To Forgive or Not Forgive

Post Date: September 14, 2023
Author: Ric Cross

A Reflection on the Readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, September 17, 2023

First Reading: SIR 27:30—28:7
Responsorial Psalm: PS 103:1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12
Second Reading: ROM 14:7-9
Gospel: MT 18:21-35

Our gospel passage this week directly follows last Sunday’s gospel, and so the message of that gospel carries on to this week, but with a little twist. Last week, we were instructed to call attention to sin and evil in our midst rather than to turn a blind eye to such behavior. If we do not point out sin and evil in our communities, we become complicit in that evil because we accept it in our midst, and if we accept it, all of society suffers the consequences. If we call attention to evil and pray for those who are responsible for that evil, then, hopefully, fewer individuals will sin because they know they will be called to account for their behavior. This week, the message changes from Calling attention to sin and evil in our midst to reaching out in mercy to those who have offended us and will accept our forgiveness. 

Our first reading this week comes from the Book of Sirach, also known in our scriptures as the Book of Ecclesiasticus. The title “Ecclesiasticus” comes from the ancient Latin title: “Liber Ecclesiasticus,” meaning “Church Book,” which, in turn, comes from the extensive use of this book in the early church in presenting moral teaching to the faithful. That seems to be the overall message of the Book of Sirach, a book of moral teaching that concentrates on the praise of the Law, praise of the priesthood and of divine worship, Jewish tradition, social customs, poverty and wealth, and many other matters which reflect the religion and society of the time. Sirach is one of those seven Old Testament books not found in the Hebrew canon and rejected in the Protestant tradition as Deuterocanonical or “Second Canon.” In the Protestant tradition, Sirach is considered valuable for its moral teaching but not considered sacred.  

The title “Sirach” comes from the grandson of the original author, who describes himself as: “Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sirach” (50:27). The book was originally written in Hebrew in or around Jerusalem between 200 and 175 B.C. but was translated into Greek by the author’s grandson in 132 B.C. who also attached a foreword to the book describing why he made the translation. The foreword is interesting reading so I suggest you take a look at it because it also provides us with the actual date of the translation.

Our first reading this week comes from chapters 27 & 28 of Sirach and reminds us that malice, anger, and vengeance are hateful things and that it is the sinner who clings to them. We all know that to be true because anger grows like a cancer in us and will consume us if we don’t get rid of it. So Sirach (and Jesus in our gospel) reminds us that we cannot expect forgiveness from God for our transgressions if we do not extend that forgiveness to others who have offended us by their words or deeds. Sirach also reminds us to “Remember your last days;” in other words, think of the end of your life and get rid of enmity and vengeance before that day comes because, after it, there will be no further chance to get rid of it or to be forgiven by God for carrying that vengeance. Sirach’s message for us this week (and the Golden Thread): Forgive others to receive forgiveness from God.

Our second reading from the Letter to the Romans doesn’t directly follow the Golden Thread, but it does remind us that, as baptized Christians, we have been purchased by Christ at a great price and so: “Whether we live or die we are the Lord’s.” And, as Jesus is: “Lord of both the dead and the living,” we will always be subject to Jesus whether on earth or in the afterlife, whether in heaven or hell. There is no escape; forgive that you may be forgiven!

Our gospel this week is the “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” and is very straightforward, requiring little or no commentary: Forgive or you will not be forgiven! But there are some points in this passage that we might overlook. For example, in answer to Peter’s question about how many times he must forgive a sinful brother, Jesus’ answer was not the absolute number of 77. Peter (and all of us) are told that our forgiveness must be limitless.  

We are told the unforgiving servant in the parable owed the master a “huge amount,” which, according to some commentaries, amounted to 10,000 talents, an amount so great that the servant would never be able to pay it back, making his promise to do so an empty promise. The debt is so great that it can never be repaid, yet the master forgave the debt. Similarly, the debt that we owe God because of our sins is a “huge amount” that we could never repay. In addition, everything we have comes from God, so we have nothing to offer God in reparation for our sins that we do not already owe God. Even our next breath is a gift from God and is owed to God. We cannot repay him. But the master forgives our debts if we turn to him with pure and contrite hearts and ask for that forgiveness.

The fellow servant owed a “much smaller amount,” which amounted to about 100 days’ wages, which the unforgiving servant would not forgive, as he had been forgiven. The difference between the two debts is so great that it points to the absurdity of the conduct of any Christian who receives the great forgiveness of God for a huge amount of transgressions yet will not forgive the relatively minor offenses done to him by others.  

The unforgiving servant was handed over to the torturers until he paid back the entire “huge amount,” which he could never do. God’s forgiveness, which we have already received through the Passion of Christ and the sacraments of the church, can be withdrawn in the final judgment if we do not forgive the “much smaller amount” of minor offenses we have received from others. 

The Golden Thread? Forgive, or face the consequences at the final judgment.

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