24th Ordinary Sunday (Year A)
First Reading: Sirach 27:30-28:7 Second Reading: Romans 14:7-9 Gospel Reading: Matthew 18:21-35
“THE LORD IS KIND AND MERCIFUL; SLOW TO ANGER AND RICH IN COMPASSION.”
Once upon a time two brothers, who lived on adjoining farms, fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in 40 years of farming side by side, sharing machinery, and trading labor and goods as needed without a conflict. Then the long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.
One morning there was a knock on John’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter's tool box. “I'm looking for a few days' work” he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there I could help with? Could I help you?”
“Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you.”
- “Look across the creek at that farm. That's my neighbor; in fact, it's my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there is a creek between us. Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I'll do him one better.”
- “See that pile of lumber by the barn? I want you to build me a fence –an 8-foot fence — so I won't need to see his place or his face anymore.”
The carpenter said, “I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails and the post-hole digger and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.”
The older brother had to go to town, so he helped the carpenter get the materials ready and then he was off for the day. The carpenter worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, nailing. About sunset when the farmer returned, the carpenter had just finished his job. The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped. There was no fence there at all. It was a bridge - a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other! A fine piece of work, handrails and all - and the neighbor, his younger brother was coming toward them, his hand outstretched. “You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I've said and done,” the older brother said to the carpenter.
The two brothers stood at each end of the bridge, and then they met in the middle, taking each other’s hand. They turned to see the carpenter hoist his toolbox onto his shoulder.
“No, wait! Stay a few days. I've a lot of other projects for you,” said the older brother.
“I'd love to stay on,” the carpenter said, “but I have many more bridges to build.”
Jesus Christ is also a carpenter who builds the bridges. It is he who reconciles man to God and man to his neighbor, and brings them together by building bridges in-between. Today, he calls us too, to build bridges among ourselves and to be reconciled to one another.
Today is the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time and we continue reflecting upon the meaning of Christian discipleship. God's forgiveness of our sins on the condition of our forgiving the sins of others against us is the dominant theme of today's Scripture Readings. The First Reading from the Book of Sirach is an exhortation to forgiveness. The author tells us that if we forgive our neighbor, we ourselves will be forgiven by the Lord. In the Gospel Reading from St. Matthew, Jesus tells us in response to Peter’s limited generosity that there is no limit to forgiveness. We are a people in need of forgiveness and we are endlessly called upon to forgive. Failure to do so has dire consequences at the final judgment. In the Second of Reading from his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul says that it is Christ Jesus, who not only gave his life for the forgiveness of our sins, but also fulfilled God's plan for our elevation to make us His children. He further reiterates our total belonging to Jesus, who died and came to life that he may be Lord of both the living and the dead.
In the First Reading from the Book of Sirach, we are urged to take the path of forgiveness rather than vengeance and that we must forgive our neighbor if we want God to forgive our own sins. We must be merciful if we want to obtain mercy from God. In other words, we cannot demand forgiveness from the Lord while we still nurse anger and bad feelings against our neighbor. We must first be reconciled, and let go our anger and resentment. We must not seek revenge on a neighbor of ours lest God should take vengeance on us. To underline this theme, the Responsorial Psalm portrays a kind and merciful God. “The Lord is kind and merciful; slow to anger and rich in compassion.”
If we remember our end in life, we will keep God’s commandments and we will not be angry with our neighbor who offends us. Sirach says it is possible only for a sinful man to be angry with his neighbor. The man who repays the neighbor in kind must expect God to do likewise to him. Only when we forgive the other person generously, then only God will forgive us. While we expect mercy and forgiveness from the infinite God whom we have offended, we often refuse a brother even a small measure of mercy and forgiveness. Hence we are told to forgive our neighbor and then our sins will be pardoned in the course of our prayer.
Also again, in the Gospel Reading of today, Jesus reveals to us a God who is intensely keen on forgiving us and who is overjoyed when we turn back to him for forgiveness. “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.” And so when we forgive others, we live out in our own relations with others how God already relates to us. By forgiving others we come to share in God's transcendent freedom that manifests itself in unrestrained mercy and unbounded love. Also, we are reminded by Jesus that forgiveness of our brothers and sisters is not optional. By the very fact that we have been forgiven by God, we are called to forgive others of all their trespasses against us. God expects us to act toward others as He has acted toward each one of us.
a) “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive?”
Today’s Gospel text opens with one of Peter’s straight-forward questions, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” According to the Rabbinical tradition forgiveness apparently extended to three offenses and the fourth offense called for punishment. In good heart Peter doubles the forgiveness of the Rabbis and adds one for good measure. We may probably think that Peter is extremely generous in suggesting that he should forgive his brother as many as seven times. Yet, Jesus pushes it even further by saying, “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” In practice, this means an infinite number of times. In other words we should not attach a number, a limit, to the times we forgive. It seems hopelessly idealistic and impractical. Yet, in the parable, Jesus urges us to forgive others, not just three times as the Law prescribed, nor even seven times as Peter was proposing, but seventy seven times, which means always, just as God forgives us always. There is really no alternative for the Christian and the truly human person than to forgive – indefinitely.
b) “The parable of the unforgiving servant”:
Jesus then tells his disciples a Kingdom parable to bring out the lesson - 'The parable of the unforgiving servant.' And in this parable Jesus gives us a vivid picture of how what we are being asked to do, fits into the wider context of that Divine mercy. The sheer immensity of God's mercy to us should encourage us out of to show a little mercy to our fellow human beings.
i. The forgiving master. First, let us look at the parable which follows Jesus' words. It is a parable about a servant who owed a huge debt to the king, which he could never had any hope of paying back. So, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children and all his property. So, he fell down, did homage, and pleaded his master to be patient with him and he would pay back in full. Moved with compassion the master let him go and forgave the debt altogether. Clearly in the parable, the ruler’s generosity brings to mind the generosity of God. “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.” We humans have been forgiven by God, a debt so enormous that we could never pay for it. It is the debt of our sins and all its consequences like the enmity with God.
ii. The unforgiving servant. When the same servant left the king, he saw his fellow servant who owed him a much smaller amount. He had no sympathy for the poor man who owed him a much smaller amount, even though his own creditor had just released him from a much greater debt. He demanded that he be paid immediately. When the latter fell on his knees and repeated verbatim what the first servant earlier said to the king, instead of doing as his master did, he had him thrown into prison until he paid the debt. When this was reported to the king, he called for the unforgiving servant and told him, “You wicked servant! ... Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” This clearly shows us that God expects us too, to forgive others, when he Himself has forgiven us. We are invited to compare our unforgiving spirit with the boundless generosity of our God.
iii. The forgiveness revoked. The parable of the unforgiving servant reminds us that God is always ready to forgive, but He expects us to forgive others too. The Parable thus raises the frightening prospect that pardon already granted by God could be revoked. The king who forgave his servant his debt meant it. When the servant went out and failed to forgive his fellow servant, the king revoked the pardon. Is this a good analogy of how God deals with us? This is precisely the central point of Jesus' parable of the unforgiving servant. He uses the parable in order to draw a direct contrast between the unforgiving servant, and God the Father who always forgives. Jesus tells us that his heavenly Father will also do to every one of them, if they do not forgive their brother or sister from their heart. This indeed is a frightening thought.
The Second Reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans shows a fortuitous but real correspondence with the First Reading and the Gospel reading of today. St. Paul, in an effort to reconcile the Christian community at Rome, recalls for them the fact that we do everything on the Lord’s behalf. He says that it is Christ Jesus, who not only gave his life for the forgiveness of our sins, but also fulfilled God's plan for our elevation to make us His children. The main point that St. Paul is making here is that whether in life or in death we belong to the Lord, since Christ has become Lord of both the living and the dead. If we accept the Gospel, embrace the faith and receive baptism, we are accepting the Lordship of Christ and it is to the Lord that each person is accountable. In later Chapter, St. Paul reminds us that all of us will have to stand, one day, before the judgment seat of God. So, he exhorts that each person must forgive the others and stop passing judgment on them.
To conclude: Forgiveness is a Christian virtue and is the hallmark of our Christian faith and practice. Not only that we can receive forgiveness from God, but that we must grant it to others too. Forgiving the other in the full sense is a form of loving and caring. It is the miracle of a new beginning. It is to start where we are, not where we wish we were, or the other person was. It is to hold out a hand; to want to renew a friendship; to want a new relationship with husband, father, daughter, friend, or indeed enemy. It may not take away the hurt and it does not deny the past injury. It does not ignore the possibility and need for repentance and a change in the relationship. It means being willing to take the initiative in dealing with any barriers that we may be raising towards a restored relationship. It means that we are willing to have a relationship with the other person that is based on Christian love and not on what has happened in the past, if the response of the other person makes that possible. Christ from the cross showed what forgiveness is and how far we can go.
Finally, those who believe in Jesus are to be ambassadors of forgiveness in the world, and messengers of reconciliation. But Forgiveness is not easy, whether one is asking for it or one is giving it. To admit wrongdoing is not easy. We would rather gloss over our sins. Or we deny them and blame somebody else. For most of us, the issues surrounding forgiveness and reconciliation are very complicated, delicate, difficult, and even exhausting. Reconciliation is the very work of God shared with us in the Gospel! One of the fundamental, essential, necessary activities of the Church is to announce salvation through the forgiveness of sin. To neglect or to avoid the work of reconciliation or to opt out of reconciling is to actively reject the Gospel. We have much for which to be thankful. We do live for the Lord, not for ourselves as individuals when we allow God’s gratitude and forgiveness to work in and through us. We are all in need of forgiveness and life is too short for grudges. Someday, we will die and our body decay. Indeed, it is wise to give up hate, anger and revenge and abide by the Lord’s commands concerning love of neighbor. And this is the Good News of today.