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The 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 17, 2017


     Forgiveness has to be one life’s most difficult challenges. But we have no choice. And in saying that, I am thinking not only of the gospel of forgiveness that Jesus preached, I am also thinking of the teachings, the holy wisdom, of another, much less well-known teacher, also named Jesus – Jesus Ben Sirach – who happens to be the author of today’s first reading from the Book of Sirach.

     The Book of Sirach (sometimes called Ecclesiasticus) isn’t all that well-known. It is part of our Catholic Bible but it’s not part of the Jewish Bible, and some believe that one reason it’s not is that its teaching about forgiveness and mercy as the only proper response to violence is at odds with the Jewish Law, the Torah, which makes clear provision for retaliation - measured retaliation, but retaliation. For instance, if your eye were ‘taken’ in a fight, you could take an eye in return, but no more; the same for a tooth, or a limb, and so forth. But that doesn’t sound like today’s passage from Sirach.  Listen again and you will see why it could have been regarded as being out of step with the Jewish Law:

               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.
              Can anyone nourish anger against another
              And expect healing from the Lord?
              Can anyone refuse mercy to another…
              And seek pardon for his own sins?”

     Anyway you read that, the author of those words, Jesus Ben Sirach, writing some 200 years before the time of Jesus the Christ, seems to be anticipating the teachings of Christ by holding up forgiveness and mercy – not retaliation - as the only way to respond to the sins of another, including sins of blatant and outright injustice (“Forgive your neighbor’s injustice, then when you pray your own sins will be forgiven”).

     Today’s gospel is in line with this. Peter’s question to Jesus (“How many times must I forgive, seven times?”) sprang from a heart that was willing to go well beyond the requirements of the Law, the demands of strict justice. Peter must have thought he was being very generous - going overboard even - in his willingness to forgive a person as many as seven times.  But that wasn’t generous enough for Jesus.  Jesus raised the ante, as he so often does.  He challenged Peter to go beyond generosity – even to go beyond common sense.  He challenged him to go to the place where only faith can go.

     In saying to Peter, “not seven times but seventy-seven times,” Jesus was telling him that there is simply no limit to how many times a person is to forgive - that we are to forgive no matter how great the evil, or how grave the injustice. And he went even further: he went beyond forgiveness carefully measured out on the basis of the offender’s sorrow or willingness to make amends. Jesus made forgiveness a blank check that we are to write unconditionally, just as he did when he forgave his executioners from the cross.

     My friends, I realize that all of this can be hard to swallow in our personal relationships, and can seem even harder, and out of touch, on the global level when it comes to the way we respond to those who are bent on doing harm to us.  Think, for instance, of today’s terrorists and their terrifying agenda. No doubt the community of nations must take defensive steps on behalf of innocent victims and protect national security, but never by scapegoating entire peoples, promoting religious intolerance, or passing on hate-filled propaganda about how the Muslim faith is bent on world domination.  Such things are unworthy of us as members of the human family, and unworthy of followers of Christ.  We need to find something new. We do. And, not surprisingly, Jesus points the way to something new in today’s gospel parable of the unforgiving servant.

     In that parable, the unforgiving servant who had sinned extravagantly was also forgiven extravagantly - “a huge amount.”  A more familiar and accurate translation renders that huge amount as “ten thousand talents” – a number tantamount to a trillion. So, we’re not just talking about “a huge amount” – we’re talking about a colossal amount.  And Jesus says that we must be willing to forgive even something as great as that, and not once, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

     Do you recognize the name, Mark Heyer? He’s the father of Heather Heyer who was brutally mowed down and killed by a hate-filled fellow during that white supremacist rally a month ago in Charlottesville. In an interview he did with NPR, Mr. Heyer spoke words that were a more powerful homily on forgiveness than I could ever give.  Here’s what he said: “People need to stop hating; they need to forgive each other. I include myself in that…I forgive the guy that did this. He didn’t know any better. I just think of what the Lord said on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing’…. I hope all this isn’t twisted into something negative but that there comes a positive change in people’s hearts, in their thinking, in their understanding of their neighbor. We just need to forgive each other and I hope that’s what comes out of all this – that Heather’s life and what has transpired changes people’s hearts.”

     My friends, to follow Jesus Christ is to forgive. Seventy-seven times.  Unconditionally. It’s to see things and to do things differently. I only wish I understood that as well as Mark Heyer does.

Father Michael G. Ryan





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