We Know Not What We Do

Douglas P. McManaman
Homily: 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 9, 2020
Reproduced with Permission

The gospel today is clear: we cannot expect forgiveness from God if we choose not to forgive those who have sinned against us. It is just not possible to go through this life without sinning against others and being sinned against, and so if we choose not to forgive others, if we choose to hold on to resentment, we really do condemn ourselves to an eternity outside of his kingdom; for only those who resemble the king will belong to his kingdom.

Forgiveness, however, is not always so easy. Some people have been sinned against to an unusual degree, a degree that most of us will never know through experience. Some people have been raped, abused and damaged irreparably, some have witnessed the murder of a family member, or have been lied to and manipulated by their own government in wartime, etc. It's not enough to glibly remind such people that they have to forgive. Some will need a great deal of help getting to that point where they can forgive, and that may take years - which is why there are psychologists who specialize in this area, such as Dr. Robert Enright and Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons. An openness to going down that road is necessary, however, because getting to that point of forgiveness is necessary, if we hope to enter the kingdom of heaven.

But some people are not open. They are comfortable in their anger; they have chosen to embrace it. It has become part of their identity. And since there is a unity between spirit and matter and what happens on the level of the spirit affects one's "matter", the decision not to forgive leaves its mark on a person's countenance. Their anger is in their flesh, it is in their eyes and on their face, which has become hardened, like stone.

The wonderful thing about the coming of Christ is that he chose to redeem us by suffering injustice and dying. In the agony of his death, he said: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do". And that is certainly the case: we don't know what we do. We sin knowingly and freely, so we are responsible before God, but Christ said it nevertheless: "They know not what they do". In other words, for the most part, we are not aware of the full implications of our behavior. For some people, that might not matter - they will choose evil anyways, because they love evil. But for those who try to love God, understanding the full implications of our choices would indeed matter, and we would be filled with regret. And so the Lord is merciful and gives us opportunities throughout our lives to grow and to better see the damage our sins have done, and to repent.

If you know history, you know just how much their pages are filled with the rot of sin and the unimaginable suffering sin brings about. If you study the history of the Church, you can't help but shake your head. The sinfulness, the ignorance, the stubbornness, the arrogance and stupidity of the Church's members, in particular the hierarchy, is astounding and can be genuinely scandalous to someone with a weak faith. But to help keep us from being scandalized, it is good to look back at our own lives. I don't know about you, but I do not like taking a look back at my life; I've forgotten so much of it, but sometimes after seeing a picture or video of myself, an entire period of my life opens back up and comes into focus. I suddenly remember what I was like at the time, the choices I made, the things I said to people, the attitude I had. Many of those choices were good, but some were just downright stupid, and some of the things I said to others make me shake my head in amazement and regret. Looking back, I see many glorious moments and an abundance of blessings, but the person who received those blessings was in many ways an ignorant fool, young and stupid, presumptuous, but open to learning nonetheless, which is why I eventually grew beyond those stages; hence, I can shake my head in regret; but I do so against the background of a profound awareness of the divine mercy and patience.

The life of an individual is a learning process, and of course the same is true for institutions and societies, and the Church is a society of sorts; it is the mystical body of Christ, and a body is an organism that grows and develops. And so, the Church learns as a result of her experience in history; the Church started off a newborn at Pentecost, and she moves through history, and the Church is moving towards her own eschatological completion when she will be presented to her bridegroom in all her eschatological beauty. The in-between period is characterized by a great deal of sin, short sightedness, and foolishness. And just as that ignorance and foolishness in our own lives did not completely deprive us of God's grace and mercy, the same is true for the Church. The sins that fill the Church's history does not mean that God does not dwell in His Church.

The Lord sees the Church in all her eschatological glory. He sees what She will be in the end, which is at this instant before His gaze, because God is not subject to the passing of time. And the same is true for all of us. The Lord sees us as we will be. We don't see ourselves in the glory that will be ours in the Person of Christ, but He sees it. And He is responsible for it; for it is His gift to us. He sees you and me as He intended us to be, redeemed and washed clean by the blood of His Son. That means we have to cooperate with the coming to be of this image within ourselves. In other words, we have to forgive others, if we expect to be forgiven. The first reading provides an important tip on how to achieve this: "Remember death and decay, and cease from sin!" The remembrance of death tends to bring the relativity of our own reality into clear focus. And when we focus on Christ's death and his resurrection, we begin to see how relative is all tragedy contained in our own lives and the lives of others. Whatever darkness human beings can experience, Christ has tasted it. He dies on a cross and three days later he rises from the dead. He proves that he has authority over death. He relativizes death and suffering. Death and tragedy are no longer absolute and final, but entirely relative.

For those who have suffered great tragedy in life, their entire identity no longer has to be defined by that tragedy, for it no longer has the final word over your life, over my life, over any human life. The answer to that tragedy is the resurrection of Christ. Christ holds the keys of death and life. To believe in Christ, to believe in his resurrection, to believe he has power over death and life, is to allow oneself to truly "get past" the tragedy that you have suffered. Like Good Friday, that tragedy is now changed into a glorious moment, a victory. Christ's victory over death is every single person's victory over death, if we want it to be.

And now it is possible to say the words that Christ spoke from the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do". To forgive is to conquer the darkness that has entered into your life as a result of a person's crime, whatever that is. To refuse to believe Christ's victory over death, his resurrection, is to choose to believe that death and tragedy continue to have the final word over our lives. It is a choice to live in darkness. The good news is that we do not have to.