In the course of my ministry as a priest the most common problem people share with me is anger, and the accompanying hesitancy or resistance to forgive others. There are rarely any simple answers to the problem of anger, which befuddles even the inspired authors of today’s readings. This is no surprise since human life is complex and the movements of the heart can be famously obscure; as the prophet Jeremiah wrote: “More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9).
At some point in our lives we have all had matters which led us to anger dismissed by others with the trite response “forgive and forget” but it is not that easy, since a person’s anger and its sources can never be fully understood by another, even someone close to them. This should remind us that while some things in life can indeed be handled simply, others require subtlety and nuance; it should also make us consider factors which are hidden from the eyes of others but weigh heavily on ourselves.
Family problems can cause anger of this sort. An outside observer can righteously declare “get over it” or “you need to intervene” or “tell them how you feel” without understanding just how hard it is to “get over” one of the most important people in our lives, or to “tell them how you feel” when those feelings are the result of a long and complicated fabric of emotions, commitments, and relationships.
To find some resolution to all this, Ben-Sira, the author of today’s Old Testament reading, reminds us that if we truly desire to be reconciled to those whom we love we must first offer the gift of reconciliation to those who have wounded us. “Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord? Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins?” (Sir 28:3-4). Ben-Sira was aware that this is very hard, yet insisted that we cannot expect God to show us mercy if we withhold it from others.
Next, the Psalmist gives us an indication of how we can overcome this seemingly intractable problem of human life by noting “Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger, abounding in mercy” (Ps 103:8). Later he adds: “For as the heavens tower over the earth, so his mercy towers over those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us” (Ps 103:11-12). What these words tell us is that even though God has no need of mercy, the Lord takes the initiative in showing graciousness and mercy to “those who fear him.”
We can imitate the Lord and be among those who “fear the Lord” by understanding our humble place before God and our duty to show mercy to others. This stands in contrast to the man we meet in today’s gospel parable. He is unforgiving even though he has been generously forgiven himself, and all too often we descend to his sort of begrudging spirituality instead of offering mercy as humbly and frequently as we seek it.
This Sunday, hearing the words “Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him” (Matt 18:27), let us be inspired to renew our efforts at forgiving others so that we too might receive the beautiful gift of mercy and reconciliation from the Lord who is “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.