by Fr. Tommy Lane
The photographs of Pope St. John Paul II in the prison cell with his would-be assassin, sitting talking together and then shaking hands, are perhaps some of the best known examples of what Jesus says in the Gospel today, “Love your enemies.” (Luke 6:27) Seven years after the meeting, Pope St. John Paul II asked that his potential assassin be pardoned. In Pope St. John Paul II, we see forgiveness and love of enemy, not revenge; we see the words of Jesus today, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”
The first reading today (1 Sam 26) is another example of love of enemy, forgiveness, and not seeking revenge. King Saul became jealous of David’s achievements and talents, and sought to kill David. Saul personally pursued David instead of sending someone else. David had been in hiding and on the run for a number of years already by the time of the first reading today. During the night, when King Saul and his army were asleep, David entered their camp and stole Saul’s spear from beside Saul’s head while Saul’s bodyguards were in a deep sleep. Then the following morning, David revealed the king’s spear which proved that he had been inside King Saul’s tent during the night and despite that opportunity to kill Saul, had left him uninjured. Reading the whole story of the David on the run from Saul, reveals much more about how forgiving David was in the reading today. Earlier David received help from the priests at Nob while on the run, and Saul asked his herdsman to kill the priests. He killed eighty-five priests. (1 Sam 22) After that, when Saul was in a cave, David cut off the fringe of Saul’s cloak (1 Sam 24). That was the first time David was close enough to kill Saul but Saul still pursued David afterwards. Then we have the incident in the first reading today (1 Sam 26), the second time when David spared Saul’s life. Already in David in the first reading today, we see the words of Jesus in the Gospel lived out, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”
There are other well-known examples of forgiveness in the Scriptures. The patriarch Joseph in the latter part of the book of Genesis (Gen 37-50) was also the subject of jealousy. His brothers sold him into slavery and he ended up down in Egypt but rose to second in command. During the famine he forgave his brothers when they went down there looking for food. They had been merciless to Joseph and he was merciful to them, and he invited the entire family down to Egypt as guests of Pharaoh.
Turning to the New Testament we see an example of forgiveness in the first martyr Stephen when he prayed for his executioners as he was being stoned, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60) One of those standing by watching was Saul (Acts 8:1) who would be the future St. Paul. It is hard to imagine that Paul was not moved in some way by Stephen’s witness during his martyrdom. Did Stephen sow a seed that later blossomed at the apparition of Jesus to Paul on the road to Damascus?
As Stephen died forgiving those stoning him, he was imitating Jesus who prayed for his executioners, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) A number of the early Greek manuscripts of Luke omit Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Apparently some scribes thought Jesus was too forgiving and they simply expunged that verse entirely when they were copying the Gospel! Despite the fact that earlier in the same Gospel, in the passage we heard today, those same scribes and copyists had copied the words of Jesus, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,” yet when it came to the death of Jesus some of them simply could not report Jesus forgiving those nailing him to the cross. This shows us that it is sometimes difficult to forgive. But sadly unforgiveness blocks the possibility of healing and moving beyond the hurt and wound.
Some inappropriate ideas of forgiveness have not helped and only make forgiveness more difficult. It may not be really helpful to be told “forgive and forget” because while we can forgive we may not necessarily forget, although a healed hurt no longer causes such pain. In certain cases, forgiveness can be a lot of work, and take time to move through various phases (A book by a Catholic priest guiding people through the stages of forgiveness is How to Forgive: A Step by Step Guide by John Monbourquette). Part of that work is allowing the Lord to shed his healing on the hurt, asking Jesus to walk back in time with you to that hurt and heal you. We read in Hebrews (13:8), “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Jesus is outside of time. He can go back with you to any painful event and help you change the outcome. Then there will be a new way of relating because of Jesus’ vision of transformed relationships which he proposes in the Gospel today, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Forgiveness means managing a bad situation correctly. It is an act of love; loving what may be a wound in the other person which led to inflicting a hurt on you. Extending forgiveness is extending the love of God as Jesus said in the Gospel “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.” It greatly helps this process when we do as Jesus asked in the Gospel today, “pray for those who mistreat you.” When we pray for those who mistreat us, not only are we helping them, but also helping ourselves, breaking the cycle of hurt and unforgiveness. When someone hurts us, it is up to us to determine the future. Praying for the one who hurt us starts us on the correct road. Jesus attaches a promise to his request for forgiveness, “you will be children of the Most High.” Paul concluded the second reading today also with a promise as he reminded us that in the future we will be transformed, we shall bear the image of the heavenly man Jesus (1 Cor 15:49). Jesus has risen and we look forward to sharing in his resurrection in the future. As we love and forgive and pray for those who mistreat us, already now we begin to live that future transformed life and are now children of the Most High.
(A few thoughts in the first half of the homily above are developments of what I read in Forgiveness: the Glorious Face of Love by the Irish author, Frances Hogan)
© Fr. Tommy Lane 2019
More Homilies for the Seventh Sunday Year C
Related Homilies: Loving and Forgiving Enemies 2011
stories about reconciliation
stories about human forgiveness
stories about God’s mercy