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SEPTEMBER 11, 2011: TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Sirach 27:30-29:9
Romans 14:7-9
Matthew 18:21-35

Though I hate to admit it, my homilies normally create very little stir in the people who hear them. But one I gave years ago on God's unconditional forgiveness was an exception. It wasn't well received. One man especially, as he was going out the church door, angrily whirled around and yelled, "Thank God my teenage son wasn't here this morning. If he'd heard that nonsense I'd never be able to control him again!"

He hit the forgiveness nail on the head. When we forgive, we give up control.

In today's second reading, Paul reminds the Christian community in Rome that, no matter what we do in life, we somehow relate to others. "None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself." Of course, at this point of his letter the Apostle's concerned with how we relate to God. But he also adds a significant comment about Jesus' relationship with us. "For this is why Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living." In other words, Jesus' dying and rising has something to do with our dying and rising. What he did, he didn't do in a vacuum.

Even without knowing about Jesus' future death and resurrection, or even an afterlife as we know it, Sirach sees how our proper relations with others adds fulfillment or tension to our daily lives, especially when it comes to forgiveness.

"Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer Yahweh's vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven." One need not reach the pearly gates before one benefits from forgiving others.

Though the historical Jesus, along with his fellow Pharisees, believed in an afterlife, as a good Jew he, like Sirach, was concerned that each follower of God experience as free and fulfilling life as possible right here and now. Such freedom and fulfillment demands we not be controlled by others, even in situations in which others are not actively trying to control us. The latter always happens when we refuse to forgive.

Matthew's Jesus presumes forgiveness is a life-long process. Obviously referring back to the Genesis 4 narrative in which Lamech promises to avenge himself seventy-seven times, this itinerant Galilean preacher demands his followers look at the issue of vengeance from a completely new perspective. It's the letting go, not the enforcing of vengeance that brings happiness. Operating from the Semite premise that seven is the perfect number, Jesus commands we're to forgive not just the perfect seven times, but "seventy-seven times" an idiom for infinity.

But Jesus also gives a new twist to Sirach's belief that God will eventually forgive those who forgive. According to his well-known parable, we should forgive because we've already been forgiven by God. God's forgiveness doesn't flow from our forgiveness; it precedes it. It's the motive for our forgiveness.

Following our sacred authors' insight about control, it would appear that God has no choice except to forgive unconditionally. If he/she doesn't, God would be controlled by God's creatures.

Throughout Scripture we're encouraged to be "holy as Yahweh is holy." The Hebrew word for holy -"kadosh" - simply means "other." Since God is totally other from all creation, so holy people are to be other from their fellow human beings.

A friend once mentioned in a dialogue homily that she couldn't imitate any of God's attributes except forgiveness. "It's the only part of God's life," she said, "that I can make part of my life."

Not only would our forgiving behavior make us other, our free, uncontrolled life would also make us other.