Forgiveness is the opposite of revenge and resentment

I think it was very significant, in a way, and done with purpose that both of our first two lessons today spoke about the wisdom of God, wisdom that is beyond human wisdom. In the first lesson from the book of Sirach, "How magnificent is the wisdom of God; God is powerful and all-seeing; God is all-wise." Then in the letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul also speaks about wisdom, "In fact, we do speak of wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this world or of its rulers, who are doomed to perish. We teach the mystery and secret plan of divine wisdom, of God's wisdom, which God destined from the beginning to bring us glory."

In the earlier part, in fact, in Paul's letter to the church at Corinth, he speaks even more explicitly about this wisdom that is God's wisdom. He tells the community at Corinth, "Jesus did not send me to baptize but to proclaim his Gospel, and not a Gospel that can be expressed in human terms. That would be like getting rid of the cross of Christ. The language of the cross remains nonsense for those who are lost, yet for us, it is the power of God."

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sirach 15:15-20
Psalms 119: 1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34
1 Corinthians 2:6-10
Matthew 5:17-37
Full text of the readings

Paul goes on to explain, "The Jews ask for miracles, the Greeks for a higher knowledge, while we proclaim a crucified Christ. Here am I preaching a crucified Christ to the Jews. It's a scandal, a stumbling block." They have this sense of God that creates in them an awe and a wonder, and it should. They cannot conceive of how God could hand himself, as Jesus did, over to his enemies to be tortured and murdered. So the Jews see in the cross of Christ a scandal; it's a stumbling block: "That can't be God."

But the Greeks, those who were sophisticated in knowledge, for them it's just foolishness — a crucified Christ who's going to transform the world from a cross? That's foolish. But Paul says, "He is the Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. In reality, the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength." We need to reflect on this carefully to realize that God's wisdom may seem in human terms to be a scandal or to be simply foolishness, but God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.

Now that's very important to be aware of as we reflect on today's Gospel, this wisdom of God. It can seem to be a scandal or can seem to be foolish, but it is the only way to enter into the reign of God. Here again the Gospel message, "You have heard that it was said of old: Thou shalt not kill. But I say to you: do not even be angry with your brother or sister." What Jesus is saying, as he indicated at the beginning, "I've come not to destroy the law but to fulfill it, to take it further than the mere letter of the law. Thou shalt not kill — that can be punished, put in jail, executed for killing, but that doesn't change anyone's heart. I say to you do not even be angry with your brother or sister. Hold no revenge, no hatred; change your heart."

That's why Jesus says, and he uses the powerful criterion, even if you're coming to the altar to offer your gifts, you're gathering here in this church to celebrate the Eucharist, and there you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, there's a difference; there's a hatred between you. Go first and be reconciled with your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift. We can't worship God — we really can't worship God and enter into a relationship with God when there's hatred in our heart, when there's a spirit of revenge, a spirit of anger, a spirit that wants to kill.

Some years ago (and we all remember this), we had a very dramatic example provided to us of how we were called to have this spirit that Jesus is asking of us. Back in 2002, in January of that year, for the World Day of Prayer for Peace, Pope John Paul II proclaimed his Peace Day statement, and it's an extraordinary statement. It's one that comes out of his own deep experience. He published this statement shortly after that terrible act of terrorism against us on September 11, 2001.

That was in his mind and on his heart when he put together the Peace Day statement. He said in that statement for the year 2002, "We ask ourselves how a world in which the power of evil seems once again to have taken the upper hand will in fact be transformed into a world in which the noblest aspirations of the human heart will triumph, a world in which true peace will prevail." Of course that's the world we want, isn't it?

Yet we see a world in which, as St. John Paul puts it, "The power of evil seems to have taken the upper hand." How do we transform that kind of a world? He goes on, "Recent events, including the terrible killings just mentioned (9/11, 2001), move me to return to a theme which often stirs in the depths of my heart when I remember the events of history which have marked my life, especially my youth. (Remember, John Paul grew up in Eastern Europe, in Poland under Nazism, under cruel communism during the depth of the Cold War, so that's what he's referring to — the events of history which marked his life, especially his youth.)

"The enormous suffering of peoples and individuals, even among my own friends and acquaintances, caused by Nazi and Communist totalitarianism, has never been far from my thoughts and prayers. I have often paused to reflect on the persistent question: how do we restore the moral and social order subjected to such horrific violence? My reasoned conviction [he's thinking about this, his reasoned conviction], confirmed in turn by biblical revelation, is that the shattered order cannot be fully restored except by a response that combines justice with forgiveness. The pillars of true peace are justice and that form of love which is forgiveness." Rejecting hatred, rejecting retaliation, rejecting revenge, rejecting killing, and rejecting war.

Back in 2002 when we were preparing for war, and right up until we entered into war in 2003, John Paul II worked hard to prevent that war from happening because he knew that war would only open up a greater tragedy that would go on and on. War at that time was not the solution, but his words were not heeded. We went to war in 2003 and in fact, have been at war ever since. Turmoil, violence, chaos, destruction and suffering for people in the Middle East is something John Paul could foresee. Violence begets violence begets violence and more violence. We have to transform the world, transform the moral order in such a way that, as he says, "The noblest aspirations of the human heart will triumph, a world in which true peace will prevail."

The message of Jesus in today's Gospel — even if you're going to the altar to offer your gift to God to worship and there you remember your brother or sister is in conflict with you, leave your gift at the altar, go first and be reconciled. John Paul is not thinking in a way that is totally absurd. He says, "How can we speak of justice and forgiveness as a source and condition of peace?"

We can and we must no matter how difficult this may be — a difficulty often comes from thinking that justice and forgiveness are irreconcilable, but forgiveness is the opposite of revenge and resentment, not of justice. In fact, true peace is the work of justice. So John Paul was saying back then, and we need to hear this message now: we will never bring peace by continuing to wage war. We must change our attitudes, change our thinking, and change our hearts. We must work for reconciliation through forgiveness, not seek revenge, not seek retaliation, hatred and killing. It's the only way.

This is what Jesus is proclaiming to us in today's Gospel. We're not going to change the world, transform the world, unless we change ourselves in the depth of our heart and we work with all the strength, all the wisdom and God's wisdom that we can draw upon to bring about reconciliation, bring about peace. We need to do this in our everyday relationships, in our family, in our community, in our world — our near world, our country within it, but throughout the world.

We must have this attitude in every way in which we interact with our brothers and sisters in the human family. Peace, forgiveness and love — these are of Christ, only these. We live in a dangerous time; we live in a fearful time. Perhaps for the first time we might begin to think God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom; God's weakness is stronger than human strength. Jesus — tortured, executed, but still poured forth his love upon even those who were torturing him, executing him, upon all of us — that is the wisdom of God.

That is the way to peace in our world, and that is the only way. We must transform our hearts so that we can transform the moral order and bring peace into our world. The Sermon on the Mount — this message of Jesus is very difficult, but we, the community of his disciples, have chosen to follow him, and this is perhaps one of the most important ways in which we must follow Jesus, and then, through him, the reign of God can happen.

[Homily given at St. Philomena, Detroit, Mich., Feb. 12, 2017. The transcripts of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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