Radical Forgiveness


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (6:14-21)

Today we are reminded that we must be forgiving.  Forgiveness is a radical thing indeed! He asks us to forgive when it is easy and when it is not. He asks us to forgive our love ones and also our enemies. He asks us to turn aside from all thoughts of anger and revenge and take the highest possible road, the narrow road of absolute, unconditional love.  “Turn the other cheek.”  “Do good to those who abuse you.” How many times and ways did he say it?  And not only say it, but demonstrate it!  Forgiving those who tortured and crucified him as he suffered on the cross.

It boils down to two things:  unconditional positive regard and radical acceptance of one another, even when it seems impossible and every nerve in our being is set on edge.  When our expectations are unmet, when we are insulted, misunderstood, abused, disrespected, disregarded, ignored, when we don’t get our way, when our opinions are shunted aside, when we feel hurt and unloved, Jesus says to forgive.

Unconditional positive regard and radical acceptance are deeper ways of living life.  For example, we do not know what has happened in the other’s life to make them say and do things that disturbs us. If we knew, we would understand. The recipe of a person’s life explains multitudes and if we do not know it, we have no right to judge.  Only God knows enough to judge.

A cardinal rule in the spiritual life is to accept whatever comes with gratitude, even if it is hard. That is to lay aside the categories of like and dislike and simply be open to embrace and accept everything.  “Thank God for everything,” said St. John Chrysostom as he lay dying on the road to exile. “I have learned to be content in all things,” wrote St. Paul who had suffered much in prison and in stonings and beatings.

One of the main hindrances to love is the tendency we have to resist reality. “If you can change things,” says the Zen Master, “then why worry about it?  If you can’t change things, why worry about it?” If we do not like what we see, then we resist and fight and complain, the very opposite of Christ’s commandment. Forgiveness is a way to remove this hindrance.  If we forgive, then we can accept and we can love.  Only love can change things for the better.

We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses. (Carl Jung)

Knowledge makes love possible, so when we are disturbed by the actions or words of another person, we must remind ourselves that everyone is suffering, even our enemies, and out of this suffering often comes behavior we might regard as unacceptable.  It may be unacceptable and yet suffering is real and we must not underestimate its power to motivate. To know this opens the door to forgiveness.

It is also true that our own suffering causes us to do and say things we do as well, so we must have a healthy interest in what is motivating us to act out.  We cannot change other people. We can, however, change ourselves. So, all our efforts must be directed towards the transformation of our own suffering into love.  We are not responsible nor do we have the power to change anyone but ourselves.  “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” (Lewis Smedes)

And this truth comes out plainly in the teachings of Jesus who says that we must remove the log that is in our own eye!  We would not see the sins of others if those sins were not lodged in our own hearts.  When we are disturbed by another, it is a wakeup call to face the evil that is in us that we are projecting on the other. “To the pure,” Jesus said, “all things are pure.”  So, if we do not see all things as pure it does not mean that they are not pure. It means that we aren’t.  The path then becomes clear. The task is laid before us.  The change must happen in us.  It is I who must be purified.

It is a difficult path. An arduous journey. Sometimes it seems unbearable. Still, there is no way out of suffering that does not go through it, just as there is no way to the resurrection except through the crucifixion. 

There is no way to peace except through letting go of unforgiveness.  Whatever it is that makes forgiveness hard to do is not worth the energy it takes to hold on to it, not if you want to be happy, not if you want to at peace, not if you want to be a Christian.

There was a radical example of the kind of forgiveness Jesus is talking about just this week. You may have seen the video. In it a man who lost two brothers to martyrdom on that beach on Libya was speaking by phone on an Arab Christian television show.  He spoke of forgiveness for the killers and of a deepening of faith as he, his family and his community heard of the willingness of the 21 martyrs to die for their faith. They could have saved their own lives by renouncing Christ and they refused, dying with the name of the Lord as their last words just as they were beheaded.  The man asked his mother what she would do if she saw her sons’ killers and she replied that she would invite them to her home and pray that God would touch and change their hearts.

Love and forgiveness are stronger than death, my friends.  If we learn that through letting go of everything in us that is not love, then we will have already entered the kingdom that has no end.

May the Holy Martyrs of Libya pray for us!