The Power of Forgiveness…
‘I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.’ These words of Gordon Wilson echoed across the world in 1987, just hours after his 20-year-old daughter Marie was killed in an IRA bomb in Enniskillen. Very few words in the history of the Northern Ireland conflict had such a powerful impact. His extraordinary capacity to forgive the people who had caused him so much pain helped to move along the slow process.’
Gordon Wilson was the personification of the words of Jesus: ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ It is one of the most difficult and challenging passages in the Gospels; one commentator calls it ‘Jesus’ most unreasonable command.’ Living under oppressive Roman rule, with torture and murder not uncommon, the disciples knew what it was to hate their enemies. As we read and listen to the news today, the cruelty of people continues to astound and upset us. But Jesus reminds us that everyone is human. All are children of God, who ‘causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good.’ While we clearly don’t accept or excuse the terror and evil in the world, we cannot dehumanize those who carry out despicable actions. It is much easier said than done, but we must strive to meet hatred with love. With God, there is always forgiveness; there is always hope.
‘Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’
Martin Luther King Jr.
Jesus tells us to act out of love and says that acting out of love is better than acting out of revenge. What does our experience tell us?
Perhaps we have at times hit back in revenge when we have been hurt or offended. What effect did this have on us, on others, and on our relationship with them? Contrast this with the times when we resisted the urge to retaliate. What outcome did this have on us, on others, and on our relationship with them – at the time, and in the long term?
From other passages in the Gospels, it is clear that Jesus did not mean that we should ignore injustices, or never make a stand against others. What lessons have we learned in life on when, and how, to make a stand? What wisdom would we share with others from our experience?
Toward the end of the Gospel passage for today we hear the exhortation: “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect…” And so, a human-interest story may be helpful here. Twelve years ago, a film was released called Shine. It was a biographical account of the Australian pianist Daniel Helfgott. I am not sure how faithful the film was to real events but it told a powerful story. Daniel was the son of a Jewish family living in Adelaide, Australia. His father, Peter, was obsessed with creating a musical genius out of his son. Daniel’s entire childhood was geared towards mastering the piano. Peter’s ambition for his son was unbounded and, against the advice of a music teacher, he forces his son to learn Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto. This piece of music is considered one of the most difficult ever written for the piano and beyond the skills of any child. The father ‘s obsession with perfection eventually leads to Daniel having a nervous breakdown. Daniel himself had become obsessed with the Rachmaninoff piece and the drive for perfection was just too much for him. As a result of his nervous breakdown Daniel became a social outcast. Even though he was s till a talented pianist, his mental illness prevented him from playing in public. Eventually he meets and falls in love with a woman named Gillian. They marry and her loving support helps him cope with his mental illness. He eventually becomes well enough to give a concert.
The obsession with perfection can destroy people. This does not mean that we should not strive for great things. However, our striving should never forget the reality of who and what we are. Why then are the Readings today speaking about perfection for sinful humanity? Like an overbearing parent, perfection can destroy people. The Gospel for today says: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The critical question here is: in what way is God perfect? God is perfect, not by achievement or the observation of rules, but by being merciful. Like playing the piano, we cannot suddenly force ourselves to be masters of mercy. We certainly cannot force people to be merciful. However, with little steps over time, we can master the most difficult of pieces.