Sunday of Week 24 of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Commentary on Ecclesiasticus 27:33 – 28:9; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35

Last Sunday’s Gospel, from the same chapter as today’s, was about fraternal correction and about the possible necessity to expel a member from the Christian community. We are talking about someone who persists in behaving in a way which is totally at variance with the values of a community whose life vision is based on the Gospel. Such expulsion may be necessary, if the community is to be a credible witness to the Gospel and to be seen as the visible Body of Christ. But such an expulsion need not be permanent, and in fact, it is hoped that it will not be. At the first sign of repentance, the offender is to be welcomed back and helped to re-integrate into the community.

So, today’s Gospel is about forgiveness. Peter, who is beginning to learn his Master’s ways, asks how many times he should forgive. Seven times? It sounds pretty generous. But it is not generous enough for Jesus who says:

Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

In other words, one should forgive indefinitely.

A story of two servants
And, to make his point, Jesus goes on to speak of a king and his two servants who owe very differing sums of money. One owes a huge amount to the king and, by rights, should be thrown into a debtor’s prison until he has paid off his debt – something he was unlikely to be able to do. After passionate entreaties, his debt is wiped out by the king. After leaving the king, the same servant goes after a fellow-servant who owes him what is relatively a paltry sum. Because this second servant cannot pay up at once, he is thrown into the debtor’s prison. When the king hears about it he throws the first servant to the torturers until he has paid off the debt. The message is perfectly clear:

So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

God forgives us without limit. If we are to be like him – and that is our calling in life – we must do the same. And it is not just a piece of advice. Our very salvation depends on it.

Vengeance is mine
What Jesus is condemning is made clear in today’s First Reading from the Book of Ecclesiasticus:

Anger and wrath, these also are abominations, yet a sinner holds on to them. The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance. Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.

And note that the writer says that when we forgive a brother or sister, it is my sin, not their sin which is forgiven by God.

Does anyone harbor anger against another and expect healing from the Lord? If people have no mercy toward those like themselves, can they then seek pardon for their own sins? If mere mortals harbor wrath, who will make an atoning sacrifice for their sins? Remember the end of your life and set enmity aside; remember corruption and death and be true to the commandments. Remember the commandments and do not be angry with your neighbor; remember the covenant of the Most High and overlook faults.

How to forgive
If hate and resentment get us nowhere, what are we to say about forgiveness? Is it just a matter of turning a blind eye to what people do to us or to others? Are we to say, “Oh, never mind! Forget about it!” Can we turn a blind eye to murder, violence, physical abuse, gross dishonesty and corruption, sexual abuse and infidelity…? Not according to last Sunday’s Gospel: If a person remains unrepentant of the harm he/she has done, then:

let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.

In the Gospel, forgiveness is also always accompanied by an attempt at reconciliation and personal healing. It also includes unconditional love (agape), the love of our God who makes his sun and rain to fall on good and bad alike. Forgiveness – in the Gospel, as with God — must include not just overlooking the wrong done but an attempt to bring back the wrongdoer. The parables of the good shepherd and his lost sheep, the woman and her lost coin, the loving father and his lost son tell us how God acts – and how we, too, should act.

It is important to note at this point that our faith is not simply a question of good and bad actions but of relationships. Forgiveness is not about undoing evil actions (“what is done is done and cannot be undone”), but of restoring broken relationships, about healing and reconciliation.

A sacrament for reconciliation
So we speak now, not of the ‘Sacrament of Confession’ or the ‘Sacrament of Penance’ but of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This sacrament is not, as many seem to believe, a sacrament of wiping out our past acts as if they no longer existed. Rather, it is a matter of turning back to, of restoring our relationship with God and also with all those who have been touched (and may still be hurting) from our sins, our failures to love.

And, just as we expect God to accept us back into his loving arms again and again without limit, so he expects us to be ready to do the same for others. Of course, it can be a long process. Like God, like the father in the parable, we often have to wait patiently, lovingly, hopefully for the turning point of someone who has hurt us.

As the Gospel earlier this week reminded us, those who have hurt us, our “enemies”, most need our prayers, they need God’s blessings to soften their hearts. And, when it happens, we need to be ready to receive back our brother or sister just we expect God to receive us back when we say ‘Sorry’ to him.

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