SEPTEMBER 17TH, 2017: TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.
The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance,
for he remembers their sins in detail.
Forgive your neighbor's injustice;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
Could anyone nourish anger against another
and expect healing from the LORD?
Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself,
can he seek pardon for his own sins?
If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath,
who will forgive his sins?
Remember your last days, set enmity aside;
remember death and decay, and cease from sin!
Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor;
remember the Most High's covenant, and overlook faults.
Brothers and sisters:
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;
so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's.
For this is why Christ died and came to life,
that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
"Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive?
As many as seven times?"
Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.'
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
'Pay back what you owe.'
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'
But he refused.
Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?'
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart."
There’s a frequently overlooked line in Genesis 39 that conveys an essential biblical belief.
When the wife of Joseph’s Egyptian master demands he “lie” with her, he refuses, reminding her initially of the loyalty he owes her husband. But then he says something unique: “How could I commit so great a wrong and thus stand condemned before God?” Though the sacred author doesn’t give the rejected woman’s response, I presume it would have been something like, “What are you talking about? The gods don’t give a darn about what we do on earth.”
Most people in the ancient world believed their only obligation to the gods was to keep them satisfied with the proper ritual sacrifices they expected several times a year. Once they did so, they were free to do whatever they wished. They had responsibilities to one another, but not to the gods.
But, flying in the face of this “laissez faire” theology, the God of the Israelites so identifies with people that what one does to those around him or her is looked upon as being done to Yahweh. Quite a novel belief. Yet it’s the lynchpin of our moral theology.
That’s why the author of Sirach can ask the biting question found in today’s first reading: “Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from Yahweh?” When we’re relating with others, we’re also relating with God. Even more, God’s forgiveness of us is dependent on our forgiveness of others. “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice,” Sirach writes, “then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.” Nothing could be clearer.
As a good Jew, Matthew’s Jesus is also convinced of that process. His well-known story about the king’s two indebted servants hits home. If God’s already forgiven each of us an astronomical debt, how can we still demand repayment of the miniscule debt others owe us? (By the way, getting back to Genesis again, Jesus’ “seventy-seven” instances of forgiveness is simply a reversal of Lamech’s chapter 4 boast of being avenged “seventy-sevenfold.”) Jesus’ God can always be counted on to forgive those who forgive.
But probably the most important reading today is Paul’s Romans pericope.
Normally the older we get, the more we realize the implications of our actions. It’s one thing for a three-year-old child to tell its mother, “I hate you!” It’s another thing for a thirty-year-old to say those same words. The latter sees implications the former has yet to learn.
As we get older in our faith, we also discover more implications of our actions; we more deeply understand Paul’s insight that “none of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.” Whatever we do somehow affects others. More than anything, it affects our relationship with the risen Jesus among us.
We can never forget that the basic message of the historical Jesus revolved around God’s kingdom being at hand. He went town to town, synagogue to synagogue pointing out that Yahweh is already among us, working effectively in our lives.
There’s just one “kicker.” To surface God’s presence we must “repent:” turn our value system upside down. What we once thought important, we now regard as insignificant, and vice versa. The needs of others, not our own needs, are now at the center of our lives, the focus of our actions. That value switch is the death all other Christs are expected to experience.
No one expresses that experience better than Paul. “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.” More people than the Egyptian’s wife would be befuddled by such a unique theology.