A few years ago I was traveling in a foreign country. Often one of the first adjustments to be made when traveling abroad is to the local diet. It is often quite different from the one to which we are accustomed at home. One day I was invited to a meal at the home of a wonderful family, who wanted to treat me to the best of their traditional fare. I stepped into the dining room to see the table laden with a smorgasbord of local dishes. Unfortunately, someone made the mistake of telling me in advance the identity of the two principal dishes: goat and cow stomach! Thanks be to God there were plenty of other dishes which were reasonably similar to "home cooking" that I was able to fill up on those, because, for the life of me, I just could not stomach eating stomach.
It has occurred to me since then that this experience offers an analogy to describe the challenge faced by members of the Church as we respond to the call of the new evangelization. When we announce the Gospel we are offering a diet that many today, unaccustomed to the beauty of its teachings, find very difficult to digest. To a society growing increasingly accustomed to consuming vast amounts of falsehood and illusion, the truth proposed by Christ seems to have a very bad taste. Similarly, the call of Christ to a discipleship that involves self-denial and the carrying of one's cross is bitter to the taste of one who is accustomed to a diet of hedonism.
Particularly difficult for many to swallow is the teaching given in the Gospel passage of Sunday's Mass (cf. Matthew 18:21-35). There the Lord speaks in no uncertain terms of the need to place mercy and forgiveness at the centre of one's life. Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the terrible terrorist attacks on the United States. The horrible loss of life from those deranged and evil acts gave birth, understandably, to an anger so deep that any talk of forgiveness became for many impossible even to hear, let alone heed. Think, too, of the situation in the Middle East, where for decades now terrible atrocities have left many of the peoples of that region hating one another. Many in this context find the idea of forgiveness unthinkable. Of course, even apart from these extreme situations we can know in our own day-to-day lives the difficulty of forgiving. Broken relationships, words spoken in anger, betrayal of a confidence – these and other circumstances can so hurt us as to leave us bitter and not wanting to forgive.
Yet at the same time we also know the truth of Jesus’s words. It is clear that violence simply breeds more violence in a never-ending spiral of animosity and despair. The only antidote to the poison of bitterness is mercy. Forgiveness halts violence in its tracks and restores ruptured relationships. We know this to be true, we want to forgive, yet at times it is so hard to do, especially if the hurt is deep. And the imperative is clear: as Jesus points out by means of the parable in the Gospel, we live by the mercy of God and are therefore called to be agents of that mercy to others. In fact, if we want God to forgive us, Jesus says, we must forgive others.
This need to be forgiving of others is related to the new evangelization. To be effective, we must be people of integrity whose lives correspond to our words. We must be people of mercy. Indeed, we must be people who are seen to have consumed all that the Gospel proposes and have so digested it that it consumes us. You know, when I faced that table full of what I thought was inedible food, I also saw my hosts merrily gobbling down the dishes that I could not imagine eating. Because they enjoyed it so much I thought to myself, "Maybe I will try that someday." Admittedly I did not eat the stomach that day, but certainly was disposed to the possibility because of the witness of those who ate it with delight.
When we happily consume that banquet of truth and joy given in the teachings of Jesus Christ and so digest them that they truly become a part of us, we invite others, by our very actions, to "taste and see the goodness of the Lord" (Psalm 34:8) and to share the joy we have found in a life of Christian discipleship.
I am on retreat this week with the Priests of the Archdiocese of Edmonton. Please remember us in prayer and send up an Ave or two for our intentions. Thanks.