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The 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 17, 2023

Watch this homily! (Begins at 38:20)

       Forgiveness is at the heart of two of today’s readings. And we get the message from two teachers, both named Jesus. Jesus happens to be the name of the author of the Book of Sirach, Jesus (Joshua) Ben Sirach. Listen again to his words. They nicely complement the teaching of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel.

Wrath and anger are hateful things…
The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance…
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?”

Any way you read that, Jesus Ben Sirach, writing some 200 years before the time of Jesus the Christ, goes beyond the demands of the Jewish Law - which allowed for measured retaliation - and actually anticipated the teachings of Christ by holding up forgiveness and mercy – not retaliation - as the only way to respond to an unjust attack.

     In the gospel reading, 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 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 (a number in Scripture that suggests infinity). 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.

       But it’s interesting to note that the parable Jesus tells to illustrate this point focuses less on how many times we are to forgive than on what it is we are to forgive. And that’s where things get interesting. And challenging.

      The ungrateful, unforgiving servant of the parable was forgiven “a huge amount” of money: ‘ten thousand talents,’ as one translation has it (in other words, an astronomical sum). And Jesus says that if God places no limits on the divine forgiveness, we can’t place limits on ours. And if we do place limits on what we’re willing to forgive, there will be limits placed on what God will forgive us. A sobering thought. Right?

      Now, let me take this out of the realm of theory into a real-life story - to the moving story of Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch woman who, along with her sister, was arrested by the Nazis for harboring Jewish people, and who managed to survive the horrors of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. She later told her story in a book entitled The Hiding Place, which some of you have most likely read. The book gave her instant celebrity status and put her on the lecture circuit.

      One day, while speaking in a church in Munich, Ms. Ten Boom’s saw across the room a balding, heavyset man. The moment she saw him, she flashed back to a guard at Ravensbruck in a blue uniform and a visored cap with a skull and crossbones. He had inflicted unspeakable cruelty and brutality on her and her sister – and countless others - in the death camp.

     She somehow managed to get through her speech - which happened to be about forgiveness - and then, the man came up to her and told her how reassured he was to hear her say that if we ask God’s forgiveness, God casts our sins to the bottom of the sea. Then he told her how he had come to embrace the Christian faith and how he knew that God had forgiven him. He then put out his hand, looked her squarely in the eye and asked, “will you forgive me?"

     She stood there, frozen, telling herself she could not. Her sister and countless others had died in that evil place. The man stood there, his hand held out as she wrestled with the hardest thing she had ever been asked to do. But she knew she had no choice, she knew that every time she prayed the Lord’s Prayer she told God to forgive her only if she forgave. Still, she stood there, coldness clutching her heart until, with a sheer act of the will, she said to God, “I can offer my hand but You must supply the feeling.”
Then, woodenly, mechanically, she extended her hand to the man, and as she did, she could feel a warm current racing down her arm and into their joined hands. The healing warmth flooded her whole being and she cried out, “I forgive you, brother, with my whole heart.” Later, reflecting on that moment, she said, “Never have I known God's love so intensely as I did then.”

      My friends, to follow Jesus Christ is to forgive. Pure and simple. Seventy-seven times. No limits, whatever. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that we are to refuse to forgive. And, no doubt, there will be times when, because of the greatness of the offense, we will freeze like Corrie Ten Boom did, times when only with the greatest effort imaginable will we be able to extend our hand. That’s when the grace of God - which is more powerful by far than even the greatest human hurt – the grace of God makes possible what is humanly impossible.

      My friends, the grace that flows to us in the Eucharist which we are about to receive makes possible what is humanly impossible.

Father Michael G. Ryan





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