  He makes excuses for them and expresses, even in the midst of his suffering, the desire that they be forgiven.

But at the same time, to make excuses for those who do evil can be dangerous.  It can allow for its continuation and perpetuate the sin.  Psychologists speak of codependency and the consequences of enabling others to continue in their destructive behavior.  Certainly Christ is not advocating that.  It is a careful balance we must strike, because we believe in a God of unfathomable mercy but also in a God of justice. 

A wonderful, and I would say also timely, example for us in this careful balance between forgiveness and justice is Blessed John Paul II (soon to be canonized St. John Paul II).  Shot at point blank range in St. Peter’s square in 1981, he nearly died from that assassination attempt.  Yet once he had recovered enough to speak he broadcast a message to the entire world: “I pray for that brother of ours who shot me, and whom I have sincerely pardoned.”

That brother of ours?  By no means was Blessed John Paul II referring here to the fraternal bond of baptism.  The assassin, Mehmet Ali Ajca, was not a Christian.  The Pope was simply referring to this person’s dignity as one created in the image of God and, in a certain sense, making excuses by separating the man from the act of destruction he had so deliberately carried out.  What is often missed in John Paul’s offer of forgiveness and his subsequent pastoral visit to “this brother of ours” is the fact that Blessed John Paul II was in total agreement that Ajca, who had already taken the life of a journalist, be locked up in jail! 

We believe in forgiveness and mercy, but also that dangerous criminals should be kept off the streets.   We are not blind to the fact that those who have committed heinous crimes owe a debt to society; their acts of violence have penal ramifications. 

Why do I mention these things this morning?  Firstly, they are important for us to reflect on because every single one of us, at one time or another, has been hurt by the words or actions of others.  What does forgiveness mean for us, and how should we pursue it?  On a broader level, as recent as this morning our newspapers display criminals who have committed acts of violence against innocent people; the call for justice, even retribution, echoes from the radio and television news stations daily.  As Christians we are called to embrace forgiveness and mercy but by no means are we to forget the demands of justice and the responsibility to make the world a safer place.  It is not easy to discern how we should respond to the demands of the Gospel, which Christ and saints like John Paul II have modeled so well for us.  In our first reading this morning, however, the patriarch Joseph teaches us beautifully how to begin. 

We are all familiar with the Old Testament story of Joseph.  Sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, they scarcely held themselves back from killing him outright.  Joseph suffered greatly during his sojourn in the land of Egypt but the hand of God was always with him.  In time he would come to be one of the most powerful leaders in the nation, second only to Pharaoh himself.  It was through Joseph’s wisdom and strong leadership that provisions were made while the world as they knew it experienced a devastating famine.  Many nations were spared as God worked powerfully through this slave who rapidly came to rule over the land of Egypt.

But now, in our reading this morning, his brothers have come to Egypt to receive that sustenance without which they will die.  They do not know that it is Joseph, the brother they have abandoned, who now holds their fate in his hands.  How many of us would relish the opportunity to settle the score?  Joseph has a chance to pay them back for all that they have done to him…but instead he chooses to make excuses for them!  Revealing himself, to their astonishment, he declares:

I am you brother Joseph, whom you once sold into Egypt.  But now do not be distressed and do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here.  It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you.
—Genesis 45:4-5

Joseph is not only willing to make excuses for his brothers and forgive them, but he is also able to see the hand of God at work in his adversity and in his daily life.  I would suggest that this is the essential starting point for us if we are to move in the direction of forgiveness and the way of mercy that the Gospel entails.  

Joseph was able to ask not merely, “God, why did you allow this to happen to me?” but also, “God, where are you working in my life now?  Where are you in all of this that I am experiencing each day?”  His ability to ask these questions would later enable him to say to these same brothers, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20).

Where perhaps is God asking us to see His work in our daily lives, either through the adversity we experience or in spite of it?  Where is He challenging us to view our lives and the world around us from a Divine perspective, so that we, too, might receive the grace to make excuses for those around us; to see brothers and sisters instead of only adversaries; to seek, without ever forgetting the demands of justice, the desire nonetheless to forgive and to have mercy.