17 Sept 2023 – 24th Sunday, (A)
17 Sept 2023 – 24th Sunday, (A)
It is inconsistent 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 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?”
(1) 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 harbour 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 harbours 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.
Responsorial: Psalm 102:1-4, 9-12
R./: The Lord is kind and merciful; slow to anger and rich in compassion.
My soul, give thanks to the Lord,
all my being, bless his holy name.
My soul, give thanks to the Lord
and never forget all his blessings. (R./)
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. (R./)
His wrath will come to an end;
he will not be angry for ever.
He does not treat us according to our sins
nor repay us according to our faults. (R./)
For as the heavens are high above the earth
so strong is his love for those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west
so far does he remove our sins. (R./)
(2) 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 spirit 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 refused; 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.”
Different attitudes to forgiveness
A woman, pushing on in years, boasted to her pastor 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.
Forgiving and letting go is not easy, especially when the wound is very deep. This is why I call forgiveness 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.
Pardoning is good for us
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 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!
Let bygones be bygones
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 resentment 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.
“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. Jonathan 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? Not long ago it was claimed that, of all the thirty wars going on in the world, none were simple defence against foreign aggressors. Most of the belligerents were compatriots, separated only by their religion. Such wars will last as long as we refuse to forgive.