Homily for 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time Year A 2017
Ecclesiasticus 27:30-28:7; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35
"I say to you, [forgive your brother who sins against you] not seven times but seventy-seven times." Is that even possible for us human beings? Does Jesus really want me to forgive someone over and over and over again?
This teaching in today's gospel follows upon the teaching in last Sunday's gospel. You will remember that in that gospel Jesus had just given his disciples, a four-step process of helping a brother who has sinned against you: fraternal correction, followed by a small group intervention, then involvement of the Church leaders and finally expulsion. But Peter, like us, wants further clarification from the Lord. How often are we to go through this process? Peter even suggests a number, saying, "As many as seven times?" But the Lord says, no. We must forgive as many as seventy-seven times, which is another way of saying, forgive always, over and over and over again.
Scripture and Theology
But why is Jesus giving us such a tall order? We must put this challenge in the context of the many other challenges that Jesus sets before his followers.
- A few Sundays ago he told his followers to take up their crosses and follow him daily. Perhaps this requirement to forgive without limit is one of those crosses that Christians are asked to carry.
- Elsewhere in the gospel Jesus enjoins his followers not to seek "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" as in the Old Testament. And he goes further to tell them: "love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you."
- Most importantly, Jesus did not only give the instruction to forgive, but he lived it himself, when on the Cross he forgave those who crucified him and told his disciples, to love one another, as he had loved them on the Cross.
And so, the teaching about forgiving always should be seen as a concrete way for us to live out all the other heavy demands of being disciples.
Perhaps because he knew that what he was asking of Christians is really hard, Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant, to nudge us into forgiving others who sin against us.
- As we heard, this servant owed his master a large sum of money, think today of trillions of dollars, a debt that would require many lifetimes over to pay back. And so he begged for mercy and mercy was granted him.
- But rather than pay this mercy forward, the servant refused mercy to his fellow servant, who owed him much less money, a debt that was 600,000 times smaller than the debt he had been forgiven. Despite the second servant's plea for mercy, the first servant refused him mercy and had him thrown into prison, until he should pay the debt.
- When word got back to the master about this servant's action, he rescinded his mercy and had him also thrown into prison, till he should pay his much bigger debt – in essence, he would never get out of prison, since his debt was so huge.
From this parable Jesus draws the lesson that God will act like master if we the disciples fail to forgive our brothers and sisters, when we have been forgiven a greater debt. In other words, Jesus is giving us a negative incentive. If we cannot do it because we are grateful for the greater forgiveness that God has given us, perhaps fear of eternal punishment will inspire us do the right thing.
This parable should give even the best of us pause for thought when we are tempted not to forgive. After all we are all sinners who need God's forgiveness.
While the parable tells us why we must forgive, it does not tell us how to forgive. Let me offer four suggestions of what forgiveness is and is not.
First, forgiveness is not the same thing as forgetting or denying our feelings of hurt. If someone hit you in the face and left a mark, every time you look in the mirror, you will see that mark and remember the injury. Many sins committed against us leave us with feelings of anger and the desire for justice that we cannot deny. When Jesus asks us to forgive always, he is not asking us to forget our hurt or deny our feelings. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it plainly: "It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense" (CCC 2343).
But the Catechism, goes on to ask us to do something with those feelings and with those memories of hurt. It says: "but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession." In other words, even as we feel the injury, we can with God's help turn that feeling into compassion for the sinner. Even as we remember the hurt, we can use that memory to pray for those who have hurt us.
The story is told of Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, who lost all her family there. After the war, she spent the rest of her life speaking about God's mercy and the need to forgive. She used to say that when we confess our sins, it is like God throws them into a deep ocean and posts a sign saying, "No fishing allowed here." But then one day as she was giving a talk about forgiveness, one of the guards who had been particularly cruel at the camp, came forward and asked her: "Will you forgive me, Fraulein?” As you can imagine, speaking about forgiveness is one thing; actually doing it is another. So she froze and did not know what to do. But she remembered the teaching of Jesus in the gospel. She remembered the words of the Lord's prayer that she said every day, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." And so she mustered all her strength, asked God to help add what was lacking in her, and she extended her hand of forgiveness to this man. She put her memories and feelings in God's hands and found the strength to forgive.
Secondly, forgiving does not mean excusing or encouraging wrong-doing or suggesting that what was done was inconsequential. If the thing done was not important, then there would be no need for forgiveness. But we forgive, because the sin mattered, and yet in forgiveness we choose not to hold it against the perpetrator, much like the Master at first chose not to rightfully demand the huge debt owed by the servant. You could say that in forgiveness, we leave matters to God, who will extract the debt from the sinner, will restore justice, as he sees fit.
Thirdly, forgiveness does not mean that there are no consequences for sin. You might forgive the teenager who breaks your window, but might still ask him to mow your lawn for a month so as to pay for the window. While you have forgiven him in the sense that you don't cut him out of your life, by doing his punishment, he will learn responsibility and be a better person. That is also why in confession after we have been forgiven, we are asked do some penance, sometimes to repair the damage we have done, but sometimes to learn new habits that will keep us on the straight path.
Fourthly, we must not confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. When the person we have forgiven persistently remains in their sin, although we have forgiven them, we don't hold it against them, we cannot have communion with them. For example, if uncle Jimmy refuses to stop using his vulgar language around the children, we forgive the horrible things he did at Thanksgiving Dinner, but don't invite for Christmas dinner and thereafter.
My friends, however we go about the difficult process of forgiving, for Christians, the bottom line is that refusing to forgive is not an option. "For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you" (Lk. 6:38).