Mercy & Forgiveness


Triduum for the Feast of St Therese: Day 2, 29 Sep 2016

“There was once a man who was not a very nice person. He mistreated his wife very badly, and he had a son, whom he didn’t treat well. After a few years, he abandoned both of them and disappeared.

The son grew up filled with resentment and hatred for his father. Years later, the father returned one day, telling his son he wanted reconciliation.

The son looked at his father with disgust, and he said that never in his entire life would he want to forgive him. He felt the father had created so much misery for the family, so he wanted the father to feel the same pain and be punished for the rest of his life.

Unknown to the son, one of the reasons his father came to seek reconciliation, was that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and he was starting to have dementia. The son didn’t know this, and the father left, very sad.

After a few years, a family friend told the son that his father was in bad shape and suggested he pay a visit. Very reluctantly, he went to visit his father, who was in an advanced stage of the disease.

When he saw his father, he was filled with a lot of anger and resentment again, but the person sitting in front of him was just smiling. His father couldn’t recognise him or respond much, and just kept smiling.

The son shouted at him, saying he was supposed to feel pain. He berated him for smiling back at him. The old man didn’t react and continued to smile.

Finally, the son broke down. After crying a while, he looked up and said: ‘I’ve had enough of this. I want to move on. Today, I want to tell you, I will forgive you for all the things you’ve done in the past.’

The father didn’t respond and just smiled, but the son suddenly felt a very heavy burden lifted. All that darkness within himself just dissolved.

We realise then that forgiving the father was not so much for the father’s benefit, but it was for the son to set himself free.

Today, we are talking about mercy and the family. Yesterday, Father Simon Pereira spoke about the need to go out and show mercy. But we need to focus on our own families too.

This is very real. Many people who come to us priests for confessions say they cannot forgive a particular person in their families.

What can we learn from the parable of the prodigal son? The father should be very much angry with the wrongdoings of the son, but he focused on healing the relationship.

To bring about mercy within our families, we have to learn to be very sensitive to people around us. This is the first challenge I want you to ponder on.

Such sensitivity doesn’t come naturally to all of us. If you have such a virtue, grow and nurture it. For some of us, we must work more on this, to be more aware of what the other person is going through.

That is the core of the word ‘mercy’, which is from the Latin word ‘misericordia’. It combines two words: ‘miseriae’ means misery, and ‘cor’ or ‘cordis’ means heart.

The meaning of ‘misericordia’ is to be able to go into the heart of the other person, to experience the pain the other is feeling.

Here is where the next challenge comes: To bring about reconciliation.

Many of us have heard this: We have to forgive, but we don’t have to forget. Because the reality is that things have been done.

The forgiveness? It is not something that we feel we want to do. Rather, we make a choice to forgive someone. It is therefore an act of intention. I can still feel annoyed with you, but I can choose to forgive you.

Ask yourself: Can I make this choice?

We are also here tonight, preparing for the feast of St Therese this weekend.

St Therese was someone who truly valued her family and she shared a lot about relationships within families. She also admitted that sometimes, family relationships are not perfect.

She said: ‘True charity consists in bearing with all the defects of our neighbours and our family members, and in not being surprised at their failings, but edified by their smallest virtues. Charity must not remain shut in the depths of the heart, but to enlighten and make joyful, not only to those who are dearest to us, or to me, but to all who are in the house, even those we are not very happy with.’”

– Fr Terence Wee, CSsR

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SCRIPTURE READINGS: GN 44:18-21.23-29; 45:1-5; MT 10:7-15

Regret is one of the most regretful words in life!  Sometimes when unpleasant things happen to us, we feel sorry for ourselves, indignant against those we feel are causing us to suffer and even resentful towards God.  At other times, we recognize that the sufferings we are going through or the sufferings we have wrought upon others, especially our loved ones, are due to our folly because of poor judgment or human weaknesses. We regret deeply and wish it were otherwise. In such instances, awareness of our sins and failure towards our loved ones or those under our charge can make us discouraged.  We cannot forgive ourselves.  We replay again and again all the incidents of the past in our minds.  We feel that we are a failure in life.  We believe that they will never forgive us.  Neither would God forgive us for the crimes nor the sins we have committed, the immense pain and suffering we have caused to our spouse, children, siblings or friends.  In a word, we cannot forgive ourselves.  Deep inside us, we feel rotten and hate ourselves for being such kind of person.

But Joseph did not.  He did not mope and curse God for the sufferings he went through.  He did not harbor bitterness against his brothers for their jealousy and the attempt to kill him.  He did not blame them for the immense sufferings, physically and emotionally, that he had to go through, being separated from his father, knowing how much his father would be suffering; and the humble pies he had to eat when he was a slave to the Egyptians before he rose up from among the ranks.  Anyone who went through what he did would have given up on life, on people and of course on God!  Indeed, many of us who have been disappointed and felt betrayed by our parents because of infidelity, our siblings because of jealousy, our friends because of selfishness, our colleagues because of competition, are never able to love again.  We harbor great bitterness and rancor against them.  Some children would not even want to speak to their parents for breaking up the family.  Some of us would even take revenge and become venomous in our attack against those who have hurt us.

How is it that Joseph did not react negatively to the unpleasant events and trials in his life? 

Firstly, he was humble and able to acknowledge his faults; he did not blame his failures on others.  He had the right attitude towards himself and those who had hurt him.  On hindsight he must have realized that the cause of the predicament he got himself into was also partially due to his own fault.  He was the one who bad- mouthed his brothers, provoked jealousy among his brothers by boasting of his father’s predilection for him, showing off the robe the father made for him and most of all, blatantly arrogant in telling his brothers of his dream that one day, all of them would have to bow down to him and serve him.  (cf Gen  37:1-12)  What about us? Do we admit our own faults and our fair share of the cause of the problem?  The truth is that when we assign all blame to the party that supposedly hurt us and refuse to admit our share of the problem, we feel more aggrieved than we should.

Secondly, he trusted in the Lord.  Joseph did not simply focus on his sufferings and misfortunes or direct his hatred against his enemies.  Instead, he sought to look at the situation in the light of God’s divine plan.  He told his brothers, “But now, do not grieve, do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here, since God sent me before you to preserve your lives.”  He knew that nothing happens by chance, only by divine providence.  How wonderful and liberating for one who is able to recognize the hand of God in everything that happens to him or her. Do you trust God sufficiently to believe that everything is in His hands and that nothing can overcome you so long as you love Him and surrender your life to Him? We find peace and freedom only if we align ourselves with His divine will, which simply means accepting everything that comes from Him and using all our mistakes and failures, success and joys for our growth in maturity and authentic love.

Hence, today, even when we have sinned, we must not condemn ourselves too much.  We all make mistakes in life.  No one learns without making mistakes.  It is part and parcel of being members of the fallen race where we have lost our preternatural gifts, namely, integrity, infused knowledge, fear of pain and death.  So we sin through both ignorance and selfishness that spring from our desire to preserve our lives. This was the case of Joseph’s brothers.  Among the brothers, Judah had many reasons to reproach himself.  He could not deny that he had plotted with his brothers to get rid of Joseph.  The only mitigation for his crime was that he did try to persuade them not to kill him. Still, he was an accomplice because he proposed to sell him and keep the money for themselves.  That was perhaps the most regrettable action of his life when he saw how much his father grieved over Joseph.  He could never forgive himself for breaking the heart of his beloved father.  We can be sure that this event must have come back to haunt him and his brothers for as long as Joseph was not found.

But what is more important is that he was repentant.  This time he did not allow the grace of God to pass by him in vain.  When given another chance to make good his repentant heart, he was ready to assume full responsibility for his brother Benjamin.  He spoke up courageously for him and even offered himself to take his place as a slave when his brother was framed for a crime of stealing.  Indeed, we have much to learn from Judah.  It is not enough to be repentant or have sentiments of regrets and sorrow.  We must cooperate with the redemption of God by active repentance, which entails expressing our contrition by action.  Of course, no matter what we do, we can never repay the hurts that we have caused others.  But we can soothe their pain by our acts of love, which is balm to their souls.  For those of us who are the injured party, we can imitate Joseph’s forgiveness. He foreshadowed Jesus’ forgiveness of His enemies at the cross.

How could he be so generous in forgiving? As we have said, he saw everything from God’s perspective.  He saw his innocent suffering in the context of redemptive suffering for all.  Hence, he was not resentful but grateful for all that had happened in his life. Freely he received God’s love; freely he gave to his brothers in return.  Truly, if only we are conscious of what the Lord has given to us and the many blessings we have received from Him, then we would not begrudge forgiveness to others.  All blessings given to us are for-giving!

If this is not sufficient to convince us that we are to forgive and repair relationships with concrete actions, let us at least be like Joseph and Judah who were conscious of their own failings that led to the crime.  If only we are conscious of our own sins, selfishness, harshness in treating others, and how God still forgives us, tolerates and loves us, then we would be more generous to those who have hurt us.

Yes, this is what Jesus is asking of us in the gospel.  He wants us to heal and to reconcile.  “Jesus instructed the Twelve as follows: ‘As you go, proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.  Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils.’” Proclamation of the kingdom must be done not only with words but with actions.  Miracles are proof that the Kingdom of God is really here.  We are here to liberate every person from the devil.

Finally, if after forgiving and loving them, the aggrieved party still refuses to forgive us, there is nothing much we can do except to persevere in prayer for them and continue to love them all the same.   We cannot force them to forgive us, or to receive our forgiveness, since love cannot be imposed. They would have to make the decision to respond. That explains why Jesus gave this advice, “Whatever town or village you go into, ask for someone trustworthy and stay with him until you leave.  As you enter his house, salute it, and if the house deserves it, let your peace descend upon it; if it does not, let your peace come back to you.  And if anyone does not welcome you or listen to what you have to say, as you walk out of the house or town shake the dust from your feet.”  Blessed are those who are open to receiving forgiveness and those who forgive!  Otherwise, there is a warning from Jesus, the failure to forgive or accept forgiveness would result in bitterness and a living hell.  “I tell you solemnly, on the day of Judgement it will not go as hard with the land of Sodom and Gomorrah as with that town.”   The choice is yours!  Be set free by setting others free.

Written by The Most Rev William Goh
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore
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