Homily for September 13,2020

  The Power of Forgiveness

Homily for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 13, 2020

One of my favorite religious stories is about the great preacher Reverend Norman Vincent Peale. After a morning service one Sunday, a lady came up to him and said, “I listened to your sermon, but I want to tell you that I itch all over.” The pastor smiled and replied, “I’ve had many results from my sermons, but that’s the most remarkable one I’ve ever had.” The woman went on, “I normally itch a great deal, but I itch worse when I’m in church. I sometimes feel that I should not come to church because I itch so badly.” The pastor became interested in this woman and asked for the name of her doctor and permission to speak to him.

Peale called the doctor, described the situation, and asked, “What’s wrong with her? She says she itches all over.” The doctor replied, “Oh, she’s got eczema.” Peale responded, “But I didn’t see any evidence of a rash.” The doctor replied, “It’s not on her arms. It’s on her insides. She has eczema of the soul.” Pastor Peale said that he had never heard of such a disease. The doctor admitted, “You’ll never find it on a list of diseases.” He went on to explain, “The woman has a virulent, violent, evil hatred of her sister. She feels that her sister defrauded her when they probated the father’s will. She hasn’t spoken to her sister for twenty years now. She is absolutely foul on the inside with her hate.”

When the woman came back to see the pastor, he explained to her what he had learned from the doctor. He suggested that she get down on her knees, surrender her hatred, and lovingly pray for her sister. She was reluctant at first, but finally agreed. Peale then said, “That isn’t enough! Tell Jesus that you love your sister.” Well, a few weeks later, the two sisters walked down the aisle hand in hand, and the woman with spiritual eczema didn’t itch anymore.

I did a little research on this and found that there is a Doctor named Robert Enright who includes forgiveness in his therapy sessions. He is helping women who have been injured in the past, many of them victims of abuse and incest. He set up two groups. One group included women who were receiving forgiveness therapy, and the other receiving more normal therapy without the forgiveness component. He found that the forgiveness therapy group had shown greater improvement in emotional and psychological health than the group that did not receive forgiveness therapy! Other researchers have had similar results. They find that forgiveness is healthy. It doesn’t mean that what the offender did was right, but forgiveness cleans the system of the stress that makes people feel like helpless victims. When we fail to forgive, oftentimes the other person simply goes along merrily with their life, while we continue to carry the poison of hatred and injured feelings inside us—and that takes a toll on our emotional and spiritual health. So, psychologists and researchers advise that forgiveness produces positive results in the person who forgives, whether or not he or she receives any kind of satisfaction or apology.

Jesus adds another dimension to the question of forgiveness. He asks us to imitate our heavenly Father, who has forgiven us, and never tires of forgiving us whenever we ask. Should we not want to imitate the one who knows us best? And, to be honest, there is a kind of selfish aspect to forgiveness: if we fail to forgive someone, can we honestly expect to be forgiven by God? When we ask forgiveness in such a case, we have less of a foundation to stand on.

One of the first stories I remember hearing as a young child was about a duel between the sun and the wind. They both claimed to be stronger than the other. So to prove it, they agreed on a contest. Who could get a coat off a man? The wind tried to dislodge the coat by blowing harder and harder. But it found that the harder it blew, the more the man pulled the coat to himself, only hanging on all the more. When it was the sun’s turn, it smiled a big smile, sending rays of warmth toward the man. As the man heated up, he gladly took the coat off—by himself!

For some time I have been receiving daily reflections from a place in New Mexico called the Center for Action and Contemplation. Recently, there have been items for meditation about justice: what kind of justice will have the most positive impact on people’s lives? The author points out that much of our system of justice is based on retribution—getting even, making a person pay, locking him or her up. He suggests that such a system doesn’t work that well, our jails and prisons get more and more full and, after release, many simply return to a life of violence and crime. There is a better approach called restorative justice, which seeks to heal rather than punish, and to restore dignity and relationships within the community.

The author invites us to take a good look at how Jesus dealt with people. Take Zacchaeus as an example. Jesus doesn’t belittle or yell at him; instead, he goes to his home, shares a meal, and treats him as a friend. The author concludes, “We think fear, anger, divine intimidation, threat and punishment are going to lead people to love. That doesn’t work! You can’t lead people to the highest by teaching them the lowest.” Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus the tax collector has a remarkable result. When bathed in Jesus love and forgiveness, the tax collector has a change of heart. There is no retribution; rather, there is restoration—Zacchaeus is restored to those he has harmed, to the larger community, to God, and to the best version of himself.

And so, Jesus invites us, in response to Peter’s question in today’s Gospel, “How often must I forgive my brother?” to practice forgiveness, not as a begrudging act, but as a lifestyle rooted in God. Forgiveness is so important to God that it is modeled for us not only in Jesus’ ministry, but also in his death. Even on the cross Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We have been reflecting for some time about the divisiveness in our society, particularly in light of the coming election. Once again, I ask you to think about what we can offer, precisely as Christians, to the healing of our society. Today’s readings invite us to consider the power of forgiveness. Rather than getting even or desiring to punish those with whom we disagree, what we really need is healing, reconciliation and the restoration of a sense of community. Certainly those who have done wrong and broken the law will need to atone for what they have done. But that does not mean that we need to continue the cycle of mutual disrespect, suspicion and hate. Real change comes when we respect the God-given dignity of all people, and seek to build bridges of love rather than walls of hate.