Twenty Fourth Sunday of the Year
All of us need to forgive and receive forgiveness. Forgiveness is undoubtedly complex and arduous. We can get caught when we believe forgiving another minimises our suffering or that of another. Whether an injury was big or small, intended or unintended, addressed or ignored by the other person(s), we need to take the forgiveness journey.
Today’s gospel is very confusing and illustrates what is wrong when religion may be exploited to justify violence, guilt, fear, and economic exploitation or presents God as intimidating, punishing, torturing and unforgiving. We live in a world of conflict, injury, atrocities, and pain witnessing crimes against humanity, threats of war and random acts of terrorism. Suffering continues despite the efforts of many who strive for justice and peace, for fairness and freedom, for tolerance and harmony.
Peter’s question about how often he should forgive echoes through to the present. It is difficult to forgive injustices in church and society, and seven seems to be very generous as we try to work through pain and anger. Peter is exhorted to be as generous as God is: to forgive over and over again. It can seem justifiable and even sensible to withhold forgiveness in the face of great suffering and betrayal. Today we are exhorted to practice forgiveness over and over again because it is God’s way. In the first reading, Sirach exhorts us to show love in place of hate, compassion in place of resentment and forgiveness in place of anger. When we are in a relationship with someone – a spouse, or friend, or parishioner or community member - forgiveness is an ongoing process and often required many times over. We hurt each other in various ways, and Matthew explains how to stay in relationship after hurt and damage.
There is a subtle pairing of the great commandment to ‘love one another’ in the Gospel which strikes as a double imperative: ‘love one another and forgive one another as I have loved and forgiven you.’ This is the good news of God’s generous and forgiving love - a love that is kind and merciful, slow to anger, full of compassion (Psalm) that is offered in the face of suffering, injustice, and exclusion, physical and verbal assaults, in times of peace and in times of distress.
The gospel identifies God with money lenders, kings, and loan sharks who would be prepared to be excessively cruel and sell a whole family into slavery. ‘So will my heavenly Father do to you unless each of you forgives your brothers from your heart.’ Clearly, Jesus could not have uttered those words. They contradict the image of God depicted in Sirach, Psalms, Romans, and the Alleluia verse. Though a system of reward and punishment may work for behaviour management, Christianity is not about control but life and freedom. It is about a God who makes all things new. Jesus would have been aware of countless people living in debt and facing intimidation as people still do under loan sharks, banks and other financial institutions. The social reality of Matthew’s time was of dehumanising slavery and debt bondage as accepted practices.
If Matthew is promoting a harsh image of God and supporting economic exploitation and violent behaviour there is a message for us. It seems Jesus’ followers had a hard time leaving behind their overwhelming concept of a violent, punishing God. They struggled to distance themselves from contemporary economic exploitation, human trafficking, slavery, torture, war and violence, despite Jesus’ teaching and example about a completely new order. We see that difficulty in the church today when economics is increasingly valued rather than people and relationships. These were opposed by Jesus. Our response to God’s goodness and mercy requires a change of heart and a commitment to ongoing conversion – ‘not seven, but 77 times seven’. To ‘live and die with the Lord’ (Rom 14:8) involves forgiveness which includes loving the enemy. It is an ongoing challenge in community, in society, in family and between nations. This is how we participate with Jesus in recreating God’s world – a world of peace through justice and nonviolence. When we forgive, we say to the world, ‘This is what God looks like. This is the life that God inspires.’ We show people what God is like.
The Church needs to be a space where others see what people who follow Jesus can look like and be part of a space where the wounded find healing, the weak are strengthened and the weak lifted up; a place where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the Gospel. Failure to forgive and show mercy for those on the peripheries or alienated impacts on our credibility. The debtor who failed to forgive was trapped in a dehumanising and small world. God’s compassion is expressed as compassionate forgetfulness. This contrasts with our petty preoccupations with the way we imagine others have wronged us. The readings remind us how readily we abuse those whom Jesus identified as our sisters and brothers.
We are called to reveal a forgiving God. I wonder at times if we as individuals can do that more readily than the institutional church which fails to be inclusive and reach out to people who are struggling or failing. Can it listen and enter into dialogue with the wounded and failing – not to mention the young, the aged, women, gay and lesbian people? We can with respect, empathy, compassion and humility.
Pope Francis reminds us that the church has to be a place where those who are alienated feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the Gospel. Jesus did not reject tax collectors and adulterers or those who denied and betrayed him. We must commit ourselves to the task of reaching out to all our brothers and sisters by learning to expand our hearts and express the breadth and the height, the length and depth of God’s love
As we reflect on the generosity of life and possibility suggested in the parable, we might also reflect how we share that with creation. How do we respond to the gift that Creation is? As the failure to forgive can cause us to be eaten alive, we also face the consequences of failing to cherish the gift God has given us. As Creation reflects the God’s abundance, so too is God’s mercy. Can we reclaim the connectedness that is ours to nurture with one another?