We all know that we are supposed to “forgive those who trespass against us”, because every time we say the Our Father that is what we pray; but to say it is one thing, to do it is another. Maybe it’s because for us to trespass is simply to walk on someone else’s land. It doesn’t sound too terrible, does it? But one of the traditional Spiritual works of mercy brings out its meaning more clearly, because it uses a stronger word. We are called to “forgive offences” and perhaps even more difficult “bear patiently those who do us ill”. Well I don’t know about you, but I can think of at least one incident in my life, where someone offended me so badly that I would still find it very hard even to meet him, let alone to indicate in any way that I had forgiven him.
The temptation, if I met him, would be to find some way to make him look small. I wouldn’t resort to violence as some might, but I would use any other means at my disposal to make him know how angry I am about what he did. I hope you noticed that word “temptation”? … I hope I would resist the temptation to be nasty to him, that I would try to be friendly and kind, but I am not sure that I would succeed.
That word “temptation” is, of course, central to our Gospel today. (Luke 4:1-13) Jesus too was tempted. But we tend to think that somehow it was easier for him because he was the Son of God. This is actually quite wrong. God chose to become fully human in Jesus. He did not pretend to be human, and so he had to face all the same problems that we face. He was “tested as we are” (Hebrews 4:15) and it was so hard, that (as we heard in the Gospel) he had to go away from everyone else as he struggled to resist these things.
We might also think that Nazareth, where he was brought up, was a quiet country village without the troubles and temptations of our modern life, where all sorts of things are now accessible to us through the computer. Again we would be mistaken. Nazareth was a town full of the hated foreign Roman soldiers; the archaeologists have even found their bathhouse! You can be sure therefore, that like any garrison town, all sorts of things were on offer, polluting the purer life that must have been there before the soldiers came.
So here is one temptation Jesus must have found very difficult to resist. He was tempted to use military power to put everything right. The evil voice within him said, “I will give you all this power and the glory of these kingdoms.” In other words, “I will not forgive these foreigners who have taken over my country. I will not forgive their awful offences. I will rise up as a great leader and smash them and their Empire to bits. Then I will rule the world and bring people peace.” We know that he chose a different way – to bring a different kind of peace through love and service and sacrifice – but that was a hard road for him, as it is for us. He even forgave them whilst they killed him brutally on the cross.
We could go further. Remember the story of the Roman soldier coming to Jesus for help? (Matt 8) Here is a time to make them look small. We are reminded here of one of the Corporal works of mercy –“to welcome the stranger.” And this man was not just a stranger, but one of the hated foreigners! It’s interesting that Jesus has just crossed another barrier, and reached out and touched a hated leper. Now he reaches out to this foreigner, and simply says “I will come.” Have you ever noticed that we are asked to echo the soldier’s reply every time we come to Mass “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof”. We are called, at that moment, to think of ourselves as the offenders, those who spoil the goodness that God wills for the world; and yet in his mercy he forgives our offences. So, every day, we are taught to pray “Forgive us our trespasses” and called to try to forgive and to love in the way God forgives and loves us. For God never says “No. Go away” when like that soldier we ask for his help. God, in his mercy always says “I will come”.
It is only as we think of ourselves as offenders in need of God’s mercy, that we have any chance of forgiving others who offend us. It is only as we think of how God bears patiently with us as we go astray, that we have any chance of bearing those who do us ill. Jesus always replies to his temptations by turning to God the Father. He says “You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone” .That must be our way too.