That our Lord might inspire within ourselves a forgiveness of our sins as well as those of our enemies, AMEN.
Being a Christian is a life-long labor (a labor of love no doubt), but a life-long labor nonetheless. Like parenting which continues even as the child reaches adulthood, healthful living so as to ward off disease, or faithful friendship, the most precious things of life require long and faithful practice if we are to enjoy their fruits. And given scriptural commands like today’s, a lifetime is not too long to practice some of the more challenging aspects of our faith. Jesus says “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be the children of your God in heaven” (Mt 5:44-45).
While the term “enemy” is almost exclusively used to refer to those with whom our nation is at war, in fact your enemy is anyone with whom you have enmity. Enmity includes anything on the spectrum of emotion from ill will to hate. The enemies which Jesus is calling us to forgive are just as likely a neighbor, a relative, an ex-friend or lover as they are a foreign foe. So, for the sake of your personal piety, I want you to first consider Jesus’s instructive to love your enemies in your own personal lives and relationships. This is challenging enough. Only after confronting the enemy you know, then you will be more able to confront the enemy you do not know.
So, why should we forgive? Because it is good for us. According to scripture, a life free of enemies (or enmity) is blessed with an awareness of God’s mercy, a readiness to forgive and joy. Unfortunately, we cannot experience God’s forgiveness if we are not able to forgive others. It is a reciprocal relationship. Think of the way it is set up in the Lord’s prayer, “Lord forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Do you see, the more we forgive, the more we are forgiven? Therefore, the less we forgive, the less we know God’s forgiveness. Enmity is poisonous to our body, minds and spirit. A life with enmity is nagged with a sense of distance from God, lacks the impulse to pray, resentment and sadness. As St. Augustine said, “Our enemies will not destroy us as surely as our enmity will.”
“Enemy” is not necessarily a two-way street. It may be that someone thinks ill of you even if you like them. Listen to what Jesus says: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24). You see? Jesus knows that the hate might not reside in you, but in another’s heart. Regardless of who is doing the hating, still, it is yours to seek forgiveness and healing.
The first step in forgiveness is acknowledging enmity. The business of hate and anger is much easier to avoid, so we often do. We first must admit to ourselves that we have enemies. Once we have done the honest first step of acknowledging our enemies, the second step is the practice of compassion. Compassion is real understanding of where the other person is coming from. As Atticus says to Scout in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (Chapter 3).
Such understanding does not mean excusing or even justifying how your enemy has acted. Some actions are simply inexcusable. I can think of so many inmates I have worked with in prison whose actions are absolutely inexcusable. But understanding their relative circumstances, their addictions, abusive backgrounds or poverty helps me to understand how to effectively call them to a higher standard of life. In that calling often comes great healing, not only for the offender, but the entire community.
To write someone off completely, whether it is for what they have done, or what they refuse to do, without ever trying to understand them is to offer an excuse for their actions; it is not to forgive them. For us to forgive our enemies we have to understand them beyond their limitations, some of which are so so great. With such understanding comes perspective, wisdom and a capacity to appropriate anger.
And this leads to the 3rd step in the process of forgiveness, the most essential step, and that is prayer. Prayer is so important. Remember, in the gospel lesson, Jesus ties love and prayer together. He says “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). Praying for our enemies helps us to see them in a new light. “Can you pray for someone you hate? Not for long: you’ll either have to quit praying and keep hating or keep praying and quit hating them” (Dr. William Spohn). The prayer of petitioning for the needs of others is probably the first kind of prayer you learned. Do you remember? I remember as a child, my mother kneeling beside my bed she would patiently wait through my litany of petitions for every cousin, friend, teacher, goldfish, turtle and dog I could think of!…Especially any who were sick and in need. Our enemies should always to be a part of that list, for where there is enmity, surely there is need.
Now I have to warn you, praying for your enemies, while it might well effect a change in them, it also will likely change you. You will begin to see your enemies in the way that God sees them, in a light that focuses not only on their sins, but on their full humanity, their frailty and gifts you never saw before. And you may, in prayer, be given a glimpse into why God loves them. As the gospel says this morning: “for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45). Sunshine and rainfall are quite indiscriminate and, following the logic of those images, God is quite indiscriminate in loving everyone. “The just and the unjust are all Gods’ children, and God is stuck with them, just as parents are stuck with their children, however they turn out” (Spohn). Through prayer comes forgiveness. Forgiveness is always possible, EVEN if reconciliation is not because reconciliation, that is a restored relationship, requires both parties participation. And that might not always be possible.
But forgiveness is possible.
The act of forgiveness sets aside the harm done us, and it is willing to start anew. Forgiveness does not erase the memory of the harm done. It refuses to let that past determine the future of the relationship, at least insofar as it is up to us. It refuses to dwell on the harm done, to turn it over and over in the mind and fantasize about getting even. Forgiveness admits the truth but it does not keep telling others about the harm done, or undermine the other’s reputation by innuendo.
Does forgiveness mean that we should not protect ourselves from further harm by our former enemies? Absolutely not. Forgiveness does not mean weakness, passivity or becoming a spectator to further evil. It means that we respond to our enemies NOT out of an impulse of hate and revenge, but in a posture of compassion and protection, protection for us as well as them.
The priest and liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez once wrote that the most loving thing to do to the oppressor may be to take away his capacity to oppress others by removing him from power. An example of such forgivness might be that a battered wife finds she is only able to forgive her husband by leaving him or seeing that he is brought to justice.
Forgiveness is acceptance of how things are and hopefulness for how things could be. And it requires practice. Peter asks “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often (should) I forgive…as many as seven times?” Jesus replies with emphasis “Not seven times, but seventy times seven” (Mt. 18:21-22). Think of the Prodigal Son and his return to his father, Jesus and his fumbling disciples, the parable of the Good Sheppard. The scriptures provide us so many examples of when forgiveness means freedom from enmity and opportunity for healing.
Forgiveness is not just a single act but a habitual stance, a deliberate way of facing a reality that is renewed over and over again. Just as with parenting, practicing healthy living and caring for friends, forgiveness is a life-long practice. “A person with the habit, the virtue, of forgiveness, approaches life with a readiness to forgive, just like an angry person approaches life with a readiness to be outraged, or like a proud person approaches it ready to take offense” (Spohn).
When you obtain the habit of forgiveness, you will find yourself inclined towards being gentler with yourselves. Those sins you have held in the shadows of yourself will be washed clean in the light of your prayers, even as you are praying for others. So often the very things we cannot stand in others, we possess ourselves.
“Forgive, as your Father has forgiven you” (Mt. 6:14), says Jesus. This is the challenge, and the gift of Christian life. And in its essential steps of self-awareness, compassion, prayer and forgiveness Jesus offers you the ability to seek healing and promises to welcome you into the freedom of his love.
A large debt of gratitude to Dr. William Spohn and the theological outline provided in his paper ‘Osama bin Laden and the Duty to Forgive: http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/ethicalperspectives/spohn.html.