Those of us over forty probably all have a set of scales in the bathroom. It’s no fun, bleary-eyed first thing in the morning, to approach the scales with trepidation that yet another few pounds have mysteriously appeared! We are quick to let friends know when we lose a quarter-pound, but silence reigns when any goes on.
When we in fact do manage to lose weight, even a few pounds, we feel the benefit of it – even if it’s only a psychological benefit. It gives you a new lease of life as you swiftly overtake that man and his dog on your walk, or slip into clothing that was smelling of old moth balls. You can feel mentally more alert, too, sharper in your thinking and more focused in your listening. The world is well because I am lighter!
If weight in the body can do so much damage over time, weight in the heart is no different. In fact, it causes the greater harm. As the body responds to gravity and is eventually pulled by it into the grave, so the heart is weighed down by all the forms of sorrow and sadness that life so easily pours into it.
In that first reading from Leviticus, I was struck by the words used to describe the negative attitudes which God prohibits to his people. “You must not bear hatred for your brother in your heart … nor must you bear a grudge against the children of your people.” That word “bear” suggests carrying. It is hinted at in this other phrase, “in this way you will not take a sin upon yourself”, almost as if it is a burden on your back. Many people tell me, and I experience it myself, that when you have been to confession and hear those words of absolution (a word which means “take away”), you feel a weight lifted from your spirit. You feel lighter. You have lost weight.
Someone can do an injustice to me and, with just reason, I am offended. Leviticus suggests that there are two ways to handle that. Either I allow that injustice to turn into a grudge against my offender, a grudge which can develop into hatred; or, I can let it go. If I hold onto it, it is like a weight that just gets heavier and heavier. Quite apart from the offence done to me, I let it get worse and allow it assume a gravity and proportion that it never had. In other words, on top of the offence done to me, I now offend myself further and to a greater extent by clinging to it as if it were the worst thing that ever happened to anyone in human history. I never cease to spread the news of how offended I am, making the atmosphere heavier and heavier for others to bear and making myself someone to be avoided. Even more serious is that I now attribute all of that bitterness and resentment to the person who offended me when, in reality, I have myself let it assume cosmic significance. And it is a significance that is only in my own head. If only Shakespeare were alive today, he would have been able to compose the definitive tragedy …. about me!
But if I let the offence or grudge go, I am no longer imprisoned by it or by the person who caused it. When I say “let go”, I do not mean shrug it off as if it didn’t matter. Every sin matters. By letting it go I mean two things. Firstly, as Leviticus tells us, “You must openly tell your neighbour of his offence.” For some people, that is easier. For others, it is more difficult. Jesus puts it this way: turn the other cheek. By this, he doesn’t mean that you should open yourself mindlessly to being hit. In the culture of his time, a person who struck you on your right cheek with the back of his right hand was claiming superiority over you. If you responded by turning to him your left cheek, too, he would be forced to hit you with the palm of his right hand which was tantamount to challenging you to a duel. In other words, he would be forced to recognise you as his equal. If he recognised you as his equal, then you have won the moral argument. What this implies is that, when someone offends you and thereby asserts some kind of superiority over you, the dignified reaction is not to withdraw and nurse this hurtful humiliation but to respond confidently by telling him of his offence. As Leviticus says, you will not then be “taking a sin upon yourself.” Rather, you will have set the record straight and refused to allow the offence to start nesting and festering within.
But there is a second thing implied by letting go of the offence: it is to overcome it, if not with love, then with good. Jesus puts it very simply: love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you, greet those who are not part of your circle. To love your enemy could transform him into your friend, but even if it does not, it will certainly make you a better person than if you were to descend into the same offensiveness as he. The minute you allow an offence against you to grow and fret inside, your enemy has won. But, if you rise above the offence, confident in God’s love for you and thus in your own goodness, then you liberate your heart from the offence, you break the spiral of mutual recrimination and, if your enemy responds positively, you liberate him, too, from descent into more and more sin.
There is no grudge more dangerous than a justified one. You might thrill at the sense of being in the right but, tragically, that will pale into insignificance as the grudge assumes ever greater proportions in your heart and, with it, spreads an ever-thickening darkness within you and from within you.
Now, we are all sensitive, some more than others. We all lick our wounds; it’s only human, albeit part of our fallen humanity. But to become inverted in a perverse nursing of our wounds is to weaken our character and risks turning us into embittered and vengeful people. And it is often from this that division and opposition emerge between individuals, families, political and social factions and entire nations. The divisions St. Paul descries in the community of Corinth and the factionism within that local Christian church could all be traced back to personal evils which were not overcome through forgiveness. At first, everyone was on the side of Christ. Then, some were on the side of Peter or Apollos and claimed that Christ was on their side too! St. Paul goes to town on them for trying to “parcel out Christ” and ends with a powerful appeal to common sense: Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the past, the future, life and death, what are they? They are your servants! But you, you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to the Father. In other words, all your factions and cliques are ridiculous and meaningless, for only Christ is worth all your energy and devotion.
This is true in the Church today. I for one am sick and tired of hearing about liberal or progressive Catholics and traditional and conservative Catholics. What on earth are we doing using political categories to describe or define the Church of Christ? It’s as if faith were to be interpreted through the prism of politics, as if politics trumped faith! I would love to hear what St. Paul would say to us today! Do you think having certain ideas means more than trusting and believing in the Crucified? Has Christ become a powerless figure-head like a constitutional monarch whilst the “real” Church is somehow an endless fight for dominance between those fixed on the past and those fixed on the future? To speak of faith in ideological terms comes from the serpent of Eden who, to discombobulate God’s loving plan for humanity, cleverly suggests to Eve that God is really against her. It’s you versus Him, he insinuates. And here we go: the endless battle of sin and grace, where sin belongs to anyone who tries to dominate and grace belongs to those who abjure mental or physical violence and embrace humble fidelity to the grace of Christ.
Stand before God with the person who has offended you, who opposes you, whom you cannot bear to look at because they think or live or act in a way you cannot bear. Can you ask for mercy for yourself with a straight face from the God of mercy when you cannot even look at that person beside you? Do you really think that God is on your side and not on his? Can you ask with any sincerity for forgiveness for your own sins when you won’t forgive the one who has hurt you? And you will be the more unable to forgive the other the more you have argued yourself into a corner that their offence of you is unforgiveable. And the emptiness of your prayer for mercy will be deeper and darker the more you think yourself justified in not forgiving.
We need not moan or complain about injustice in the world if we are not ourselves, in our own little corners, prepared to exercise justice, mercy and compassion towards those who have hurt us. We mock God if we say “forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us”, whilst avoiding minimal contact with our offender.
Heavy is the weight of the unforgiving heart. Dark is its inner space, since it will receive no light of forgiveness if it is not itself willing to shed that light on others. So, let’s get moving, exercising, refusing to gorge on self-pity and imagined superiority. As we ask the Lord to lighten our load, ask him to give us the power, yes the supremely destructive power, of mercy, a power which can destroy hell itself and restore us, and our erstwhile enemies, to the throne of heaven. Overcome evil with good and thus fulfil the law of Christ.