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Surely you are not in love with yourself?

August 13, 2015

Matthew 18: 21 – 19:1                      Thursday 13th August 2015

Yesterday’s gospel was about reconciliation within the Church when people disagreed over doctrine, when they were not behaving as Christians should.

Today’s Gospel continues with advice on that other aspect of healing division within communities – forgiveness between individuals. Peter asks Jesus, “How often should I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?” And our Lord replies, “Not seven I tell you, but seventy-seven times.

Why did Peter choose the number seven? Probably because seven is the number the Jews associated with God – with holiness; and in particular it is a number associated with forgiveness: the Jewish liturgy for the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, involved the people being sprinkled seven times to receive forgiveness and purification of their sins.

Forgiveness, true forgiveness, is an act of love towards another, an act of selfless charity. Love is the solution to the problems we face in leading our lives as good Christians. Later in Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells us to ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ And to do these involves two things: receiving forgiveness and giving forgiveness.

Firstly, receiving forgiveness. This means we should stop occasionally and think about the damage we might have done to each others in our hectic, stressful lives. We should develop a habit of reflecting on our behaviour. That’s called an examination of conscience. And the guaranteed forgiveness, of a new start, comes through Jesus Christ at the Sacrament of Reconciliation – confession. All of us need that forgiveness.

If the first aspect of love is to receive forgiveness, the second is just as important. It’s the aspect of love that involves forgiving others. Remember, just like our little sins can get begin to get out of control, even leading to hatred and cruelty, so unexpected little acts of love can begin to change our outlook and the way we behave so that we can begin to spread love in the world around us. As individuals we may not realise the effect this will have on us, but other people will recognise the difference. Christian love is infectious.

Forgiveness may be one of the most difficult of all the good things Christians are expected to do: it’s fine in principle, but difficult when you actually have something that needs to be forgiven! Should we forgive people who have done dreadful things to us, such as terrorist attacks or sexual abuse.

How to do this? Start with the easy things. Remember, virtues are habit-forming.

TIP 1:   Start with the easy things. Don’t start with the enormous hurts you’ve suffered. Start by forgiving those small things from people around you, the day to day slights, as they happen.

TIP 2:   Try to understand what ‘loving your neighbour as yourself’ actually means.

Ask yourself ‘how do I love myself’ then you’ll know how to love others

  • Are you fond of yourself? Do you feel affectionate for yourself? Do you always feel happy with yourself. NO!

So loving ‘loving your neighbour as yourself’ does not mean you need to be fond of them, affectionate, or even like them.

  • Do you think highly of yourself? Sometimes, probably. But do you think yourself ‘nice’. Not always. In fact, sometimes you might think yourself to be not very nice.

So loving your neighbour as yourself, forgiving your enemies, does not mean you have changed you mind and suddenly the Gestapo are ‘nice’ people.

How can you hate what someone does, but not hate the person? Easy – you do it all the time to yourself!

So Christianity asks us to do to people whom we hate the same as we do to ourselves – to continue hating the badness, to feel sorry that they have been bad, and to hope that somehow, sometime, somewhere, that person can be cured and made human again.

Loving your neighbour as yourself, forgiving them, does not mean you have to like them – I repeat, Christian love does not mean you have to like someone to show love towards them. Of course, it’s easier to be charitable to others, to think well of them, if we like them, but this is what Jesus says about that (in Matthew 5: 47)

‘If you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do as much do they not?

We’re back to yesterday again, aren’t we? How does Jesus treat the very self-same tax collectors and pagans? With respect, with love.

So it is that our Lord teaches us that we don’t have to try desperately to feel affection towards people to be charitable. Some people are not outwardly affectionate anyway (that’s not a sin – no more than having bad digestion – that just the way different people are).

The trick of Christian love is to behave in a manner as you would if you did indeed love a person – whether you feel any affection or not. We can train ourselves to have a charitable outlook towards others, even if we don’t like them. That is the virtue of love.

If you do someone a good turn, you’ll finds you dislike them less. BUT it must be SELFLESS love – not to show the other person what a good person you are. Indeed, if someone offends you and you tell them that you have forgiven them, that is likely to make them really angry with them: they’d probably see it as self-righteous and hypocritical humbug. That is not genuine love, it’s scoring points.

So treating people charitably – loving them – leads us, gradually, to greater affection.

The opposite is also true: treating people badly leads to dreadful things happening (the Nazis hated the Jews and treated them badly; once they had treated them badly, they hated them even more).

So a true Christian doesn’t have to like someone to love them. But strangely, as we love someone, as relationships (large or small) are healed, so we can begin to like each other again. And that makes for a happier world.

And this is what this is all about: God wants us to be happy. Not just in heaven, but here on earth. Jesus wants us to change our small-minded, petty ways, to liberate us from sin, to build heaven on earth.

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