Skip directly to content

Fr. Glenn: Forgive Us Our Trespasses…

on November 26, 2017 - 8:00am
By Rev. Glenn Jones
Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church
Los Alamos

Huh … Charles Manson died about a week ago. For those too young to remember, Manson was leader of a cult (“the Manson family”), which engaged in torture and murder back in the late 1960’s, but he fortunately was captured, his cult broken up and he had been in prison ever since … dying after many decades of incarceration at the age of 83.

Predictably, some headlines were vengeful and gloating; for example: “Make Room, Satan; Charles Manson is Finally Going to Hell”, and editorial cartoons were rife with depictions of Hell, Satan, etc., bringing to mind an NCIS episode in which a serial torturer/killer was being taken away defiant and unrepentant. Special Agent Gibbs simply quipped: “Enjoy Hell.” Yikes. The very thought of such a fate chills the marrow.

Manson’s crimes were shocking in their time … and still are. But are now bombarded with images that make him look like a rank amateur—the Las Vegas and Orlando shootings, terrorist incidents, mass beheadings, etc., not even to mention continued slavery (especially sexual) throughout the world, oppressive and murderous dictatorships, factional rivalries in heavy drug-producing areas (supported by sales … largely in the U.S., by the way) … and the list goes on and on.

This leads us to musing on one of the most simultaneously lauded and reviled … one of the most challenging and very often countercultural … aspects of Christianity: Jesus’ explicit teaching:  “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28), and its supporting principle: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven…” (Luke 6:37) … for “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.” (Romans 14:4)

Considering this abstractedly, society applauds this principle of mercy … but when faced with concrete and extreme (and sometimes personal but not-so-extreme) situations, we tend to leap to the conclusion: “That can’t apply in THIS case!” But then … where is the dividing line? When does it apply, and when not? 

Even those who might abstractedly wish Hell upon a perpetrator of evil might protest the reality of the death penalty, and much more torturous punishments such as whipping, starvation, etc. And because mental state determines behavior, society demands special protections for those considered insane, or incompetent in regard to personal responsibility. If we review even Manson’s upbringing—his inattentive alcoholic mother, sexual abuse, criminal relatives—one might have been more surprised if he had turned out well! 

Obviously society should seek justice, protection of individuals and the common good; indeed, such principles are the primary duty of society’s leaders, and are why St. Paul writes: “…rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad…for he is God's servant for your good…he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:3-4) … and Jesus Himself scolds religious rulers tasked with upholding the good: “…[you] have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done…” (Matthew 23:23) After all, the early Jewish Law in the Torah (first five books of the Bible) had the goal of equitable justice—the “eye for an eye” being restrictive, as a preventative against excessive vendetta or punishment.

We need never worry whether justice will ultimately be done; it will inevitably be—either here or in eternity. This is where that “Love your enemies” enters in our lives, recalling St. Paul: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance [justice] is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:14, 17-21)

Is there a time limit on Christ’s offer of mercy? Not until death, for He assured the repentant thief of Heaven even at the point of death (Luke 23:43). An upper limit to the evil of our past which precludes repentance and subsequent salvation? No … for we even read: “…your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good…Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.” (Isaiah 1:15-19)

In the end, we remember the incalculable, inestimable value of each human soul, for: “… you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made…” (Wisdom 11:24) And we also remember that Jesus gave His life upon the cross for all persons, and thus “…is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Christians especially cannot disregard the fact that each person is made in God’s image, regardless of how poorly a person may reflect that absolute good that God is.  Thus, rather than rejoice, we lament the loss of any soul—our brother or sister—that they refused the good during this short life, or to reach out to the ever-offered, all-embracing mercy of God … and we feel keenly John Donne’s sentiment:

Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.