I bumped into a young parishioner at a CCO event last night. As soon as he'd said hello, he asked "So, do you have a really good homily for tomorrow?"
My first instinct was to reply "Hey, I always have a really good homily," but I resisted that temptation and told him the truth.
"No, not particularly. Why do you ask?"
He said, "Well, it's the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the readings are all about forgiveness. Should be easy to tie them together."
True enough. Easy to connect our readings with the tragic events in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania ten years ago today. But too easy.
Too easy because that connection would produce just the kind of homily we all love to hear—a powerful and challenging message… to other people. We could sit back and shake our heads in sorrow that those Muslim extremists harbored such terrible anger. We could decide to forgive terrorists, even to pray for them.
But that's what I call a "long distance" application of the Gospel. None of us live with a terrorist (although one mother of a two-year old told me she wasn't quite sure about that). None of us works with a terrorist, or has one for a neighbor.
The simple message I take from the first reading today, and from what Jesus tells us in the Gospel, is that I must forgive my brother, my sister, my neighbor—and that there's a very good reason why I must: because God has forgiven me.
Does this message really need a good homily? It certainly doesn't need a long one. It's summed up in one line from the Our Father: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
In that one phrase, we invite God to treat our sins against him the same way we treat the sins of others against us.
If that doesn't make you a bit nervous, you're a far more generous and forgiving person than I am. Frankly, I think today's liturgy might offer the scariest words Jesus ever spoke. He flat-out tells us that God will treat us like the angry master of the wicked slave, unless we forgive from the heart.
Does that seem harsh? The first reading explains it logically, in case we missed the point of the parable (which is, let's be honest, pretty difficult to do). "Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like oneself, can one then seek pardon for one's own sins?"
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Frightening… but logical.
The parable of the unjust slave appeals to our common sense and sense of justice; that's why it needs no explanation. But why does Jesus need to teach about forgiveness with such force—why is he so uncompromising here? He was gentler, it seems, with the woman at the well, and with the woman who washed his feet with her tears.
The answer can only be that forgiveness is the only chance most of us get to imitate God. It's the best chance most of us get to follow in the footsteps of Christ. It's the most common way we show that our faith makes a difference in our lives.
St. Paul was martyred; St. Francis kissed the sores of lepers; Mother Teresa cared for the poorest of the poor. We don't have the opportunity to imitate them, even if we could.
But Jesus forgave his enemies. God forgives the most outrageous offenses against his commands. And we can forgive those who hurt, anger, and annoy us. Sometimes it will take a colossal effort, other times a daily surrender of self. But always it will be the proof of authentic faith, faith that makes a difference.
And each act of mercy towards others will slowly move the world closer to peace, closer to harmony, and further away from the hatreds that filled the hearts of angry men that tragic day ten years ago.