Faith: We all share in the power of forgiveness

  • September 4, 2017

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 10 (Year A) Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20

Sin ultimately affects an entire community. There is no such thing as a private sin. Sooner or later, misdeeds make an impact on the physical, psychological and spiritual environment.

But the understanding of sin has evolved over millennia and centuries. In the early stages of Israel’s existence, all sin was communal and God’s punishment was visited on the entire community for the sins of even one person.

An incident in chapter 7 of the Book of Joshua serves as an example. The Israelites lost a battle and suffered many casualties because one man, Achan, had violated the divine command against any sort of looting. The man and his entire family were stoned to death and burned, an extremely severe (and unjustified) penalty by today’s standards.

Ezekiel represents a theological shift in how sin and divine retribution were viewed. In chapter 18, God speaks to Ezekiel and insists that the proverb about sour grapes no longer applies. This proverb implied that children had their teeth set on edge by the sour grapes eaten by their parents. In other words, they would be punished for the sins of their parents.

The prophet reported that from that day forward, individuals would be punished for their own sins. Sin was no longer passed on like a debt. The only obligation on individuals was to warn sinners to mend their ways. Sin was still in some sense communal — sin offerings were made on behalf of the community and the annual day of atonement was for the nation.

Although we would judge many of the biblical sanctions as unduly harsh, behind them all lies an important spiritual principle. We are all one people; we are all linked and joined to one another in many ways, even though we are probably not aware of this. Our thoughts, words and actions have an impact on those immediately around us, and ultimately on the larger community and the world.

Multiply that by six or seven billion and it is easy to see why our world is in such a sorry state. Our daily practice of spiritual awareness should always seek insight into whether by thought, word and deed we have contributed to the sum of positive or negative energy in the world.

Paul recognized this and expressed it well in his letter to the Romans. Love always seeks the good of others and never does wrong to another. We have many rules, but they are all practical applications of that one fundamental law of love. This is the divine law for our world and indeed for the universe. How well do we apply this in our lives?

In our brief sojourn on this planet, we are given a unique opportunity to undo the mistakes we have made and heal people we may have hurt. The tool for this process is called binding and loosing, and in Matthew’s Gospel it is something that we all share. It’s a very easy process: I’m sorry, please forgive me.

We can also grant forgiveness to others and undo their bonds. Most of all, we can help one another become better human beings. We do this in community, but not all that masquerades as community passes the test. In a true community, there is a high level of trust, mutual respect and compassion. People are not afraid to be vulnerable in front of one another, and there is patience and tolerance for human quirks and weaknesses.

At the same time, there is an eagerness to grow and improve, along with willingness to give and receive counsel. We all carry burdens and hurts from our personal and collective past, but it would be nice if we had something more positive to pass on to future generations.

Matthew is describing a community that is loving, humane and filled with the Spirit. Instead of rancour, gossip or revenge, Matthew’s community members deal with people issues honestly and face to face. Only when someone is unwilling to listen are others brought into the process.

There is a profound respect for the sanctity and value of each person. Unfortunately, such communities are rather rare. They don’t just happen. They require deep commitment and a lot of hard work.

But that is what Christians are supposed to be about.