7th Sunday in Ordinary Time. February 23, 2014
Lev 19:1-2,17-18; 1Cor 3:16-23; Mt 5:38-48
“Be perfect just as your heavenly father is perfect.”
How could you forgive the man who raped your mother and who is responsible for your being conceived in rape? How do you forgive such a man who is responsible for your being born with a respiratory problem? If you are a priest, how could you knowingly hear the confession of such a man, forgive him from your heart and absolve him from his sins in the sacrament of confession?
These were the questions on my mind when I read the story of Ecuadoran parish priest Fr. Luis Alfredo Leon Armijos. His mother had conceived him in rape at the age of 13, she was rejected and abused by her family because of the pregnancy, and she fled from home and gave birth to him with serious respiratory problem. Many years later, after being ordained a priest, his scared father called him shortly before undergoing a delicate surgery, asking his priest-son to hear his confession. Fr. Leon absolved his father and gave him Communion for the first time after so many years.
Fr. Leon could personally forgive and absolve his father in Confession because he chose to focus on divine goodness in his own life and not on the personal hurt to him and his mother. His testimony reflects his constant focus on God’s unfailing goodness to him even in the painful moments in his life. In his words, “I could be in a trash can, but I was given life,” “I realized that God was allowing me to be a priest not to judge but to forgive; I had judged my father a lot for everything,” “You can come to know your own story and hate your life, judge God like I had done. But I discovered that God’s love had been there looking over my life,”“Everything I have is a gratuity. Life itself is an exquisite gift from God.” By focusing on the divine goodness in his life, Fr. Leon could forgive his rapist-father and offer him those consoling and hopeful parting words that brought tears to his father’s eyes, “Father, you deserve heaven, an eternal life.”
Fr. Leon’s story reminds me of my favorite biblical story of forgiveness, the story of the Patriarch Joseph in the Book of Genesis. His brothers had sold him to slavery but God in His goodness brought him from the dungeons to becoming second in command in Egypt and dispenser of the scarce grains at time of regional famine. After their reconciliation and the death of his father Jacob, the brothers came to Joseph in fear, thinking that Joseph would now take revenge on them and pay them back for the harm they caused him. But Joseph reassured them of his forgiveness in these words, “Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good, to achieve His present end, the survival of many people.”(Gen 50:20) He forgave them again wholeheartedly as he had done while his father was alive not because he forgot their malice but because he chose to focus on divine goodness “that meant it all for good” in his own life and not on the hurts and pains that they had caused him.
Focusing and getting in touch with divine goodness in our lives is not just a mental exercise but connecting with this goodness and believing in it transforms us and moves us to let this goodness prevail over evil in the world. This is because divine goodness must spread by its very nature and it transforms us as we let ourselves become its channel to others. God’s goodness is so gratuitous that He gives to all His creatures without any merit on their part: “Not according to our sins does He deal with us, nor does He requite us according to our crimes.”(Ps 103:10) In Jesus Christ, divine goodness triumphs overwhelmingly over evil such that “Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more.”(Rom 5:20)
In today’s Gospel Jesus calls us to be “perfect just as our heavenly Father is perfect.” Our Father’s perfection lies in the fact that no evil can triumph over the divine goodness. The Father’s goodness is not diminished nor hindered by the evil we do. On the contrary, without any merit on their part, the Father “makes His sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” We can only hope to be perfect like the Father because He has placed His goodness in us with its power to transform us and move us to become channels through which this same goodness can triumph over evil in the world. We can “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us” not by our will power but only when we let this divinely bestowed goodness in us triumph over evil in the world. This goodness has so much transforming power in us that we can “become children of our heavenly Father” simply by letting His goodness in us prevail over evil. We may not change others or eliminate all evil in the world but we are changed by power of divine goodness when we freely become its channels.
The Apostle Paul calls the divided Corinthians to focus on the divine goodness in their lives by reminding them that the Holy Spirit dwelling in them without any merit on their part has made them God’s temple: “You are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in you.” If God’s Spirit of goodness dwells in us and if we let this goodness prevail in the face of evil, we shall be so transformed that our love for others should begin to reflect God’s perfect love for us that is not hindered by our evil deeds.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, there will always be evil in this world and we cannot avoid it. People and organizations can and will hurt us and cause us pains, sometimes leaving us angry, hurt, revengeful and resentful. It is so easy for us to focus on the hurt that we feel and forget the divine goodness within us, making it so easy to treat people as we think that they deserve. By so doing, we give evil the power that it does not have over the divine goodness we possess and we thus fail to let this goodness transform us further into faithful images of God. When we begin to think that the hurt is more real and powerful than the goodness of God, we need to recall God’s goodness in the past and make acts of trust in God’s constant goodness to us.
Let me share with you three sure ways in which we can begin to experience and hold on to the divine goodness in our lives. The first one is to have a deeper appreciation of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a powerful manifestation of divine goodness prevailing over evil in our lives and in the world because, in this sacrament, the all-holy God-Man heeds the voice of an unworthy priest and makes Himself present in the midst of sinners to communicate to us His own goodness that overcomes evil. But how much do we appreciate this gift of divine presence in an world steeped in evil? How well do we prepare for this sacramental encounter, how properly disposed are we to receive Him, and how deep is our gratitude for this gift? Do we spend time in thanksgiving after Holy Communion so as to appreciate this gift more or do we join the mad rush to leave the Church even before the end of Mass? Divine goodness must be appreciated before it can take hold of us and transform us. Jesus Himself appreciated His Father’s goodness to Him and this led Him to conquer evil in the world: “The one who sent me is always with me and He has not abandoned me because I always do what is pleasing to Him.”(Jn 8:29)
The second way is to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation often and to strive to bring the fruits of our reconciliation with God in this sacrament to others. Our sins are confronted and washed away by the blood of Jesus in this sacrament. We must not stop there! We must let this divine goodness we encounter spread from us to other hearts. The goodness that cleanses us wants to spread like wild fire to other hearts from our own hearts. Our transformation is deepened if we let this goodness spread to others who have hurt us, setting them free just as we have been set free. According to Pope Francis, “Goodness always tends to spread. Every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us, and any person who has experienced a profound liberation becomes more sensitive to the needs of others. As it expands, goodness takes root and develops.”(Evangelii Gaudium #9)
A third way to connect with divine goodness is to pray constantly out of gratitude to God for His unconditional love for us and not praying only because we are hurting. Don’t we pray more out of our hurts than out of gratitude to God for His goodness to us in the past and His continuous goodness even in the pains of the present moment? When our prayers are focused almost exclusively on our hurts and we fail to connect first with the divine goodness in our lives, we run the risk of succumbing to the evil we experience. Jesus’ prayers were always rooted in the Father’s goodness to Him even when the hurt was deep as evident in His prayer at Gethsemane, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.”(Mk 14:36) If we come to prayer out of gratitude to God for His goodness to us, for His unconditional love for us, we become transformed channels of divine goodness in the world, channels though which this goodness overcomes all evil.
Let us look to Mary, the Mother of God, who did so much good to others not just because they deserved them but simply because she focused on the goodness of God that she had experienced in her own life. She did not visit Elizabeth “in haste” because she needed or expected something good from her in return but simply because, in Mary’s words, “God has done great things for her.” Conceived without sin and being the Mother of God, she had experienced divine goodness so radically and her response was total in letting this goodness prevail over all evil in the world. She let divine goodness prevail over the unjust death of Jesus on the Cross when she accepted the beloved disciple as her son in obedience to Christ’s command, “Behold your son.” Let us beg her to teach us that the main reason to be good to people, whether they merit it or not, is because God has been good to us and His goodness desires to spread and transforms us in as much as we let this goodness prevail in the world.
In this Eucharist, God continues to do great things for us despite our lack of merit. His goodness is more real and more powerful than the pains we suffer from evil. As we receive divine goodness in this Eucharistic sacrifice, if we open ourselves to this goodness and let it spread as it is meant to spread to others, we will be transformed more and more into living images of the infinitely Good God here on earth even as we face the hurts of life. This is how we become perfect like our Father in heaven.
Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!