September 17, 2017 — Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
We all know what forgiveness is. It is something we ask for every time we say the Our Father. Within that prayer given us by Christ is the sentence, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This prayer is an invitation to a different kind of living than most of us experience. We petition to God for mercy, but we also pledge to forgive those who may have offended us. However, we all most likely struggle with some of this. The main focus of today’s readings on this 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time is indeed forgiveness.
Have you ever said (or even heard someone say something similar) “I will never forgive that person,” or “I will forgive him (or her or them), but I will never forget?” Forgiveness is perhaps one of the most disturbing and emotional experiences we will ever encounter in our lives. It may involve feelings of anger, revenge, resentment, hurt, hostility, sadness, bitterness, and retaliation. Nevertheless, it also involves reconciliation, compromise, contrition, repentance, and redemption. It is not just intellectual; it is also spiritual.
The First Reading from Sirach (also called the Wisdom of Sirach) includes the simple statement: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice: then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.” That is an accurate perception and summary of the messages found in all three readings on this Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The closing verse from Sirach speaks to the same theme from part of last week’s readings that reminded us to “Love your neighbor,” only in this instance it presents it another way: “Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor: remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.”
That reminder written centuries before the birth of Christ is a prompt to us that God forgives us (“overlooks our faults”). As stated, He expects nothing less from us.
In his letter to the Romans, our Second Reading, St. Paul says the same thing in a bit of a different way. Paul says, “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.” It is Paul’s way of following that adage, “No man is an island.” As much as we may think that it is simply ourselves in relation to God and our relationship to God that matters, the truth is that how we relate to one another, how we treat those around us, is just as important. Like Sirach Paul tells us that God has forgiven us; God has recognized us; Jesus has saved us. And we are beholden to offer similar mercy and pardon to all with whom we may have contact.
In the Gospel from St. Matthew, Peter poses a question to Jesus after hearing Him speak of forgiveness. Peter says, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” You can almost see Jesus smile, maybe even laugh, when He replies, “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Some fundamentalists may take this literally, but Jesus is probably only taking Peter’s question and expanding it to make it clear that there is no limit to forgiveness. He might have also said, seven hundred seventy times, and the point would be the same. Jesus is not putting an end point to forgiveness and to reinforce His point He relates a parable that relates to an unforgiving, yet forgiven servant.
We are told by the Lord that we must forgive “from your heart.” You might say there are two kinds of forgiveness, heart forgiveness and spoken forgiveness. In some ways it is similar to love in that forgiving from one’s heart is unconditional. Going through the motions and making a statement of forgiveness is actually conditional. We must understand that.
Jesus wants us to appreciate that forgiveness is limitless. We are called to forgive someone over and over without seeking retribution. That is a challenge that may seem impossible to many of us, but that is quite frankly what we need to try to achieve. Obviously, in order to really accomplish that we need to pray for and rely on the Lord for the strength, perseverance, and the patience that is required.