Sep 13, 2020: 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – Sirach 27:30-28:9

Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.
The vengeful will suffer the LORD’s vengeance,
for he remembers their sins in detail.
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?
Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself,
can he seek pardon for his own sins?
If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath,
who will forgive his sins?
Remember your last days, set enmity aside;
remember death and decay, and cease from sin!
Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor;
remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.

Sirach is one of the books accepted as canonical by Catholics but not by Protestants. It was originally written in Hebrew in the 2nd century BC and then translated into Greek by the original author’s grandson. It is a work of wisdom literature, as today’s reading demonstrates.

This passage teaches exactly the same connection between forgiving and being forgiven that Jesus teaches Peter in today’s gospel reading.

Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.  

The tone of the passage is set in the first verse. Wrath and anger may be instinctive responses to situations in life, but they are abhorrent if they are permanent dispositions of mind and heart. Sirach does not say that we may not experience these sentiments, but that we should not cling to them.

The vengeful will suffer the LORD’S vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail.

The only circumstance under which God “remembers sins in detail” is when the sinner does not repent of those sins.

Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Should a man nourish anger against his fellows and expect healing from the LORD?

Healing in the moral sense of forgiveness (see Isaiah 6:10, Jeremiah 3:22).

Should a man refuse mercy to his fellows, yet seek pardon for his own sins?

The gist of this teaching is the need to forgive others. The basis of his exhortation is not social order or generosity of soul — both valid underpinnings — but rather our own need to be forgiven. We are all sinners; we have all offended others. If we are not willing to forgive those who have offended us, how can we hope to be forgiven for our own offenses?

If he who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?

The reason one does not receive forgiveness and healing is unrepentance: they “hug tight” and “cherish” their wrath and anger.

Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin!

Sirach appeals to human frailty and mortality. The certainty of death should prompt us to set aside any anger or wrath we might experience. Life is too short to bear attitudes that can undermine our spirits.

Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.

Notice that the context for the teaching is covenant love. Part of covenant love is God’s promise to love and save. God always loves, is always willing to forgive, and always wants to save.

We have all been brought into the embrace of God’s covenant. As partners with one another in that covenant, we must be willing to extend to others the same gracious compassion God has extended to us.

2nd Reading – Romans 14:7-9

Brothers and sisters:
None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.
For if we live, we live for the Lord,
and if we die, we die for the Lord;
so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
For this is why Christ died and came to life,
that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

This week we end our study of Paul’s letter to the Romans with a reminder of what Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross means for us.

Brothers and sisters: None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.

Those who are joined to Christ are joined permanently.  Nothing, neither life nor death, can separate them from the love of Christ (Romans 8:38).

“This means that we are not free. We have a master who wants us to live and not die, and to whom life and death matter more than they do to us. … For if we die, we do not die to yourselves alone but to our master as well. By death, Paul means apostasy from the faith.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 391), Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans 25]

For this is why Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

In some of the earliest biblical traditions, we see that while the ancient Israelites believed God exercised absolute rule over all that was living, they did not have a clear idea of God’s sovereignty in the land of the dead (Psalm 6:5; 115:17). Only gradually did they come to realize that both life and death were in the hands of their God. This meant that death could not sever the covenant bond that united them to God.

Here, Paul maintains that Christ, by virtue of his death and resurrection, exercises the same power over life and death. Whether they live or die, they belong to Christ and are accountable to him.

In a very real sense, this understanding is the bedrock of Christian ethics.  Christians do not live for themselves. For them, there is no radical individualism or self-fulfillment independent of Christ. Having conquered death by means of his resurrection, Christ has gained lordship over all.

“Here death refers to the death which we die when we are buried with Christ in baptism, and life is the life we live in Christ, having died not sin and become strangers to this world.” [Origen (post A.D. 244), Commentaries on Romans]

Gospel – Matthew 18:21-35

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife,
his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt.

At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
‘Pay back what you owe.’
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused.
Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?’
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

This week we continue to read Jesus’ discourse on how to handle community problems.

Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? 

Jesus has just finished outlining the three-step process that his disciples should use “if your brother sins against you” (Matthew 18:15). Peter understood that if God forgives, as Jesus taught and showed, then God’s disciple must be ready to forgive, too. So Peter wants to know how often he should forgive.

The word used for brother is adelphós, a member of the believing community.

As many as seven times?”

The rabbis taught that the duty to forgive had been fulfilled if one forgave an offender three times. Peter must have thought he was being extraordinarily generous if he forgave seven times, a number that in Hebrew culture symbolized perfection and completeness.

Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.

Peter probably expected a warm commendation from Jesus for his suggestion to forgive as many as seven times. Instead, Jesus teaches that we should forgive seventy-seven times, a response that is also symbolic, meaning without limit, infinite. This was also likely a veiled reference to the excessive primitive vengeance of Lamech in Genesis (4:24). Humankind’s ungenerous, calculating approach to forgiveness is being contrasted with God’s infinite mercy.

It’s important to note that behind Jesus’ teaching is a presumption that the wrongdoer wants to be forgiven. In Luke’s parallel passage, this presumption is stated: “And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him” (Luke 17:4).

That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.

Jesus employs a parable to not only reinforce the teaching that we must forgive, but also to illustrate why we must forgive. It is one of the sternest passages in the gospels.

When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.

The Greek text tells us that the first debtor owed ten thousand talents. A talent was 6,000 denarii, and a denarius was a working man’s daily wage. This is 60 million days’ — over 191,000 years’ — wages. This is not just a huge amount, it’s astronomical.

Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt.

The unreal amount is matched with a very realistic and common procedure: the sale of a man and his family into slavery for a debt, even though the sale wouldn’t cover the debt. The remaining amount would be written off, but by making the sale, the master would both make an example of the man and ensure he would never cause anyone a problem again.

At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.

The official has promised payment and the king not only accepts the (unrealistic) promise but forgives the entire debt.

When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount.

The Greek text indicates that the second debtor owed one hundred denarii, only 1/600,000th of the first man’s debt, about 100 days’ wages.

He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

Note that the second man’s actions are identical to the first’s: he falls to his knees and begs for patience with exactly the same words. Neither asked that the debt be forgiven, and they both promised to pay it back. Unlike the first man’s debt, there was a possibility of this debt being paid, if not by him, then by his family.

But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt.

The ludicrous contrast in the amount owed demonstrates the difference between the mercy of the king and the hardheartedness of the first debtor.

Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’

This question encompasses the point of the entire parable.

Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.

The king punishes the official with torture because he has not forgiven as he was forgiven. Torture does not repay the debt, and no end to the torture is possible under these conditions.

So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”

With one simple statement, Jesus draws a connection between the generosity of the king and that of God. The debts owed to them can never be repaid. Moved with compassion (splanchnízomai), they forgive the entire amount. We who correspond to the debtors have this compassion as an example after which we should pattern our relationships with one another. If God is willing to forgive the exorbitant debt we owe him, surely we can forgive the paltry debts owed us.

Jesus’ final statement is sobering; if we are unwilling to show mercy, the mercy already shown us will be taken back, and a severe retribution will be exacted. But wait, we might ask, isn’t God always willing to forgive? Would he truly withdraw forgiveness and have us tortured? Didn’t Jesus just tell Peter that there must be no limit to our willingness to forgive?

When the servant in the parable refuses to forgive his debtor, he becomes an unrepentant sinner. As long as Peter, or any disciple of Christ, withholds forgiveness from another, he simultaneously separates himself from God’s forgiveness, not because God is unwilling to forgive but because the disciple is. A disciple’s unwillingness to offer forgiveness constitutes an unwillingness to repent of this sin and to receive forgiveness.

Jesus taught his followers the connection between giving forgiveness and receiving it earlier, when he taught them how to pray: “… and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). To fail to forgive is a kind of torture, but it is self-inflicted.

God is always willing to forgive, and so we, who have already received that forgiveness, must stand ready to forgive as well. Whether or not that forgiveness is received depends, of course, on the recipient.

Connections and Themes

Forgiving.  It is very difficult to forgive someone who has offended us, because it may be that our honor is at stake or that our very person has been threatened. These feelings run deep. When we have been hurt, we want to inflict pain in return; we want to even the score. Most people wouldn’t blame us for feeling like this; in fact, they might even encourage us in our retaliation. However, retaliation is the way of the world and not the way of the Lord. Once again, the disciples of Jesus must follow a less-traveled road.

Being forgiven.  Today we have yet another example of how disciples must give what they have been given. The gospel suggests that nothing another owes us can compare with what we owe God. If God has been so generous in forgiving us, surely we can be generous in forgiving others. How many times must we be willing to forgive? As many times as God is willing to forgive us.  If we cannot forgive others, perhaps we have not been transformed by God’s forgiveness of us. Or perhaps we have not been transformed enough.

The process of becoming a forgiving person takes time; for some, it may take a lifetime. Only little by little are our pettiness and indignation reduced and our desire to strike back diminished. Perhaps we need to be forgiven seven-seven times before we can forgive once, but as disciples, we are expected to give the forgiveness we have been given.

Pay what you owe.  Lest we think forgiveness provides an easy way out for offenders, we are reminded that ultimately justice will prevail. If we remain untransformed by God’s forgiveness of us, as demonstrated by our unwillingness to forgive others, we are liable to judgment. And this judgment often springs from within us. Our unwillingness to forgive can eat away at us, and we can carry hurts from childhood far into adult years. A slight from another can bore itself so deeply into our consciousness that we become obsessed with it. Forgiving others, as difficult as that may be, is in the long run much easier than bearing the weight of resentfulness, vindictiveness, and unresolved frustration.

When we forgive, we truly begin to be healed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s