In his short book “Stories for Preachers” James A Feehan tells two wonderful stories about forgiveness or the lack of it.
In the first he writes: “An aircraft full of American tourists was approaching Belfast. The captain switched on the intercom and made the following announcement, ‘Ladies and gentlemen we will shortly belanding at Aldergrove Airport, Belfast. Would you please put your watches back .... 300 years.”
Yes, in these parts we do have long memories of past wars and battles, regularly commemorated lest anyone should forget.
Feehan also writes of two little boys who have had an almighty row. At bed time, the eldest one, Liam, was haranguing his younger brother Sean and his mother called him aside. ‘Liam, you shouldn’t let the sun go down on your anger.’
‘I can’t stop it, can I?’ was the sure reply.
‘Look, Liam!’ said the mother, Sean might die tonight and if he did you’d never forgive
yourself. You’d always remember that the last thing you did was to fight with him. I know he was rotten to you, but go on now and forgive him before he goes to sleep.’
Away went Liam and this is what his mother heard.
‘Sean, I have come to forgive you in case you die tonight ..... but if you don’t die tonight, watch out ‘cos I’ll plaster you in the morning!’
That was forgiveness under compulsion and wasn’t much good!
Today’s Gospel offers some practical advice on how to deal with disagreements within the community. The early Christian communities did not just gather for Eucharist and common prayer – they also shared their property with one another, cared for the sick and had an open door for fellow Christians. In such communities, because human beings are human beings, disagreements were bound to take place.
Jesus proposes a three-step process to solve such disputes. In step one, those in disagreement are asked to meet to clear the air. If this does not work, the disputing parties should invite two or three others to act as brokers for peace, if this fails it is recommended that it be brought to a full meeting of the church community. If one of the parties refuses to accept the mediation, they are to be excluded from the Christian community. This is drastic, but it was an attempt to keep problems from destroying the close knit Christian community.
The life of the Christian is based on love, and St Paul reminds us that “Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour.” Love is not passive, it is something that is active, which in real terms means that in the face of evil or wrongdoing action is required. All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing. And doing nothing in the face of wrongdoing and hurt is precisely what the Gospel opposes.