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September 11, 2005: TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Sirach 27:30-28:7
Romans 14:7-9
Matthew 18:21-35

Too bad we can’t make today’s second reading our first. Paul’s advice to the Romans, “None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself!” holds the key for interpreting the passages from Sirach and Matthew. Both address our obligation to forgive others.

The second century, BCE, author of Sirach summarizes his theology in two lines: “Should they nourish anger against their fellows and expect healing from Yahweh? Should they refuse mercy to their fellows, yet seek pardon for their own sins?”

Matthew’s Jesus delivers a parallel statement to his disciples. “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brothers and sisters from your heart.”

Why does God’s forgiveness of us depend on our forgiveness of others?

Most of us learned about forgiveness within the structure of sacramental confession. Drilled in the things necessary for being forgiven by the priest in the confessional, we were careful to adequately examine our conscience, tell all our serious sins by kind and number, be sincerely sorry for them, and quickly perform our penance. We were taught that when we successfully completed these requirements, God forgave our sins. To forgive those who had sinned against us was, at most, something we did for “extra credit.”

The only problem with such a legalistic, secure approach is that both Sirach and Jesus turn an element, which many of us consider incidental, into an essential part of the process of forgiveness.

As I mentioned above, their reasoning is based on Paul’s comments to the community in Rome. He immediately follows his statement about living for oneself with the remark, “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.”

Paul is trying to get his readers to look at themselves from a perspective most people never notice. As a good Jew, the Apostle deeply believes in the Priestly author’s statement in Genesis 1:27: “God created man in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.”

Archaeologists have never discovered a statue, fresco or bas-relief of Yahweh. We know from the Ten Commandments that Jews are forbidden to create an image of their God. They believed Yahweh had already taken care of that by creating human beings. We are the “idol” or likeness of our God.

I remember, as a child, asking one of my teachers, “What actual part of me mirrors God?” I don’t remember the exact response, but it wasn’t very satisfactory. Years later, as a student of Scripture, I learned that the part of me which best demonstrates I’m made in God’s image and likeness is the part which forgives others.

As the late Ursuline Scripture scholar Suzanne Schrautemyer once observed, “The only thing of God we humans can consistently imitate is God’s forgiveness.” If we’re not a forgiving people, we can’t be God’s people.

Notice how Matthew’s Jesus completely reverses Lamech’s Genesis 4 boast. “I have killed a man for wounding me,” the bully brags, “a boy for bruising me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” Jesus commands his followers to forgive one another “. . .not seven times, but seventy times seven times.”

If we’re to reflect God’s likeness to those around us, it’s essential that we forgive. To refuse pardon has dire consequences. Among other things, we’re announcing to everyone that God doesn’t pardon.

How can we expect to be absolved by someone who, as we’ve already demonstrated by our lifestyle of non-forgiveness, doesn’t forgive? Unless we show by our acts of forgiving that God forgives, we’ve really up a creek when we sin.