11 Sept, Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
It is inconsistent and dishonest to celebrate our God as the Lord of compassion and love, unless we show mercy to those who have wronged us. Today’s Gospel calls us to forgive others as Christ forgives us. Some of the finer minds among the Old Testament writers already perceived this connection: “If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins?” This became a theme in several of Our Lord’s parables, such as today’s warning about the fate of the unforgiving debtor. In the homily one might even quote Shakespeare’s Portia today, on the “quality of mercy.” (Merchant Of Venice_Act IV Scene I)
Sir 27:33-28:9. An intense desire for revenge can block us from receiving God’s mercy to ourselves. “If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins?”
Rom 14:7-9. As Christians we belong to Christ. “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord”
Mt 18:21-35. The parable of the unforgiving debtor says that we who receive the unlimited mercy of God must always be ready to forgive others.
– for the grace to forgive those who have wronged us, and “Let Bygones Be Bygones.”
– for a return to peace and stability among warring parties in the trouble-spots of our world.
– for a spirit of reconciliation among feuding families and neighbours.
– that we may all build for the future, in mutual trust and harmony.
Forgiveness (John O’Connell)
A woman, pushing on in years, boasted to her Parish Priest that she did not have an enemy in the world. He was very impressed. What a wonderful thing to be able to say after all those years! And then she added:- ‘I have outlived them all’. I suppose if we live long enough we will also be able to make the same statement.
We have all been hurt in some way or other in the journey of life – made fun of in school by a teacher, not invited to the wedding, didn’t get the job I thought I should have got, or at a more serious level, betrayed by someone you trusted, abused physically or sexually and so on.
Sheila Cassidy, who was herself tortured in South America, had this to say:- ‘I would never say to someone ‘you must forgive’. I would not dare. Who am I to tell a woman whose father abused her or a mother whose daughter has been raped that she must forgive? I can only say: ‘However much we have been wronged, however justified our hatred, if we cherish it, it will poison us……We must pray for the power to forgive, for it is in forgiving that we are healed’. Nelson Mandella continually reminded his fellow prisoners in South Africa that unless they let go of their hurts they would remain in the grip of their abusers.
By failing to forgive, we hurt ourselves more than anyone else. Surely this is what Jesus had in mind when he told how the merciless servant was cast into prison when he refused to forgive his fellow servant. I don’t think he was suggesting that God would cancel his mercy. He is simply saying that an unforgiving spirit creates a prison of its own. It builds up walls of bitterness and resentment and there is no escape until we come to forgive.
Of course it is important to remember that we also have hurt people. Solzenitchen reminds us that the line that divides good and evil passes through the heart of each one of us.
Forgiving and letting go is not easy, especially when the wound is very deep. This is why forgiveness is sometimes called the ‘f’ word, because it’s not to be used lightly. Forgiveness is a choice and often involves a three stage process: (1) I will never forgive that person (2) I can’t forgive (forgiveness seen as a good thing, but the hurt is too great) (3) I want to forgive and let go with God’s help.
Also we must learn to forgive ourselves. Imagine you are responsible for something very serious. You are driving a car with drink. There is an accident and a young person is killed. That life cannot be brought back. For more and more people there is a something in the background, some skeleton in the closet – a broken marriage, an abortion, a pregnancy outside marriage, a broken relationship, a serious mistake. And for many of us we do not believe that there is another chance much less a seven times seventy chances. This is not the teaching of Jesus. God does not just give us another chance, but every time we close a door he opens another one for us.
The Lord challenges us not to make serious damaging mistakes, but he also tells us that our mistakes are not forever – they are not even for a life time – and that time and grace wash clean, that nothing is irrevocable.
Even Your Enemies (John Walsh)
In that gospel reading Peter asked Jesus how often he should forgive his brother, and in the parable following was told that not only should he do so time and time again, but he should also forgive his brother from his heart. But there is still more. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had widened the act of forgiving to include even one’s enemies. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute and calumniate you” (Lk 6:27f). Sadly, the majority of us who try to live up to Christian standards feel that the love of God and of our fellow human beings is not exactly a priority in our lives.
But we should bear in mind that love does not consist solely in making great sacrifices. Indeed, great sacrifices without love are worth nothing, and neither are wonderful deeds, great achievements or heroic endurance. All of these latter were present in the life of St Paul. He was a man of profound spiritual knowledge, with a vast understanding of the mysteries of revelation. He could have answered thousands of questions on theological problems which have vexed the greatest minds down the centuries. So wonderful were the gifts God had given him that no one who met him could go away without being wiser about the path a soul should take to come close to God.
Such was this great apostle who devoted his unique talents to the spreading of Christ’s message to the gentiles. Yet, of himself he could say, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and even have all faith so as to remove mountains, yet if I have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:1+). So being blessed with faith and eloquence and knowledge is not proof that one has also the gift of love. Even martyrdom, in itself, is no passport into paradise, as Paul said, “though I give my body to be burned, and am without love, it will do me no good whatever.” Jesus urged his followers, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”
However, it is quite possible to be obedient, but remain without love, to obey God through fear of being punished by him. This generally happens when people pursue the things of this world, but are restrained from doing so to the full, by the kind of religion they profess. Those who go further than themselves, they look upon as being ungodly, whereas those who do not go as far as themselves, they regard as being superstitious, and scoff at them by labelling them conservatives.
The fact is, however, that if we turn away from evil out of fear of being punished, we are in the position of slaves. Jesus makes our whole duty consist in loving God, and at the same time also loving our neighbour. “We know we have passed from death to life, because we love one another,” St John wrote in his first letter (3:14), and “Everyone who loves is born of God, and knows God, because God is love” (4:7). Moreover, “Anyone who lives in love, lives in God, and God lives in him” (4:16). We can say that love is the seed of holiness, and begets all kinds of excellent qualities and virtues that single out a truly saintly person from ordinary souls. “Love, and do what you will,” St Augustine used to say, meaning that all who are motivated by love, in everything they do, are incapable of doing wrong to anyone. Indeed, holiness is really love of the divine law.
When as infants we were baptised, we received the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit so given is the Law of God written on our hearts. In the Letter to the Hebrews we have confirmation of this where it says, “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts” (8:10). To know and believe that one is immensely loved by God gives ultimate meaning to life on earth and provides the foundation for true, real, and meaningful happiness.
Faith, however, should never beget a condescending attitude towards others, especially people of different religious persuasion to ourselves – regarding them as poor misguided individuals – nor should our faith lead to a feeling of complacency and smugness in ourselves. For faith is more a gift than an achievement on our part. It leads to the knowledge that we are loved by God as we are, and this frees us from worrying about our own perfection, our own happiness. It gives us the freedom of the children of God who place their trust completely in his love for them.
Pardoning (Patrick Rogers)
Hatred and resentment are moral cancers that eat away at our enthusiasm to do good. An appeal to strict justice is not enough to solve the dilemma, since taking out another’s eye does not really cure the loss of one’s own eye, and revenge cannot really settle the account of a grievance. But forgiveness is a hard virtue to gain and to maintain. We can feel the problem in the question Peter asks of Jesus today: “How many times must I forgive?” And although his proposal of “seven times” is used as a round symbolic willingness to forgive “as much as it is humanly possible to forgive,” Jesus suggest we must go further still, since God forgives “seventy seven times” (or seventy times seven times.) Forgiveness is not a question of just how often or how many times, rather it reflects God’s unending willingness to pardon. There are no limits to his forgiveness.
It is so easy to forget God’s goodness, as our first reading illustrates today. (Eccl 27:30-28:7) Even the stark reality of our own death does not keep each of us alert to God’s gracious promise of salvation as the guiding principal of our actions. It is not easy to see the goodness of God in the hurt we inflict on each other in our selfish interactions. Paul tells us today that we do influence each other. We affect each other. But is it for the good (Rom 14:7-9.)
Our parable story today shows that we are incapable of forgiving without first appreciating the forgiveness we have received from God. Notice the three scenes:
(1) We are insolvent, indebted, overdrawn in our account with God’s goodness. God has given us freely life, freedom, integrity and hope. We are incapable of achieving anything by our own resources- we have none! “Without me you can do nothing.”
(2) We are puffed-up with our own importance: “Pay me what you owe me!” We can be intolerant, demanding, inexcusable and arrogant. We can be unkind and unforgiving. We can injure our neighbour, and he can hurt us. We can elbow our way roughly through life. We can so easily hold a grudge, and refuse to forgive.
(3) The ultimate reality “God’s goodness” is never simple-minded. God is not blind. The unforgiving cannot be forgiven. Forgiveness only comes from realising that we have been forgiven. In pardoning we are pardoned. Our tenuous hold on others must quickly be consumed not by following our hatred to the hilt, but by pardoning in gentle forgiveness. Only so can we realise the equation: Insolvency cannot make demands!
And so let us forgive from our hearts, for if we leave the court with our own suit dismissed, and fail to forgive, then we find ourselves immediately rearranged and in the dock as the guilty accused!
Easy to Talk (John Paterson)
Forgiveness if often more talked about than practised. There are too many people who, after a dispute, bury the hatchet – but never forget where they buried it! The whole message of the readings today can be summarised in words from the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us.. as we forgive.” Perhaps our frequent use of this prayer has blunted its edge for, as well as promises for which we hope, its petitions are full of threats to future existence which we might not actually wish to have laid upon us.
The gospels are full of stories of the uniquely forgiving attitude of Jesus: on the cross (Lk 23:34) ; to the penitent thief (Lk 23:43.) Peter, having seen Jesus forgive others, and having experienced it ion his own life, asks if there can be any limit to forgiveness. Jesus gives an extravagant answer to emphasise God’s total love for his people.
This parable is a pointed one that unless we forgive others we will not be aware of our own need for forgiveness. The contrary position is also true that it is often those who are priggish and feel they have nothing to confess who are hard and unforgiving to others. In explaining this parable it must be made clear to the people that God is not the king of the story. God has offered forgiveness without conditions – other than the awareness of our need to be forgiven and our promise of amendment of life.
Forgiveness can be costly -for forgive as well as forgiven. The slave has to swallow his pride so that he can save his skin. The king knew that imprisonment would not repay the debt. So, when the slave appealed for mercy, he abandoned his intention to punish. This was costly, as much in terms of justice as of cash.
By forgiving the slave the ruler was restoring the man and creating a bond of reconciliation between them. The hatchet would not only be buried but would be forgotten. (This aspect can be illustrated by drawing on the many examples of breakdown in family life that, sadly, appear in every parish nowadays.)
To be truly human everyone needs to experience forgiveness from fellow humans as well as from God. Forgiveness is costly to forgiver and forgiven alike. Its value is that it enables us to call to mind the supreme cost of our salvation won for us on the cross of Calvary. Reconciliation between God and his people is restored. The depth and the sincerity of forgiveness are the heart of its reality. Christian action at is best is nearly always an understanding of God’s live in Christ. We can only forgive “till seventy times seven” because he first forgave us, But the cost of our forgiving is negligible compared with his.
Let Bygones Be Bygones (Liam Swords)
She slipped upstairs to find a few more playthings. Her neighbour had just left her two little ones with her to mind and, with her own two, there wasn’t enough to go round. They had started squabbling already. Rummaging in the toy-box, she came across an old photograph. She looked at it, daydreaming for a moment. Just long enough for one of her little charges to toddle out the front door which had been left slightly ajar. The little body was found later in the pond at the bottom of the garden. She went to pieces. While she was being treated in a psychiatric hospital, the mother of the dead child came to see her, the worst of her grief now over. Her forgiveness helped enormously to set her on the road -to recovery. But she was never the same again. She could never forgive herself for that moment’s neglect.
There is a young couple in Paris, with whom I am friendly. They have two little children. Since they don’t have a car, they occasionally call on my services to ferry them somewhere or other. I am always delighted to do so. Once the two little ones are firmly strapped in the back seat, I dangle the keys in front of the parents and ask: “Now, which of you is going to drive?” They are both excellent drivers. I just couldn’t take responsibility for them. If anything were to happen, God forbid, I would never be able to forgive myself.
Forgiveness is a hard thing. “Forgive and forget’, we are told. If only we could forget, forgiveness would come easy. But the scars of old hurts fester on, refusing to heal. And our resent- ment grows each time we remember the rejection, the insult, the injury. Our resentment wells up again, as if it was only yesterday. Bygones refuse to be bygones. The closer the friendship, the deeper the hurt. The only forgiveness we can muster, is usually reserved for strangers. Our lives are strewn with broken friendships. And all because we couldn’t find it in ourselves to forgive. “Shake hands and make up” we were told, when we fought as little boys in the school playground. That lesson seems to have disappeared with our schooldays.
No wonder we ascribe forgiveness to God alone. “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” We subscribe whole heartily to the Psalmist when he says: “It is he who forgives all your guilt, who heals every one of your ills, who redeems your life from the grave, who crowns you with love and compassion.”
“May God forgive him!” we mutter to ourselves, recalling for the umpteenth time some ancient hurt. We could spare ourselves that prayer. What God would like to know is will we forgive him.
Swift, with all his satire, was closer to the truth than we care to admit: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”
How else explain those murderous wars between those who claim allegiance to their God? An expert recently claimed that, of all the thirty wars being fought at present in the world, none were against foreign aggressors. All the belligerents were compatriots, separated only by their religion. It is certainly true of former Yugoslavia, where Muslims, Orthodox and Catholic are locked in fratricidal war. Or Palestine, where Abraham’s children, Jews and Arabs, nurture ancient wrongs. Such wars will last as long as we refuse to forgive.
“As we forgive them’, we like to pray. So, we are passing sentence on ourselves, as long as we withhold forgiveness. Forgive your neighbour the hurt he does you, and when you pray, your sins will be forgiven. If a man nurses anger against another, can he then demand compassion from the Lord?
First Reading: Sirach 27:30-28:7
Anger and wrath, these also are abominations, yet a sinner holds on to them.
The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance,for he keeps a strict account of their sins. Forgive your neighbour the wrong he has done,and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does anyone harbor anger against another and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins? If a mere mortal harbors wrath,who will make an atoning sacrifice for his sins? Remember the end of your life, and set enmity aside;remember corruption and death, and be true to the commandments. Remember the commandments, and do not be angry with your neighbour;remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook faults.
Second Reading: Romans 14:7-9
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, is lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he rfused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”