When Christian missionaries to Alaska went to minister among the Inuit people, they were surprised to discover their term for forgiveness. A formidable assemblage of 24 letters, the compound word issumagijoujungnainermik is a beautiful expression which means not-being-able-to-think-about-it-anymore. Implied in this term is the notion that the one who forgives will also forget. What a freeing thought! Forgiveness is a noble gift and when it is authentically offered and genuinely received, it never ceases to stir true amazement in the human heart.
First reading: 1Samuel 26:7-9, 12-13, 22-23
When President Gerald Ford granted President Richard Nixon ‘un conditional pardon’ for participating in the Watergate scandal, many considered it an act of weakness. In 1977 when President Jimmy Carter offered amnesty to those who had refused to fight in Vietnam by seeking asylum in other countries; he was criticized for not enforcing the law. These men, one a Republican and the other a Democrat took the heat because neither of them was motivated by pressure from public opinion but by exercising mercy dictated by conscience. David was confronted with similar circumstances when king Saul who had become incompetent and unpopular but still armed with 3000 soldiers was pursuing to kill him on suspicion that this younger rival was becoming a threat to his throne. At one point in their conflict, David was able to enter Saul’s camp undetected surprising Saul in a deep sleep but spared his life.
All those with David were convinced that such sleeping/tardemah must have been divinely induced by God cf. 1Samuel 26:7 to place Saul in David’s hands. Abishai, David’s companion also interpreted the sleeping as an advantage given to them by God and he encouraged David to make the most of his opportunity cf. 1Samuel 26: 8 but David refused refusal to take advantage of what appeared to be a divinely given opportunity to the point of being regarded as weak. Like Ford and Carter, David refused to be motivated by public opinion. Out of respect for Saul’s position as God’s anointed he spared him and left the judgment of life or death in the hands of God. Because of his unwillingness to exact a lawfully permitted ‘eye for an eye’ vengeance upon his enemy, David is admired as a type of forerunner of Jesus who would take that very law and raise it from the justice of mere legalism to the mercy and forgiveness.
Second reading: 1Corinthians 15:45-49
Paul refers the Corinthians to the two proto-types who have influenced their present existence as well as their future in eternity. The first Adam was the proto-typical human while the last Adam/the risen Christ is a prototype of the resurrected glory that each of us shall experience. In the time of St. Paul, common Corinthians thought that the first Adam cf. Genesis 1:27 was made ‘in the image and likeness of God’ while the second Adam, ‘formed of the clay of the ground’ was infused with the very breath of God and became a “living being” Genesis 2:7. The first Adam was the archetypal/prototypical human being as God had intended against the spiritual second Adam representing humankind who is corruptible. This thinking was erroneous.
Instead Paul interpreted the two creation accounts as two versions of the same fact but deriving from different sources. He understood that both versions described the same Adam, a physical natural earthly human being cf. 1Corinthians 15: 46. The spiritual, true and last, heavenly Adam is Jesus Christ. Whereas the natural body links us to the first Adam, the spiritual body links us to Christ the risen Lord in whom and by whom believers are saved and gifted with an everlasting resurrected existence cf. 1Corinthians 15:44. While we are on earth, our ties with the first Adam involve us in mortality while our ties with the last Adam promise us a share in immortality. For Paul, our opportunity to share in the life of the risen Adam-Christ does not commence only at death; on the contrary through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are already able to share, here and now, albeit not fully in the life of the risen Christ. The full and forever sharing will come when we travel the passage which is death to everlasting life.
Gospel Luke 6:27-38
In the Blessings and Woes of the Great Sermon, Luke describes those who would find a home in the kingdom of God and those who, of their own volition, would forego membership. Having established the requisites for membership, the Great Sermon then focuses attention on the law of love by which the life of the people of God will be governed cf. Luke 6:27-35 and then on the standard by which members of the kingdom are to measure themselves cf. Luke 6:36-38. At the outset, we are challenged to notice that Jesus was addressing his disciples who had already decided to follow him by turning from their former way of life. Yet, having made this initial choice, they were challenged further to make Jesus’ way of life their own. Following in the way of Jesus would require a radical break with their natural past. Among the Jews and Greeks, interpersonal relationships were characterized by reciprocity. My friend loves me, I love my friend. My enemy hates me, I hate my enemy. The Jewish legislation regarding this do-ut-des/tit-for-tat mentality was part of the expanded law, called the Holiness Code in the book of Leviticus. The Greek notion of this eye-for-an-eye interaction was reflected in its literature by Lysias who dictated the Hellenistic view of reciprocity most succinctly that: “I considered it established that one should do harm to one’s enemies and be of service to one’s friends”
Like a well-oiled machine, this principle governed human behavior and relationships until Jesus’ teaching of freely given and unreciprocated love threw a monkey wrench into the works! Because believers belong to the reign of God, merely human norms and criteria can no longer have sole governance of their lives. With a compassionate, forgiving and generous love, God sets higher standard “be compassionate as God is compassionate” Luke 6:36. As followers of Jesus we are called to put aside reciprocity for a love that transforms our minds and hearts expressed in words and works. As if this was not enough, Jesus goes ahead to challenge us to even love our enemies cf. Luke 6:27. It not enough to do good because after such an act you are expected to” bless those who curse you and pray for those who maltreat you” Luke 6:28.
Stretching our capacity even further and drawing us more closely to the divine norm “be compassionate as God is” Luke 6:36, Jesus calls us to allow our love, blessings, prayers and good deeds to go beyond what is required or demanded. Give to all who ask from you; if a coat is demanded, give a shirt as well. If violence is sustained as when someone slaps you on one cheek, answer that affront with non-violence. In other words, people should not return evil for evil but rather respond as they would want to be treated.
Jesus, first disciples and us who are following him cannot help but wonder what resources make these demands possible. An answer to this question lies in the disciples themselves. Before Pentecost, they tended to lean toward their old ways of reciprocity, responding in kind to others. Recall the time a Samaritan village refused to offer hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. Infuriated, they wanted to call a consuming fire upon the village cf. Luke 9:52-54. Recall also the disciples’ reaction when Jesus was arrested. They were ready to “strike with a sword” and one of them cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant cf. Luke 22:49-50. But after Jesus’ saving death and resurrection and after they were transformed by the Spirit, they “rejoiced that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name of Jesus” Acts 5:41.
David had the opportunity to do away with his sworn enemy King Saul who wanted to kill him simply because of jealous and resentfulness owing to his popularity with the people. Rather than take advantage of Saul when the opportunity arose, David spared the life of the king because of his role as God’s anointed. If we are strong we must be ready to forgive. Christian holiness means to reflect God’s own nature in human conduct. If we operate solely on human values, then the salt and light will disappear rendering Christianity meaningless. We are called to be different. We must forgive until others are amazed of us. If we look only to ourselves and our own resources, the demands of the gospel seem impossible. But with the gift of the transforming Spirit, even the impossible like unconditional forgiveness becomes our way of life.