Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sunday 24A: Is It Possible to Forgive?

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year “A”)—September 11, 2011

[Texts: Sirach 27.30-28.7 [Psalm 103]; Romans 14.7-9; Matthew 18.21-35]

The many conflicts among nations, peoples and groups in our world, as well as widespread awareness that many people have personally suffered violence or sexual abuse at home, in school, on sports teams and even at the hands of church leaders, can lead one to wonder whether it is possible to forgive.

ooks such as the American Servite Lawrence Jenko's Bound to Forgive, which alludes to his bondage to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and the obligation he felt to forgive his captors, address the necessity of forgiving those who have caused one harm. 

Efforts among Native Peoples and in the criminal justice system to find ways of confronting the harmed with those who have harmed them offer hope that reconciliation can happen.

So, too, do foundations and programs which devote energies to exploring the ways in which a desire to offer forgiveness can become rooted in people's hearts, as well as how others can open themselves to receiving forgiveness when it is proffered.

The last feature in Jesus' teaching about life in the Church (Matthew 18.1-35) is the necessity that community members continually forgive one another.  Peter may have thought he was being extraordinarily generous when, after asking how many times he was expected to forgive a brother or sister who sinned against him, suggested seven times.

Forgiving someone seven times would equivalently reverse the seven-fold vengeance God had prescribed for anyone who would do harm to Cain, the first murderer.  And to credit his generosity, in Peter's rhetorical fancy he had not so much as suggested that the offending brother or sister was repentant.

As is often the case, Jesus' answer proved startling.  Indeed, His reply may be understood in two ways, as 77 times or 70 times 7 times (=490 times!)  The difference between Peter's offer and Jesus' counter-proposal is not one of semantics or calculation.  Rather, it touches on the nature of forgiveness.

Whoever keeps score of the number of times he or she has offered forgiveness has probably not been truly forgiving, but instead is simply waiting for an opportunity to withhold forgiveness.  Jesus' call for forgiveness goes beyond any such reckoning, as the parable of the “unforgiving slave” points out.

The thrust of the parable is clear even if we do not fully appreciate today the equivalent worth in today's economy of the “10,000 talents” the first servant owed his lord and the “100 denarii” he was owed by a fellow servant.  One assessment of the sums is that the proportion between the two sums owed is in the range of 600,000 to 1.  We are dealing, as it were, with an infinite contrast.

Equivalently, the first servant owed his master more than the yearly tax revenue generated in all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea and Samaria combined!  In turn, the amount he was owed was what a day labourer could earn in 100 days.

In effect, the first servant's situation was hopeless; there really was no way he could have repaid the debt.  Yet, contrary to all one might have expected, he sought mercy and the king responded with compassion.

His fellow servant's situation was not trifling.  Paying back the equivalent of his wages for more than three months would be difficult, but not impossible. 

Still, the issue lay not in the sums of money involved, but the outrage felt by hearers of the story when the servant who had been forgiven the astronomical sum refused to show compassion to his fellow servant.  In personal terms, forgiveness of debts translates into forgiving one another.

Sirach anticipated the teaching of mutual forgiveness found in the parable and in the petition of the Lord's Prayer, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6.12).  He rhetorically poses the same dilemma Jesus did in his teaching, “If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can one then seek pardon for one's sins?”

Perhaps therein lies the key to being able to forgive, being able to see—as the servant in the parable did not—that the one who needs mercy is “another like himself or herself” (i.e., someone like me).  If one were able to see oneself in his or her neighbour and recognize one's common need for mercy, then, indeed, forgiveness might become possible in our world.

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