17Sep 17 Sept. 24th Sunday in OT

Saint Robert Bellarmine, bishop and doctor of the Church

1st Reading: Sirach 27:30-28:7

Our desire for revenge can block us from receiving God’s mercy

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.

2nd Reading: Romans 14:7-9

As we belong to Christ, we live to the Lord

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

The harshness of the unforgiving debtor rebounds on himself

Peter came and said to Jesus, “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.”

BIBLE

Different kinds of logic

Kieran O’Mahony

This Gospel is helpful in several ways, contrasting as it does everyday human logic with the logic of God’s forgiveness. First of all, we get a window on life in the early church, with its challenges and emerging structures. Secondly, the problems raised have not gone way — conflict like this is evidently normal. Thirdly, as a result, the passage speaks to us today. Scholars do wonder who is being addressed in this discourse—all disciples or chiefly the leadership? It must be all, but the leadership is in the frame as well. The message if clear: God’s pardon is the foundation for fraternal pardon and, yes, God’s extraordinary pardon obliges extraordinary pardon in return. For the sake of inclusive language, the NRSV translates “adelphos” as “member of the church”, thus introducing a later, technical vocabulary,foreign to Matthew. In this Gospel “brother” does mean someone who belongs to the faith community. In the historical context of Matthew, adelphos includes bothers and sisters. The preceding paragraphs—18:15-20—are about seeking the repentance of another disciple (adelphos) who has sinned. The next question is logical: how often should forgiveness be given?

(Click here for Kieran’s full commentary on today’s texts)

 


Creating a Society of Forgiveness, not Punishment

Joseph O’Leary

“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.” (Matthew 18:34-5). I admit that this is one of my least favourite texts in Scripture. The lord in the parable is a rather brutal character. When the slave cannot pay his debt “his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children,” a practice unknown in Israel and belonging to the pagan world. The lord may be emotionally volatile: When the slave pleads with him, “out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.” But when the fellow-slaves report how the wicked slave treated the one who owed him a petty sum, the lord reacts in anger and hands the slave over to the “torturers” (basanistés). What sort of world do these people belong to? The New Revised Standard Version translates douloi as “slaves” rather than “servants,” which gives a grimmer impression, and makes the lord seem more of a despot. The politically correct gender-inclusive translation “your brother or sister” sits ill with this. The world of the parable is not unlike ours: sometimes movements of compassion and forgiveness prevail, but all too often the stress falls heavily on justice and punishment, and the law is weaponized as an instrument of revenge.

What is most disturbing is the conclusion Matthew places on the lips of Jesus, which portrays God is similarly prone to anger, vengefulness, and cruelty. How can this be reconciled with a parable preaching mercy and forgiveness? Of the four Gospels, Matthew’s is the one that gives Jesus the harshest language, with frequent references to hell. (There are amusing discussions of this in Graham Greene’s novel Monsignor Quixote.)

The Japanese distinguish honne, one’s true meaning, and tatemae, the surface mask one may adopt. Buddhists talk of “skillful means,” teaching devices used to get the point of the saving message across to people who would otherwise be incapable of grasping it. Perhaps we can say that Matthew’s honne is the importance of forgiveness and his language of anger and torturers is a tatemae or skillful means to awaken uts to the importance of forgiveness. Whether it is the most effective rhetoric may be doubted, especially in view of the two thousand years that have passed since, in which so many states and even the church itself resorted to torture. But the point it to awaken us in a way that the rather bland moral counsels of the book of Sirach fail to do: “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?” (28:1-4). Sirach too has a paradox verging on contradiction: “the vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance.”

To make sense of all this we need to bring it back to the realm of ordinary experience. Whatever the ultimate reference of the idea of hell, its most convincing aspect is the hellish experience caused by our bad attitudes in this world in which we are now living. The hell threatened in such passages could be interpreted as a projection of the hellish existence to which I condemn myself by inability to forgive and by thirst for vengeance or for exact repayment of debts. I am self-punished rather than divinely punished. If I adopt a vengeful attitude to others, demanding strictest justice from them, I am positing the existence of a world-order based on tit for tat compensation of one wrong by another. I am subscribing to the old code of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 12:24) and “he who sheds a man’s blood, by man let his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6). That was once seen as an enlightened code of justice, but today we see that capital punishment does not right the wrong of murder, but compounds it; and this is also the honne or true message of the Gospel.

When I rant about revenge and punishment, I am positing a God who has these attributes, and replacing the “heavenly Father” with a cruel torturer. If as a hearer of the parable I share the indignation of the other slaves and say “Serves him right!” when the lord punishes the wicked slave, perhaps I am being set up for a shock when the parable is then turned on myself, and I am warned that I may be in the same situation as the wicked slave.

Christians live from the joyful announcement that “your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). When we teach our children an ethics of strict justice, or scold them unforgivingly, we are undercutting this primacy of forgiveness in the Christian life. When we exact strict justice of others, we are being hypocritical.

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us” we pray, and this prayer dissolves hell and causes a heavenly existence to begin here and now. “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-2). The harsh and hellish world created by unforgiving people is at the polar opposite of this gentle culture of forgiveness.

Our vices construct, over the long term, a hellish existence: think of how selfishness encloses us in a cold, unempathetic world; or how calculation and greed whittle down our human relationships to the pettiest dimensions; or how addictions enslave and cheapen our whole lives; or how mendacity creates personalities who are false through and through so that nothing they say has any credibility; or how marriages and other relationships are undermined by deception, irresponsibility, and self-indulgence. The Japanese say “your face is your cv” and William Blake claimed to “mark in every face I meet/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray sees his vices painted on the picture in his attic, and after a belated and insincere attempt at reform he looks at it for the last time: “A cry of pain and indignation broke from him. He could see no change, save that in the eyes there was a look of cunning and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite.” Some faces bespeak the sufferings of a martyred existence, others the loucheness of a low life; some young faces declare arrogant smugness and insolence; some aged faces are disfigured by a rictus of bitterness. No need to pursue this spiritual physiognomy any further; it belongs to the primitive level of the old slogan that “Sanctifying Grace is the best beauty cream.” Suffice it to say that when vice shows its true countenance, in the mark it imprints on a whole life, those it has transformed into hell-beings or fiends are loathed and shunned. Wrapped in the cocoon of their vice, they may be very pleased with themselves, but the un-besotted judgment of observers sees that their formulas for living make them negative forces, against which people must be protected.

When such formulas acquire wide acceptance, shaping whole societies and cultures, then it is too late to solve the problem by law-and-order crackdowns. Kant held that a moral principle is one we would gladly see universally applied; but the principles that lead human society to the precipice—for instance the principle of “every man for himself”; or the idea that an “invisible hand” will harmonize everybody’s unbridled pursuit of self-interest somehow ensuring the greatest good of the greatest number—do not have this authentic universality. Today many would say that forgiveness cannot be universally applied, and that a far more important principle is that criminals must be punished and deterred. The Gospel is strongly opposed to his mentality.

But in preaching forgiveness, is Jesus not condoning all the vices and crimes listed above? And when Christians resolve to forgive wicked behaviour, are they not just retreating into their comfort zone, forgiving the wicked because it is too stressful to be bothered with them? When Jesus says, “Judge not and you will not be judged,” is not that the height of irresponsibility, leaving every sort of rogue and rascal get off scot-free? Well, we must admit that the Gospels have a slant—they are soft on sinners and criminals, and hard on religious authorities who are judgemental and unforgiving. This is a divine slant, reflecting the infinite mercy of the Creator, who knows of what we are made. Societies of harsh law enforcement tilt over into violence and become hells, whereas the society that stresses forgiveness, reconciliation, rehabilitation, reintegration into the community, becomes a model of the Kingdom of God.


FORGIVING IS HARD

Jesus’ disciples have heard him say incredible things about loving enemies, praying to the Father for those who persecute them, forgiving those who do them harm. Surely this seems to them to be an extraordinary message, but hardly realistic and definitely problematic.

Peter now approaches Jesus with a more practical and concrete suggestion that lets them at least resolve the problems that arise among them: resentment, jealousy, arguments and conflicts. How should that family of followers act who walk in his footsteps? Concretely: «How often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me?».

Before Jesus answers him, the impetuous Peter jumps in to give his own suggestion: «As often as seven times?». His proposal is one of a generosity much superior to the avenging atmosphere that breathes in Jewish society. It goes way beyond even what is practiced among rabbis and the Essenes, who at the most talk about forgiving up to four times.

However Peter is moving on the plane of Jewish casuistry, where forgiveness is prescribed as a friendly rule that helps guarantee the orderly functioning of living together among those who belong to the same group.

Jesus’ answer forces us to be in a whole other ballpark. There are no limits to forgiveness: «Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times». It’s no use keeping track of how many times I’ve forgiven. Anyone who starts counting how many times he’s forgiving his brother is embarking on an absurd path that ruins the spirit that should reign among Jesus’ followers.

The Jews knew of the «Song of Vengeance» by Lamech, a legendary desert hero, that goes: «Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech will be avenged seventy times seven times». In the face of this culture of vengeance without limits, Jesus proposes forgiveness without limits among his followers.

Different stances about the Council have provoked conflicts and arguments within the Church, sometimes all too painful. Lack of mutual respect, insults and calumny take place frequently. Without anyone discrediting them, groups that call themselves Christian take advantage of the Internet to sow agressiveness and hate, heartlessly destroying other believers’ name and reputation.

We urgently need witnesses of Jesus who announce his Gospel with firm words and who spread his peace with humble hearts. Believers who go around forgiving and healing this unhealthy obstinacy that has penetrated the Church.

José Antonio Pagola


CANDLE

Saint Robert Bellarmine, bishop and doctor of the Church

Roberto Bellarmino (1542-1621) from Montepulciano, Italy, became a Jesuit and studied and lectured at the University of Leuven in Flanders, where he promoted the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Later, aAs a a Cardinal in Rome, he spoke in defence of Galileo, and was one of the most important figures in the Counter-Reformation


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2 Responses

  1. Kevin Walters

    ‘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?

    When God’s Mercy/pardon is received in humility/honesty it compels us to pardon others as it goes to the heart of our faith, which is trust in God’s infinite Mercy.
    Galatians 3:24.
    So the Law became our guardian to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
    So
    “Who Is Forgiven Much Loves Much”. … On the other hand, those who are forgiven little, as Jesus said, “love little”
    For many the Truth of His inviolate Word (Will) challenges our sinful hearts so as to induce ‘humility’, as we attempt to walk the ‘Way’ His Way of self-enlightenment, in our own brokenness, accompanied by His Words

    “Learn from me I am meek and lowly in heart”

    If we struggle with love/forgiveness of others, it could be said that this rigidity stems from our own dishonest ungrateful hearts as this attitude emanates from self-righteousness, as possibly we underestimated the generosity of Jesus Christ in our own personal salvation; as to attempt to embrace our Father in the Truth of His Inviolate Word (Will) can only be done in humility (Self-abasement before Him)

    A faith that does not embody this consistent realization will be sterile, comparable a stylus stuck in the grove of a record as the heart will not hear/absorb the full transforming message of Spiritual enlightenment that is the ongoing transformation of the human heart.
    I know this from personal experience because my own heart was stuck in a grove over many years
    Is it not in the self-knowledge of our own individual need of His ‘continual’ Mercy that induces a humble heart, leading to a tender compassionate heart, a human heart of self- abasement before God and our neighbour?

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. Kevin Walters

    For clarity to my post above @1
    “Is it not in the self-knowledge of our own individual need of His ‘continual’ Mercy that induces a humble heart, leading to a tender compassionate heart, a human heart of self- abasement before God and our neighbour?..

    Should be

    Is it not in the self-knowledge of our own individual need of His ‘continual’ Mercy that induces within us a humble heart, as a human heart of self- abasement before God creates a tender compassionate heart towards our neighbour?

    kevin your brother
    In Christ


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