Sunday, September 17, 2017

Homily Ordinary 24 Year A: Limitless forgiveness

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 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. 

Christian Life 

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 sinnerwill 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 friendshowever 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). 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Homily Ordinary 23 A: Am I my brother’s keeper?

Homily for 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time Year A 2017 
Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20


One of the most misunderstood verses in the Bible is when Jesus says: "Stop judging, that you may not be judged" (Mt. 7:1). 
  • In our world of relativism, that is understood to mean, "you believe what you want and I believe what I want." 
  • In our world of political correctness, that is understood to mean, "it is not my place to correct other people." 
  • And in our world of self-determination, that is understood to mean that parents should not admonish their children, teachers should not teach tough lessons, priests should not preach hard truths. 
Fortunately, today's readings provide an antidote to help us understand what true judging means.  Every Christian, especially those in some kind of authority over others, are tasked with the authority to make appropriate judgements, especially where sin is involved. 

Scripture and Theology 

In the first reading the Lord clearly tells Ezekiel: “You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.” 
  • And then he goes on to tell him, that if he Ezekiel does not speak to the wicked man about his wicked ways, he will share the same punishment as the wicked man himself, for failing to warn him. 
  • But if Ezekiel warns the wicked man and the wicked man refuses to convert, Ezekiel will be absolved of the wicked man’s guilt; only the wicked man in this case will be punished for his wickedness. 
The Lord is very clear here, that Ezekiel as a prophet, is responsible for helping others to turn away from sin.  He cannot shun his responsibility with the excuse of "I might hurt their feelings," or "they are entitled to their opinions."  Ezekiel is a prophet and must fulfil his prophetic duty of warning others who go astray. 

In the gospel Jesus also entrusts members of the Church with that same responsibility of correcting the sinner.  But he goes further, by giving directions that involve four steps for bringing the sinner back to the correct path. 

The first step is “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”  This is fraternal correction that happens one-on-one. 
  • An example of this in our everyday lives is when you might pull a friend aside and tell warn him about his vulgar language.  Or a parent might ask her teenage daughter to dress more modestly before going out.  Or a teacher might admonish a student for disrupting the class. 
  • The purpose of this correction is not to lord it over others, but to help them realize their sin, by speaking truth with love.  And in this way there is great hope that the sinner will change his or her behaviour and return to the right path.  This is the hope that Jesus expresses when he says:  “If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.” 
Unfortunately, some sinners will not accept this personal fraternal correction.  That is where the second step comes in.  “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  There is strength in numbers. 

  • In our everyday lives, we can think of this step as calling for backup.  Today friends might carry out an intervention to help a friend suffering from an addiction.  Or mom and dad might team up and have a "Come to Jesus" meeting with their child.  Or teacher might summon the services of another teacher or school counsellor in dealing with an errant student.
  • The backup of more people is needed for two main reasons.  First of all, in the Jewish legal system and probably in ours today, the witness of two or more was required to sustain a case in court.  But a second and more important reason is that two or more members of the community might help the sinner see his bad ways more easily than one person.  One or two more people bring a wider perspective and show the gravity of the situation.  Hopefully because of this, the person realizes the error of their ways and returns to the path of righteousness. 

If the person refuses to listen to the small group, Jesus provides a third step, saying “Tell the Church.”  This step involves bringing in the wider Christian community, especially the Church leaders. 
  • In our language today, we might call this step “Bringing in the big guns.”  Among friends this might mean bringing in an influential outsider such as the priest.  For parents, the grandparents or someone with the role of matriarch or patriarch of the family might be asked to intervene.  And for teachers, this step might mean summoning mom and dad for a crisis meeting in the principal's office. 
  • Like the previous two steps, this one is needed because our sins affect the community; our sins give a bad example to others in the community, especially to the young; our sins make the community weaker; our sins often hurt others in the community.  And so if the first two steps, have failed to take care of the problem, the whole community, especially the church leaders, need to get involved.   That is why sometimes our bishops have to remind politicians and even theologians of their errant ways. 
Unfortunately, some people will persist in their sin and will never accept the advice of one person, a small group of people or people in authority.  And for them Jesus prescribes the fourth and last measure“If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”  Treating such a person like a gentile or tax-collector means treating them as outsiders or expelling them from the community.   
  • For us today this is what we call the nuclear option, such as cutting ties with a friend, parents cutting off a child, for a school expelling a student. 
  • As drastic as this last step of expelling the sinner might seem, it is not done out of bad will, but with the intention of helping the sinner realize how serious his sin affects the community.  The purpose of this step is that once the sinner is cast out in the cold, he or she might change their ways and seek readmission. The expulsion is medicinal than penal.   
Christian Life and Conclusion 

And so my friends, while individualism and privacy might be values for society, they are not Christian virtues.  Christians take care of each other, not just attending to each other’s hunger, thirst and illness, but also each other’s sins, in the Christian way that Jesus has showed us.  We are on this journey of salvation together.  That is why we must cover each other’s back, not by covering up their errors, but by bringing them to their attention so that they might change. We are called to be our brother's keeper, our sister's keeper. 

As we make our journey to heaven, we need to save, not just ourselves, but others as well. We must arrive at God’s door together, presenting ourselves together.  We must not enter the Good Lord’s house, only some of us without the others.  We need to return to the house of our Father, all of us together.  What will he say to us, if we arrive there without our brothers and sisters?  What shall we say to God if we arrive there without our brothers and sisters?