24th SUNDAY,September 13, 2020
Sirach 27: 30-28:7; Romans 14: 7-9; Matthew 18: 21-35
Jude Siciliano, OP
PRE-NOTE: These days of pandemic are very difficult and testing for so many of us. But for prison inmates these are extremely harsh times because of overcrowding, lack of sufficient protection and medical care and the rapid spread of the virus. A friend from San Quentin says there are 2,000 cases of the virus at the prison. Is that possible! Each week I list the names of three death row inmates at the foot of these reflections. Would you consider dropping them postcards or notes to let them know they are not forgotten? Would you also consider doing that each week till the end of the pandemic and making it your weekly "Covid Prayer"?
We humans don’t seem to have made much progress since Sirach wrote almost 200 years before Christ. The sage, observing his contemporaries, lamented the discord and violence that he saw: vengeance, anger, and a lack of mercy and forgiveness. So, what’s changed since he put down his quill? Judging from last night’s national newscast, nothing. Another police officer killed an African-American man; the political conventions and campaign speeches featured lots of name-calling; a racist march resulted in bottle and stone throwing. Well, you know the rest and no doubt can add to the list.
When you read this I doubt there will be any improvement in our national and local attitudes – "out there." What about in our own families, neighborhoods, and workplaces? Does Sirach speak to those worlds too? In the early church the Book of Sirach was used for instructions to the catechumens. In both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures believers were called to renounce anger and resentment. How serious was this obligation? So serious that Sirach tells us if we don’t extend forgiveness to one who has offended us, we should not expect God to forgive us. Wow!
Peter approached Jesus and asked, "If my brother [sister] sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?" Peter had been with Jesus long enough to know how central forgiveness was in his teaching. I guess he was trying to show Jesus that he had learned what he expected from his followers. "As many as seven times?", Peter offers. Jesus does his "Jesus thing" again and surprises Peter, "I say to you not seven times but seventy seven times."
In last week’s gospel from Matthew Jesus taught that forgiveness was to characterize the believing community. Sisters and brothers must forgive an erring member of the community and do whatever they can to reach out in forgiveness and welcome them back into the community. Peter seems to have learned about the importance of forgiveness, but he probably never expected how much Jesus would ask of him and the believing community. They are to forgive their brothers and sisters and so be a sign of forgiveness to the world. How amazed observers would be when they saw, or heard of, the remarkable and persistent way disciples forgave one another. Such forgiveness can only happen because God, who has forgiven us over and over again, is in our midst empowering what we humans could never accomplish on our own – forgiving one another over and over again.
Did you also notice, it isn’t just a matter of gritting our teeth and making ourselves forgive? Jesus’ closing statement asked that we forgive one another, "from your heart." We know how difficult that is. It’s not merely a grudging, "I forgive you." The words must come from a forgiving heart – a changed heart – which requires begging for grace to help us do what we cannot do on our own, change our hearts toward another – from grievance and reluctance, to love and over abundant generosity.
We have to go back to the first part of the parable where the king forgives the huge debt of the steward who cannot repay. Parables are often elaborate stories that can’t help but grab our attention. The amount the debtor owes his master is huge and boggles the imagination. He could never repay it, not even by the sale of the debtor, his wife and his children. His request is made out of desperation, "Be patient with me and I will repay you in full." No he couldn’t. That is the point Jesus is making. We can’t "repay" God and earn our forgiveness. It comes as a gift.
The parable doesn’t end there. The forgiveness of such a vast debt should have touched the steward’s heart and made him different, a renewed person. But it did not. It should have been the energy and power in his heart they would have enabled him to also be forgiving. But his heart remained hard and the proof of this is that he did not give to a fellow servant, who owed him "a much smaller amount," what he himself had received gratis from his master – the gift of forgiveness. Jesus could have added, right after the king’s forgiveness of the servant, "You go and do likewise."
Forgiveness happens over and over for us from God. We began this Eucharist again asking for forgiveness and we received it. This is just an example of the frequency of God’s forgiveness to us and is a testimony to God’s infinite mercy. In response we individuals and the church must be witnesses to the mercy God offers all human beings. How do we do this? We believers bestow forgiveness as freely as we have received it. Surely that would be a sign that the God of mercy is present and active in our midst.
Forgiveness isn’t easy. Each time we gather for Eucharist we pray the Lord’s Prayer, not because we are models of forgiveness, but as a prayer that asks the grace from God to forgive as we have been forgiven. Right after we pray the Lord’s Prayer we ask they Jesus speak a healing word to us ("Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, say but the word and my soul shall be healed.") Then we offer one another peace and, as if to emphasize what we are receiving, we pray three times, "Lamb of God you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us." And God does just that, again and again, bestows mercy just by our asking for it. Then we come forward to receive the living Christ, and the gift of his Spirit which enables us to mirror our merciful God by forgiving others as we have been forgiven."
These days of racial violence and abuse call us to question the possibility of forgiveness when so many have been victimized and abused. We cannot dismiss this suffering with platitudes like "Forgive and forget." We must remember the horrors others have suffered so we don’t repeat them. Documentaries and commemorations have reminded us of the words and example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This prophet of the Civil Rights Movement challenged white people to acknowledge our complicity in racism and the part we have played in contributing to the oppression, pain and suffering of our Black sisters and brothers. He encouraged us to ask for forgiveness and then to do something to bring about the new order Jesus promised when he proclaimed, "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."
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