Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Ez 18:25-28; Phil 2:1-11; Mt 21:28-32

Last Monday morning I was watching the news on TV and there was a guest being interviewed; he was a marriage counselor. Some of his observations perked up my ears. He said that, on average, when a couple comes to see him for the first time they have been having problems in their marriage for six years. And in more than half the cases they are not really coming for marriage counseling; they are coming for pre-divorce counseling. He was asked what were some of the more difficult issues that people have to face. One of the first ones he mentioned was "forgiveness." He said, "Most people don’t know what it is." They either underestimate it or overestimate it. They underestimate it by thinking that it’s not really important. They overestimate it by making it into something that is almost humanly unreachable. Wow! I thought; many people don’t know what forgiveness is. That’s a crucial issue not only in religion but also in basic human relationships.

I know what he was talking about. Having been a spiritual director for over forty years, I’ve seen the same problem in lots of people—seminarians, sisters, priests and lay people. The biggest problem is that they overestimate forgiveness and make it into something that is almost humanly unreachable. And then they criticize and blame themselves because they can’t reach it. They think that forgiveness is to wipe the slate clean. The offense one suffered isn’t remembered anymore. All animosity is set aside and it’s like we are good friends again. Nonsense! In a human perspective forgiveness means that we no longer seek any retaliation either from ourselves or in general. I used to give the seminarians this example. You’ve had a longstanding disagreement with another student. He has said some things that really made you mad and embarrassed. But now you are trying to forgive him and put it behind you. But you keep having occasional remembrances and then traces of the old anger flares up. Have you truly forgiven him? Well, ask yourself this: if you were walking alongside a river and you noticed that particular individual struggling to swim and crying for help. You also see that there is a life preserver right beside you, would you throw it to him? If you can say, "Yes, I would," even though you don’t like him, then you have forgiven him. If you say to yourself, "No, let the him die," then you haven’t.

One of the problems is that people think they have to completely erase any bad thoughts from their memory, so that the whole unpleasant event is never thought of again. That doesn’t happen with human beings. Unpleasant events leave psychological scars that remain all our lives, just as some physical events leave bodily scars that remain all our lives. I have a scar on my leg that I got from some roughhousing we were doing in the boy scout cabin when I was in grade school. It was an accident that was mostly my fault. But every time I see that scar it takes me back to that episode in my life. The same is true of our psyches. When we have been deeply hurt, we get psychological "scars" (so to speak) that will stay with us all our lives. Years later when some random association brings that to memory, we can begin to feel the anger and animosity all over again. But that’s not a sign that we haven’t forgiven the other person; it just tells us what our psychological history has been.

The first reading we heard today from the prophet Ezekiel is an account of divine forgiveness. And in divine forgiveness everything is wiped clean. God holds nothing against us. Later in Jesus Christ that divine forgiveness is going to make things better than they were before. Human forgiveness is like divine forgiveness, but it doesn’t measure up to it fully. That’s why it’s always good to remember the life preserver story; it gives us a solid point of reference for measuring human forgiveness.

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