This homily was delivered by Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry, at the Cathedral of Saint Eugene, Derry, for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
At this stage in the Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus continues to tell his disciples how their community of believers – which he calls ‘the Church’ – should live in ways that are radically different from their surrounding culture. Two weeks ago, we heard about the need to call people to truth. Last week and today we hear Jesus speak about abundant forgiveness. Proclaiming the truth without a radical offering of forgiveness misses the richness of Jesus’ message. What might we learn from the Master?
Firstly, Jesus was clear from the beginning of his public life that he was concerned about healing all that was broken in us. To the cripple let down through the roof, he first said, “Your sins are forgiven.” And then he healed him. Jesus reveals a God who is outrageously forgiving, so that people, no matter how deep the wounds that they suffered and caused, might be healed by forgiveness. Therefore, he went most of all to those who felt they were unforgivable. He knew that the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners needed to know God’s healing, forgiving love for them. Being cast out of the community on the basis of their lifestyle didn’t help. Those who hurt others are very often carrying much pain and rejection. Even on the cross, Jesus prays for forgiveness for those who are killing him, not vengeance on those who are offending his divine majesty. They know not what they do. God is unreasonably generous to the Prodigal Son and to those workers who come at the last hour of the day. Similarly, last week, when Peter asked about forgiveness, Jesus gives a divinely outrageous answer about how often you should be ready to forgive. Today Jesus rebukes those would ration our mercy according to some sensible human standards.
There is much need for that divine healing forgiveness in our church and society. Many people bear life-long hurts caused by painful memories of harsh words and burning caustic comments, not to mention abuse of one sort or another. This Gospel invites us to a healing process within church, if outsiders are going to take us seriously when it comes to speak in Jesus’ name. And there is much need for forgiveness in civic society. It is always easy to blame someone else or some other group for what happened over the years, decades and centuries. As we know from great figures in this country, the peacemakers are those who build bridges, acknowledging where forgiveness is necessary and possible. Hard hearts and harsh words are not the building blocks of a healthy society. Jesus offered forgiveness to all, not a cultural war with those we want to see as our enemies. Building walls may protect us but that does not proclaim God. That is why he calls us to love our enemies and do good those to those who persecute us. In God’s eyes, we are all in need of forgiveness. In Church, all we have to share is our own humble experience of having been forgiven. God rejects any temptation to arrogance. Only a humbled contrite heart, he will not spurn. (Cf Psalm 50). Without knowledge of divine forgiveness, there is no faith in Jesus as Saviour.
Secondly, last Sunday we heard how resentment and anger burn away inside the person who prefers to condemn than to offer forgiveness. A wound needs to be cared for or it will go septic. Thus, forgiveness is meant to be liberating to all concerned, the offender, and the offended. A hurting heart will give birth to hurtful words. And everybody is a loser. Thus, the Christian community can never use divine forgiveness to control people in a way that suits our narrow agendas. Divine forgiveness is about helping hurting and hurtful individuals to believe that the God of the universe sees something beautiful and lovable in them, in places where they cannot see it or dare not believe that they are precious. Divine forgiveness allows us to celebrate that we are loved – not just that we have got off scot-free. It is easy to see forgiveness as a transaction, a business deal. But that fails to understand Jesus’ message that divine forgiveness is an act of love and not merely one of justice. The person who celebrates the Sacrament of Reconciliation should come out, not just relieved to have to had the slate wiped clean for another while but amazed at the love of God for them, despite the messiness and failures of our lives. Only a heart that has known divine forgiveness is able to share what they have experienced in their own lives. Jesus proclaims God’s forgiveness to those most in need of divine mercy. Jesus never merely rations forgiveness so that people can be kicked into line. The price Jesus paid was on Calvary. The price we pay is giving up the desire to condemn as if it were a virtue.
Thirdly, we are now into the Season of Creation, when the harvest is at its richest. It is a time to give thanks for the amazing fruit of the earth and the work of human hands. But we are also called to recognize where we, as a race, have too often selfishly pillaged the earth rather than gratefully cultivated it. Economic development has caused huge damage to people and to the world in which they have to live. We have often prioritized our wishes over the well-being of others. We know from history that it is hard to curb our short-term hungers in the service of the Common Good. There is much need for repentance and forgiveness if we are to build a world where generosity rather than greed is the prized virtue. That is precisely what Jesus calls us to. Our economic systems are made and maintained by humans, not by external forces beyond our control. The followers of Jesus have a special role to play in promoting healing and forgiveness, despite all that has gone wrong. We proclaim that divine forgiveness is greater than all the sin of the world. And, as believers in the Resurrection of Jesus, we believe that a badly scarred world can be healed.
This time of lockdown has given us a chance to join the weekly ‘Jesus school of discipleship’. People have kept turning to Jesus for guidance – and each week, he nourishes us with challenging but rich spiritual food. As Peter and the other disciples found out, the hardest thing is to let God remake the world and the Church in the divine image and likeness, centered on the outrageously forgiving heart of God. At Holy Communion, we are invited to savor sacramentally the power of that forgiveness which was won in the all-giving Sacrifice of Calvary. And when we are told at the end of Mass to go and announce the Gospel of the Lord, we know very clearly that God’s outrageous generosity lies at the heart of what we announce.