Reflection for Sunday – September 17, 2023
Readings: Sirach 27: 30 – 28:7; Psalm 1- 4, 9 -12; Romans 14: 7 – 9; Matthew 18: 21- 35
Preacher: Christine Nowak Kvam
Once again, I feel like I am the worst person to be writing this reflection. Around this time last year, I was asked to reflect on the Gospel about renouncing possessions right as I was at the tail end of a move which required more than one trip of a giant truck to get all our stuff from the old house to the new one. And now I’m tasked with offering words about forgiveness while I am still stewing about my husband forgetting to bring Clare’s bottles when he dropped her off for her first day of daycare this week and about the colleague who was on her phone the whole time I was presenting at our faculty/staff retreat and about my 6 year old not thinking before acting and sending the kneeler crashing down on top of my foot at Mass this morning. I am precisely “the sinner” described in the first line of the reading from Sirach – “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” According to Sirach, if I am nourishing anger against another, I cannot expect healing from the Lord. Yikes – I’m in trouble.
Since I clearly have no wisdom of my own on this topic, I turned to the experts. Thankfully, one of my favorite modern religious leaders, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber, has profyound things to say about forgiveness that can inspire even a grudge-holder like me to reconsider my wrath. In a short video about forgiveness, Weber says, “Maybe retaliation or holding on to anger about the harm done to me doesn’t actually combat evil – maybe it feeds it. Because, in the end, if we’re not careful, we can actually absorb the worst of our enemy.” Granted, “enemy” may be too strong of a word to use for my spouse, colleague, and child, but her point is spot on. If I continue to be wrapped up in resenting my husband’s forgetfulness, surely I will forget to show him kindness. If I can’t give my colleague the benefit of the doubt for being distracted, then I myself am distracted from recognizing her goodness. If I can’t forgive my kiddo for his mistake, then I’m making a horrible mistake in my parenting. My stewing on the harms done to me does nothing to lessen the harm, it only increases it.
Thanks to Pastor Nadia and the clear message of this week’s readings, I recognize the importance of letting go of the anger and moving towards forgiveness. Great. But how? I think the answer might be right there in the parable; the master (God) is “moved with compassion.” The roots of the word compassion are “feeling” and “with.” Compassion, therefore, is the necessary shift from having feelings toward another (like my frustration toward my colleague on her phone) to sharing feelings with the other (perhaps my colleague was overwhelmed by all she had to do). This shift to compassion makes it a little easier to let go of the anger because I can relate to what the other person is experiencing. Again, Pastor Nadia, offers a great insight, “Compassion doesn’t come from being a saint; it comes from being a fellow sinner.”
There is certainly something important in this correlation between compassion and forgiveness because it is present not only in today’s parable, but in several other places in the Gospels as well. Just as Jesus sees the love of the “sinful woman” who washes his feet with her tears rather than her sins, we can make the effort to affirm the goodness of others rather than holding their errors against them. Like the people gathered around the woman caught in adultery who dropped their stones when Jesus reminded them of their own sins, we can be aware of our own faults and not judge others for theirs. And similar to Zacchaeus who had a change of heart and action upon being recognized by Jesus, we can change our negative patterns in favor of following Jesus’ call.
None of this will be easy, but the gift of our tradition is that we have help along the way. Our weekly celebration of Mass – with its gathering of community, encouragement from Scripture, and nourishment in the Eucharist – provides us with what we need to move from anger to compassion to forgiveness. Thanks be to God for this gift.