Year A Proper 24
In 1994, the genocide in Rwanda kicked into high gear. An estimated 1 million people were murdered that year. Now, over 20 years later, the marks of that event remain, but they are slowly being healed. They aren’t merely fading with the passage of time (it isn’t always true that time heals all wounds), but through the active and difficult work of forgiveness. One example is a photographer named Pieter Hugo, who works for a charitable organization, and whose job is to take a series of photos, each depicting just two people. Seems easy, right? But getting the two sort of people he has in mind together is a miracle, because each pair is made up of a past killer and someone who has been affected by that person’s violence.
In one photo, a woman rests her hand on the shoulder of the man who killed her father and brothers. In another, a woman poses with the man who stole all her property and whose father helped murder her husband and children. Part of the process of putting the two together for a photo is that the victim agrees to forgive. The one in need of forgiveness often brings an offering of a food basket and they seal their reconciliation with a ritual song. If you look at the resulting photographs, they depict tender moments of human vulnerability in which the sadness of past mistakes, of the destruction and violence of the past, remains etched into the look in their eyes. Sins against each other can never be completely erased because what has happened has happened. Many of the victims seem tense and perhaps want to run away, and yet there they are. They have forgiven their enemies.
Why? One of the survivors explains, “When someone is full of anger, he can lose his mind. But when I granted forgiveness, I felt my mind at rest.” Holding grudges and nurturing hate is a prison.
I read this story in the New York Times and contrast it with my own lack of forgiveness in smaller situations, like if someone sits by me at the movie theater and starts loudly eating popcorn, or takes the last donut out of the box, and I wonder why forgiveness is so difficult, and why it feels so good to cut someone out of our lives with a sense of righteous indignation.
There are so many times when quarrels or perceived wrongs become long-running opportunities to cultivate enemies and withhold reconciliation. Someone did something I don’t like, or said something about me, or someone said someone said something about me, or they voted for the wrong politician, or whatever. There’s always that person at work who seems to be undermining me with the boss, or the group of people who form a clique and separate themselves at family gatherings. The list goes on. It doesn’t take a genocide for lack of forgiveness to infect our lives.
But if it feels so good and justifiable to refuse forgiveness (because of course, I’m right and they’re wrong!), why does Our Lord insist that we forgive? In fact, that we forgive as many times as we are hurt. Every. Single. Time?
The story he tells clues us in, the man who refuses to forgive ends up discovering that he is locked out of the Kingdom of Heaven. Sirach echoes this, saying, “Remember your last days, and put enmity aside.” This is why the Rwandan man describes forgiveness as putting his mind at rest. He was being driven to distraction by the responsibility of maintaining his hate for his enemies. Even if that hate is well-placed, it eventually affects us when we give in to it. It warps our sense of who we are and why we are here on this earth.
Anger, hate, and grudge-holding is about more than that other person, what they deserve or don’t deserve. Look, let’s face it, forgiveness is never deserved or earned. God doesn’t demand that we earn his forgiveness, so we shouldn’t demand that anyone else earn ours. Lack of forgiveness is far more serious and fundamental to the human soul than we think it is. It’s a distraction, blinding us and causing a total loss of perspective. We get wrapped up in the here and now, in maintaining our own control of the situation and power to dispense mercy (or not) on another person so much that we forget who we are and to where we are heading.
Remember your last days, and forgive. The connection is clear. Do you remember that caricature of a Hamlet, holding a skull and declaiming, “To be, or not to be,” as he questions his whole existence? That skull is a Memento Mori, a reminder that everyone someday will die. Steadfastly refusing forgiveness to another is a species of selfishness that functions as a sort of denial of death. It’s a way of claiming my reality is centered on me alone, there is nothing more important than what I desire or want right now. I do not feel like forgiving, I have a right to not forgive, so I won’t. Technically, I may even be within my rights to think such a way, but at what a cost! I have turned my eyes from the life after this one and judged that what happens here and now is more important, that it is more important for me to have satisfaction now than to forgive and allow God to judge in the last days.
Whatever is going on in your life, whether you feel you have been treated unfairly or have been taken advantage of, if someone has done you harm or offended you, remember that it is all in God’s hands. He has made a covenant with us, to always forgive us when we ask, to always love us, and to bring us safely to Heaven. Sirach says, “Remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.”
There are already so many distractions in life that keep us from finding our true purpose, don’t let lack of forgiveness become another, to take your eyes away from what truly matters. Obviously, when we’re not at peace with someone it causes stress and uncertainty. Consider Our Lord hanging on the Cross, surrounded by chaos, the life ebbing out of him, and he uses that very moment to forgive. He is calm, compassionate, unafraid. The universe, says the poet TS Eliot, is always in movement and there is no solid ground on which to find ourselves, but there is always a fulcrum, a still, quiet place around which everything revolves. Our Lord is that still place at the center. No matter who or what is vexing you, know that Jesus is right there with you, holding you close, and he will be your resting place.