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24th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Meditation Reflection: Matthew 18:21-35
The three essential phrases required in every relationship include: “I love you,” “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you.” We all need affirmation of love since our deepest desire as creatures made in the image and likeness of God is to love and be loved. As persons wounded by original sin, we also need to give and receive forgiveness.
The more we love, the greater the offense when we mess up. If I hold up the line at the grocery store because I forgot an item on my list, I will upset the people behind me, but they won’t take it personally. They may utter some unkind words or sigh loudly, but by the next day it’s forgotten. If however I hold up a family member or friend from getting somewhere together on time due to my forgetfulness it can feel more personal and a failure to love the way they deserve.
Moreover, if a person’s in a bad mood and snaps at her coworkers, they’ll be upset but shake it off. Whereas, if she brings that bad mood home and takes it out on her family then it can damage and chip away at those relationships.
Mistakes and stress are daily occurrences, thus the need to apologize quickly and acknowledge the mess-up or failure of character in order to reestablish right relationship. It’s amazing how simply taking responsibility for a mistake or bad behavior can put people in a much more forgiving disposition.
C.S. Lewis, in his essay On Forgiveness, made an important distinction between mistakes which are excusable and mistakes which require forgiveness. All offenses are not equal, and he notes that oftentimes when we attempt to apologize, we in fact try to excuse away responsibility. If something is excusable however then it really doesn’t require forgiveness. By definition, a reasonable excuse implies that the wrong was not your fault. He observed,
“I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking Him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says “Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.” But excusing says “I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.” If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive.“
This distinction applies to our view of forgiving others as well. By confusing excusing with forgiving, we may think that if we forgive someone, we are saying what they did was okay or accepting that they aren’t really responsible. In consequence it feels inauthentic or false. However, forgiveness does not excuse but rather acknowledges the real offense and mercifully gives reconciliation as a gift. This means surrendering bitterness and ill-wishes, but it does not mean you have to trust the person or like them. C.S. Lewis explains it like this:
“[Many people] think that if you ask them to forgive someone who has cheated or bullied them you are trying to make out that there was really no cheating or no bullying. But if that were so, there would be nothing to forgive. They keep on replying, “But I tell you the man broke a most solemn promise.” Exactly: that is precisely what you have to forgive. (This doesn’t mean that you must necessarily believe his next promise. It does mean that you must make every effort to kill every taste of resentment in your own heart – every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out.)“
On the other hand, since forgiveness is a free act of mercy by the offended, it can be intimidating to admit guilt. What if you let down your guard and admit your fault in all truth? You will be in debt to that person and they could hold it over you. They could also look down on you. After all, the root of our sins are ugly – pride, vanity, foolishness, envy, baseness, etc. If I don’t want people to see my house in a wreck, why would I let them see my soul in a wreck?
Unfortunately, this fear of rejection can color our approach to God’s forgiveness too. Pope Francis commented in The Name of God is Mercy, that most people haven’t experienced mercy in their own lives, so they assume they won’t receive mercy from God. St. Faustina also decried this attitude as Jesus revealed to her that His greatest wound was a lack of trust in His mercy on the part of souls. He asked Faustina to have the Divine Mercy image painted, and Feast of Mercy established the Sunday after Easter. Pope St. John Paul II recognized the authenticity and timeliness of this message and created the desired feast day. C.S. Lewis described this anguish we feel approaching God for confession and encouraged his readers saying,
“A great deal of our anxiety to make excuses comes from not really believing in it, from thinking that God will not take us to Himself again unless He is satisfied that some sort of case can be made out in our favour. But that would not be forgiveness at all. Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowance have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness, and that we can always have from God if we ask for it.“
Lastly, Jesus’ exhortation on forgiveness includes the question of the ongoing repetitiveness of offenses. It’s one thing to forgive big sins, but oftentimes the need to forgive the petty daily jabs can get the better of us, especially from those who do not apologize. Jesus modelled this frustrating kind of love in that He first loved us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). So, if we are to follow His great commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34), we must bear wrongs patiently. We must graciously excuse the excusable, and mercifully forgive the inexcusable. By doing this, we evangelize about God’s mercy by our action encouraging the offender that if you can forgive them, God can too. We also acknowledge with humility that we too are sinners. We need the forgiveness and patience of others as well. Not only that, but our own forgiveness by God will be measured by our forgiveness toward others.
- Reflect on the difference between an excuse and an admission of guilt.
- How do you excuse your guilt away? Why do you think that is?
- On the other hand, how do you sometimes assume guilt rather than an excuse it when it comes to other people?
- Take a moment to examine your conscience and come before God in prayer asking for forgiveness.
- Consider who may need your forgiveness. How might you offer mercy to him or her – whether for a regular fault or for a major injustice?
- Offer the “justice” or revenge you desire to God
- Pray for his or her conversion
- Consider that forgiveness is an opportunity. Since God has forgiven you so generously and joyfully, forgiving someone who has hurt you is an opportunity to do the same for someone else.
- We need the help of grace to forgive. Take a moment to ask Christ for the strength to have a merciful heart.
Make a Resolution (Practical Application):
- Pray Psalm 51 each day this week. It’s David’s psalm praying for God’s forgiveness and trusting in His mercy.
- Bear wrongs patiently during the day.
- Extend mercy and forgiveness to someone who needs it from you.
- Let an old grudge go.
~ Written by Angela Jendro © 2019
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You can find C.S. Lewis’ essay on Forgivenss in The Weight of Glory: A Collection of Lewis’ Most Moving Addresses