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God's Word on Sunday: Ability to forgive is a sign of strength

  • September 6, 2020

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 13 (Year A) Sirach 27:30-28:7; Psalm 103; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35

In a sense, we all create our own Heaven and hell. It is a fundamental spiritual law that we reap what we sow in one form or another. No one “gets away” with anything — we should not think that the apparent delay of justice is God’s failure or proof of an amoral universe.

Sirach leaves no doubt — to harbour vengeance and anger only invites the same in return. But the sins that are graver than we can imagine are not deeds that we do but ones that we fail to do.

Sirach insists that if we are not merciful towards others then we have no right to expect that mercy will be given to us. Likewise, if we fail to forgive others, how can we expect that we will be forgiven?

It is useless to beg for God’s healing if we are filled with anger and resentment. The human relationship with God is a two-way street, for God expects us to respond to life and to others in a way that reflects divine mercy and justice. No amount of prayer, fasting, self-mortification or pious works will make up for a selfish and unloving heart or a life steeped in negativity and anger.

Sirach made an interesting observation: The “sinner” holds on to anger and wrath. If these are “abominations,” as he tells us, why would anyone not want to be rid of them? There are many reasons, but a lack of self-knowledge or spiritual awareness rank near the top of the list.

Many feel that letting go of anger or forgiving others is a sign of weakness, or that the offending party will “win.” In reality, the ability to forgive is the mark of a spiritually mature person and is a sign of strength. It is something we do first of all for ourselves so that we can be free and move on in life.

Paul’s reasoning can seem convoluted at times, but his fundamental point is clear: Our life is not our own and draws its true meaning and worth from our relationship with God. Living or dying are not the most important things, but belonging to the Lord is. Being merciful and forgiving is an important way to ensure that we remain in close relationship with the Lord regardless of what life might bring our way.

Peter asked Jesus — possibly with exasperation — just how many times he had to forgive a brother or sister. He suggested seven; Jesus countered with 77 — 11 times as much.

Peter must have been shocked and dismayed. Jesus then told a story — the usual way of imparting theology and spirituality in the ancient world. The master of an estate demanded immediate payment of a huge sum of money that one of his slaves owed him. If the slave would not pay up, he and his entire family would be cast into debtors’ prison.

The slave pleaded with his master for patience and more time. Instead, the master forgave the entire debt! Breathing a sigh of relief, the slave left and crossed paths with a fellow slave, who owed him a mere fraction of the amount he had just been forgiven. He throttled him, ignored his pleas for patience and mercy, and demanded immediate payment.

He then threw him and his family into the debtors’ prison. When the master heard what had happened, he was furious, saying to the slave (and to all of us): “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you!”

He ended the interview by demanding full payment of the forgiven debt and ordering that the man be thrown into prison. Jesus ended with the warning that a similar fate awaits us at the hands of God if we refuse to forgive our brothers and sisters.

It is far too easy to be hard on others and to cling to resentment and rage. This destroys relationships and communities. We have all been forgiven so much and we hope that we will be forgiven in the future.

We cannot receive what we are unwilling to give. Forgiveness is not optional; it is at the core of our faith.

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