A reflection on the Sunday readings for September 13, 2020
In the middle of the sixteenth Century, Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila undertook a reform of monastic life. This led to no little discontent in the Carmelite order. As a result, John became the victim of malice from some of his brothers. One cold December night in 1577, a group of armed Carmelites came to his monastery, kidnapped him, and put him in their monastery prison. He was accused of rebellion. As if that was not enough, after two months of imprisonment, they were afraid he would escape, so they moved him to a tine 6’ x 10’ prison cell with no ventilation. There was only a little crack near the ceiling to let in a little light. He suffered intensely from a lack of food, bathing, and fresh clothes. He became covered in lice and nearly starved. Fatigue and the physical and mental abuse he endured almost killed him. After nine months of this misery, he managed to escape in a daredevil and almost miraculous way. Afterwards, it took months for him to recuperate.
Following his recovery from the effects of his dreadful imprisonment, we barely hear John of the Cross speak about this event. Instead—as he would put it—he saw the hand of God in the experience and urged others not to speak uncharitably about his persecutors. Once when one of his companions reminded him of his suffering, John said, “Padre, this is not the time to be thinking of that; it is by the merits of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that I hope to be saved.” As the book of Sirach says in today’s first reading, “Anger and wrath are hateful things!” (Sir 27:30).
In this week’s scripture readings, we are confronted with one of the most demanding teachings of Jesus—the absolute necessity of forgiveness. Not only did Jesus teach forgiveness, but he lived it radically in his own life. In our own lives as followers of Jesus, sometimes this is easy and sometimes it is hard. At one time or another, I am sure we have all been confronted with situations where our capacity for forgiveness was tested.
In today’s Gospel, Peter asks, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive?” (Mt 18:21). In responding to Peter’s question, Jesus doesn’t simply give a number. In his answer, Jesus teaches his disciples about the absolute necessity to forgive. He concludes the parable of the unforgiving servant with this statement: “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart” (Mt 18:35).
Jesus was not the first person in Scripture to emphasize the necessity of forgiveness. Today’s first reading from the Old Testament says, “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD?” (Sir 28:2-3). Those us of who have lived through the trauma of hate, abuse, or betrayal, know that forgiving can be a difficult and complicated process. As tough as forgiveness can be, Jesus places an absolute expectation before us—that we will not stand before God with an unforgiving heart. If we do, the parable of the unforgiving servant suggests that our unforgiveness is a barrier between God’s merciful love and us. The stakes are very high.
Perhaps you have heard the story of Archie Williams. Archie Williams—a singer—is a contestant on the current season of America’s Got Talent (AGT). In 1982, a white woman was raped and stabbed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She repeatedly identified Archie Williams as her rapist. Williams was only 22 at the time. He testified that he was home asleep at the time of the assault. His fingerprints weren’t found at the scene. As a poor young Black man, he didn’t have the economic ability to fight charges brought against him by the state of Louisiana. Ultimately, he was convicted for attempted murder, aggravated rape, and aggravated burglary and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Williams always claimed his innocence. Ten years later, the Innocence Project took up his case. In March 2019, Williams’ fingerprints were submitted to a powerful fingerprint ID system. Finally, it was proven that another man was guilty for the crime for which Williams was convicted. Williams’s charges were dismissed and, 36 years later, at the age of 58, he was freed.
Since he began appearing a few months ago on AGT, he has never expressed anger against his accuser, hate for the authorities who convicted him, or even bitterness about the injustice. He said he has left the past behind and only wants to move forward. Last Friday, Archie Williams made it to the AGT finals. William’s goal in life when he was released from prison was not to get revenge against those who incarcerated him. Williams could easily have become imprisoned by hate and a desire for revenge. Instead, because he chose the path of forgiveness, Williams is not just free from prison; he is free within!
John of the Cross and Archie Williams—two men from completely different cultures, separated by an ocean and a few centuries—model forgiveness for us. Jesus insists upon forgiveness because forgiveness is a virtue of the righteous person; it is the mark of godliness. The greatest beneficiary of forgiveness is the person who forgives. Forgiveness frees us from hate, from using our energy to plot revenge, from constant and oppressive negativity, and ultimately from mental and physical illnesses. Forgiveness is an act of love towards our own selves. Most of all, forgiveness prepares us to stand before God and receive God’s forgiveness ourselves. Forgiveness prepares us for heaven and eternal life.
We must recognize that often forgiveness is a process. Especially when the wrong that has been done has been systemic, brutal, and unrepented, forgiveness may require more than just personal virtue and holiness. Those who have been sinned against–survivors of child sexual abuse (whether in the church or at home at the hands of a relative), victims of human trafficking, those who have been raped, victims of war crimes, immigrant children separated from their families, victims of racial injustices, victims of prolonged domestic abuse—can face indescribable mental, physical, and psychological trauma. While the Christian demand for forgiveness is absolute, we must be equally sensitive that the demand for forgiveness does not cause even further victimization of the victims. In such situations, it is important that we provide the victims all the time, help, support, and tools they need for healing. Only one’s own healing can prepare one to be in a position to forgive. In being sensitive to the victims of deep hurts and injustices, we do not compromise the absolute necessity of forgiveness. Often forgiveness long and difficult journey, and there are times when even personal forgiveness is a community effort.
The Church must be a conducive place to the process of forgiveness. We must be a community that offers help and healing to those who have suffered brutal injustice and hurt. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a grace-filled place where God’s forgiveness can be experienced and the place where victims, injustice, and hate can find solace and peace. This is also where those struggling with forgiveness, empowered by the mercy of God begin to show mercy and forgiveness to others.
Adapted from Fr. Satish’s homily for today. To listen to him deliver the homily, click here.
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Fr. Satish Joseph was ordained in India in 1994 and incardinated into the archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2008. He has a Masters in Communication and Doctorate in Theology from the University of Dayton. He is presently Pastor at Immaculate Conception and St. Helen parishes in Dayton, OH. He is also the founder Ite Missa Est ministries (www.itemissaest.org) and uses social media extensively for evangelization. He is also the founder of MercyPets (www.mercypets.org) — a charitable fund that invites pet-owners to donate a percent of their pet expenses to alleviate child hunger. MercyPets is active in four countries since its founding in December 2017. Apart from serving at the two parishes, he facilitates retreats, seminars and parish missions.