TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME- SEPTEMBER 11, 2011

Sirach 27:30-28:7

Romans 14:7-9

Matthew 18:21-35

How did you feel as you listened to the readings in today’s Liturgy of the Word?  What emotions surged as you heard Sirach denounce the vengeful spirit, and heard him say that wrath and anger are hateful things?  Did you resent the gospel proclamation telling us that we need to forgive even huge debts if we are to expect forgiveness from the Lord for our debts, and this is on the anniversary of 9/11?  Most people can remember where they were that day as they heard the first announcement of the terrible events that caused such destruction and the loss of so many lives.  Mention the date and sadness at least will well up in the hearer’s consciousness.  Some may even weep if the hearers are reminded of someone they lost as the towers crumbled.

Certainly justice needs to be brought to bear against those who perpetrated the terror.  But if we hear the readings, we have to recognize that there is no wiggle room for us to escape the implications put down before us by Sirach and Jesus.  Those who believe in this God and those who claim to be disciples of the Lord Jesus must be about mercy and forgiveness.  To be otherwise is to court disaster, the disaster that is God’s final displeasure, the horror of final separation from Jesus.

We celebrate our faith in worship as we assemble with those who believe as we do and with us are baptized into the same Christ.  But we live that faith in the world and our decisions and actions there are to be affected by that faith.  Today’s first reading and gospel speak to us about forgiveness.  It is quite possible to hear the readings and nod and not realize the implications for us in our daily life.  To move in the direction that will awaken in us the sense of challenge that might prompt us to ask, “Who can do this?” we have to think of someone who has offended us.  You have to think of someone who has offended you.  That comes way before you start thinking about seeking your own forgiveness.  The readings seem to say that you won’t appreciate the latter until you have forgiven someone who has offended you.  The bigger the offense you forgive the more you will be grateful for the forgiveness that comes to you.

I believe it was ten years ago that I read the story in People magazine.  Strange where you can find a challenge to grow in your faith response and be helped to remember that conversion is a life-long process.  A man was convicted and sent to prison for murdering a young woman.  The woman’s parents were committed Christians who tried to live their faith each day.  One Sunday, they heard a sermon about forgiveness and that Jesus commands his disciples to forgive those who sin against them.  After church that Sunday, they went home and as they sat at their kitchen table, the wife asked her husband if he thought what they had heard that morning had implications for them.  And he suggested they pray about it.

Not long afterwards, they concluded that if they were going to continue being Christians, they had to forgive the man who had killed their daughter.  Their first step was to journey to the prison and meet with the killer.  Over a period of time they came to know the man and his story.  They told him that it was a matter of faith for them to forgive him for what he had done.  The day came when they could tell him that they had indeed forgiven him and come to love him, even as he had by that time told them how sorry he was for what he had done and that he loved them, too.

When the time came for the man to be paroled, the parents invited him to come and live with them until he felt secure enough to live on his own and go forward with his life.  That is what happened.  The article in the magazine talked about the man’s successes, his marriage, his children, his work, and his on-going relationship ship with the couple that have become like parents to him.

There is another important aspect to the challenge in these readings that is not in evidence in the story.  Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.  Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?  It takes a degree of courage, but for these readings to have their full impact, we have to dare to be vulnerable to them.  By that I mean we have to face the reality of sin in our own lives.  What sin have I committed?  Of what are you guilty that offended your neighbor?  Have you ever done anything that had major negative consequences for another?  Was your conscience pricked to the point that you wondered if you could ever be forgiven?  There is no need for specifics here.  Each one has to look into the secrets and sorrows that burden the heart.

Peter’s question of Jesus about how many times he had to forgive his neighbor, even seven times, brought him a stunning answer.  Peter thought forgiving seven times would be magnanimous on his part.  Who could expect more?  He heard Jesus tell him that when he had forgiven seven times, he had only just begun on the path of forgiving.  There is no end to the demands to forgive because God never stops forgiving.

The parable Jesus told begins with the Lord’s forgiving in the tale of the king whose servant owed him a huge amount and had no way to clear the debt.  Putting him into debtor’s prison was an option.  But when the servant pled for mercy and patience, the king forgave the debt.  If we put ourselves in the position of the servant, that is, if we are in the position of knowing our own sinfulness and ask forgiveness, it is always forthcoming.  Apparently there is nothing that God loves to do more than to forgive.  God is not like the person who might say, “I’ll forgive, but I will never forget what you have done.”  Nor is he like the other one who would say, “I’ll forgive, but God help you the next time it happens.”  God’s forgiveness wipes the slate clean.  That’s what God’s love compels God to do.

The sad part of the parable comes when the servant of whom much was forgiven, throttles and puts into prison a fellow servant of his who owed him a very small amount and who also had no means at hand to clear the debt.  The forgiven servant had lost all perspective as will we if, when we brood over someone who has offended us, we forget that we have been forgiven and refuse to extend that forgiveness to another.  Of course our own sins never have the magnitude of those that offend us.  Aren’t our own sins much easier to understand than those committed by someone else?

There is an implied caution in the gospel parable.  A case can be made that unless we forgive we will not be forgiven.  Look where the servant winds up – handed () over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.  A number of years ago there was a popular bumper sticker that read: Christians aren’t different; they’re just forgiven.  We are challenged by these readings to always remember that we are forgiven and therefore we must love much.

We come together to Eucharist as a forgiven people who extend forgiveness.  Sometimes that forgiveness is extended even to someone who has not sought it, someone who is not even aware of the pain he has caused you – or doesn’t care.  Jesus said from the cross, Father, forgive them.  They do not know what they are doing.  Forgive and you will know the freedom that forgiving brings.

As Catholic Christians, we ought to be known as a people who rejoice in forgiveness.  That does not mean that we take sin and its significance lightly, but we refuse to dwell there.  We would rather be prompted to deeds of love because we have been forgiven.  There was a time when the third form of the rite of reconciliation could be celebrated.  We have individual confession and absolution.  We have group preparation and individual confession and absolution.  The third form is communal penance and absolution.  The people of God come together mindful of their sinfulness, avow their sorrow for their sins, and experience absolution as a community of faith.  The use of that form has been greatly restricted and can be used only in times of great emergency as in a time of disaster.

Any time I was privileged to be part of such a celebration the emotional impact was incredible.  I never saw anyone take the matter lightly.  Tears frequently washed down the faces of the penitents.  But some thought that made confession and absolution too easy.  Perhaps.  But I think I witnessed many hearts being changed by the abundance of God’s love experienced in those celebrations.

Do we need to be convinced again that God rejoices in forgiving?  And when we are, then we can be Eucharistic People.  Remember, the word means Thanksgiving.  And Alleluia will be our song.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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