Today’s gospel reading is about forgiveness. What is forgiveness? According to the dictionary it means “to cease to feel resentment against (an offender)” or “to grant relief from a payment.”
It is no surprise then that the gospel reading speaks of forgiveness in these terms of debts and payments. But the truth is that it is easy to speak about forgiveness. It is easy to imagine ourselves being forgiving people. But in reality it can be very very difficult to forgive others. The more difficult it is for us to forgive others, the more it is a sign of the hurt and pain that they have caused us. But here is the rub, the more hurtful that the actions of someone have been towards us, the more important it is for us to focus on the task of forgiving them. Why? Because the pain and the resentment that you feel towards that person is a sign of the space they have taken up in your heart. But if we don’t remove that resentment from our hearts, there is no space left for God.
Sometimes we want people to make things right. To restore what they have taken from us. Sometimes we want them to apologize. Sometimes those things happen. Sometimes people go out of their way to ask forgiveness and to try and correct situations where they may have offended others. But guess what? Sometimes, that doesn’t happen. So what do we do with that as people of God? Well, what would God do? Rather, what has God done?
When we look at the image of our Lord Jesus Christ crucified we are granted the gift of seeing love incarnate, mercy incarnate and yet forgiveness incarnate. Forgiveness made flesh. You pray and you tell God that it is difficult to forgive others and He alone can stare back at you and agree with you. Forgiveness is difficult. Yet the heart of Jesus Christ was filled with with divine mercy and forgiveness for all of mankind, even those who were involved with His betrayal and crucifixion, even those who stand around at the cross and mocked Him while He was in the midst of the most brutal suffering imaginable. So God understands forgiveness. He understands what He asks and demands of us as His children. And as we focus our eyes on Him we find the strength and the courage necessary to heal and to reflect this forgiveness because we know that from the depths of our heart, we needed Christ’s forgiveness. Each one of us has sinned. Each one of us has sometimes hurt others either in deed or word or thought. Each one of us has had moments when we are less than perfect. Each of us has had moments where we made enemies of others or we were enemies of God.
Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate the memory of one of the great saints, Moses the Ethiopian. Can I tell you something? He was a terrible human being. He was a gang leader, a murderer, a thief and who knows what else. Yet one day the love of Christ somehow reached in through the smallest crack in his stone heart, and a change began to take place. Here we are more than 1600 years later and we still speak about this man who lived in the middle of the Egyptian desert. Why? Because this man Moses, knew that God had forgiven him so much and he reflected this sense of gratitude for God’s love and forgiveness for the rest of his life. His life was truly transformed and he radiated the love and mercy of a God who had forgiven him of every terrible, rotten and sinful thing he had ever done. How could he not be transformed by such forgiveness?
Everything becomes easier when we turn our perspective and our focus back to Christ. But everything becomes far more difficult as we turn inwardly and focus on our feelings, our emotions, our pains, our memories of the past. When we dwell in that place, we are dwelling near hell. Instead we want to acknowledge the past and turn our gaze towards Christ. We have been forgiven, my brothers and sisters and so we choose to forgive. We live through God’s forgiveness and so we choose to live forgiveness daily. And we have plenty of opportunities for practicing don’t we?
Families are a great place to practice forgiveness. Not only parents forgiving children but children forgiving parents and siblings forgiving siblings. How sad it is that some grown siblings don’t talk and don’t communicate with one another! In a house where there is forgiveness starting from the top down, this might be avoided.
It is the same here in the life of the Church. We are a close knit family and often through some careless words or actions, we find that we might have offended or hurt others. Let us run to ask forgiveness and let us run twice as quickly to offer genuine forgiveness to those who are seeking this gift. This doesn’t only apply to the people, but to the priest and deacon and yes even the hierarchs of the Church. It is built into the liturgy in fact. The priest turns around before partaking of the Holy body and blood of Christ and he asks forgiveness of everyone. Hopefully this also has a healing top down effect in the life of the church.
We have plenty of opportunities for struggle and growth especially in the area of forgiveness because people just like us, will continue to be less than perfect and give us plenty of chances to practice this art. Yet we are convinced that there is a path forward because while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us and God forgave us all. May we focus our lives on this and allow it to change us and to make us holy men and women. St. Mark the Ascetic wrote, “The sign of sincere love is to forgive wrongs done to us. It was with such love that the Lord loved the world.”