SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR C
There is a small grocery store and deli on Main Street in Middletown, Ct. that I often pass on my way to the lake. For years it has had a neon sign in its front window that proclaims to passers-by, “We forgive, but we cannot forget.” I have no idea what offense inspired the perpetual declaration of hurt, but the sign is a reminder to me of how difficult it is to forgive and forget. And I am heartened to see that the owner of the store has at least taken a step in the direction of putting Jesus’ words into practice.
Earlier this month the actor, Liam Neeson, created a stir when he revealed the powerful impulse to blind revenge that he felt after a friend had been sexually assaulted nearly forty years ago. “It shocked me, this primal urge I had,” he told an interviewer. Revenge is a primal urge and a powerful one.
That is what makes the incident involving the young David and King Saul in the first reading so interesting. Saul has already made an attempt on the shepherd boy’s life in the palace in Jerusalem and now he is pursuing David with an armed escort, determined to take his life. And all of this purely out of jealousy because he fears for his kingship, as centuries later Herod will fear for his.
David’s refusal to take revenge on Saul must have made a powerful impression on the people of his time, because the author of the Books of Samuel tells two versions of David’s sparing his tormentor, the other one having David cut off a swatch of the king’s cloak at the entrance of a cave where the older man has retreated to relieve himself. The power of the story lies in its utter unlikelihood. Who would pass up the opportunity to avenge himself on a persecutor? It was nearly unthinkable then, as it is today.
I will tell you that I always feel uncomfortable at this time of the year when I open the lectionary and find that I must preach on Matthew’s or – as this year – Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. And that is because Jesus’ demand that we love our enemies and do good to those who hate us is just so difficult. Liam Neeson was correct in labeling revenge and retaliation a primal urge. And, it is an urge that becomes embedded in almost every culture on earth. Often, I find myself happy to get as far as the owner of the Middletown grocery and forgive while admitting that I forgive but cannot forget.
Lent will begin in another week and a half. It is the season when we, disciples of Jesus, confront the truth that St. Paul talks about today – the truth that we bear the image of natural, earthly man, the aspect of our humanity that has been wounded by original sin, the aspect that gives rise to all of the evil impulses that tragically are on the front page of every newspaper today.
Lent is the yearly reminder that we were created for better things. We bear the image of the heavenly man, the Risen Jesus, but only partially and provisionally as yet. Through prayer and self-denial and intensified generosity to the needy, we dispose ourselves to allow God’s grace to move us, even if ever so gradually, to the point at which we can forgive and forget, to stop judging others, to lend expecting nothing back, to turn the other cheek as impossible as that might seem.
Before we plunge into Lent, we might give a little more thought to Liam Neeson’s reflections. “It shocked me and hurt me,” he said about the primal, powerful impulse to take out his anger on an innocent third-party, to play Saul to a contemporary David. So, what did he do about it? “I did seek help,” he continued. “I went to a priest who heard my confession.” That experience of the sacrament of Reconciliation did not completely and immediately banish his unwanted impulses. But it certainly was an important and an effective first step.
Someday, perhaps after breakfast at O’Rourke’s Diner, I may finally stop into the grocery and ask, “What is it that you have forgiven but cannot forget?” My hunch is that they may not remember. Even so, may our gracious God not remember our sins.